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In Memoriam: Mitsuo Akiyama, 1920-2004

M. Akiyama

Mitsuo "Mits" Akiyama, lifelong Hilo resident and a pioneer in the development of the Mauna Kea Observatories on the island of Hawaii, passed away after an illness on May 28, 2004. He is survived by his wife, the former Shizue Ushijima, whom he married in February 1946, and by his son Alvin and daughter Ruth Yamakawa and their spouses, and by four grandchildren.

In 1963, Akiyama, then executive secretary of the Hawai'i Island Chamber of Commerce, heard from his good friend Howard Ellis, then head of the Weather Bureau's Mauna Loa Observatory, how clear the evening skies above Mauna Kea were. In an attempt to boost the Big Island's economy, which had been dealt a severe blow by the 1960 tsunami that struck Hilo, Akiyama wrote to many U.S. and Japanese universities and research organizations suggesting the development of Mauna Kea as an astronomical site.

There turned out to be only one response—from Gerard Kuiper, who was then at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. While on Maui assessing the value of Haleakala as an observing site, Kuiper had noticed that the peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa stood well above the cloud layer.

In his 1999 "Reflections of an Octogenarian," Akiyama noted, "Beginning in 1964 I helped with the development of Mauna Kea to become the great astronomical center that it is today. When Dr. Gerard Kuiper…became interested in Mauna Kea and recognized it as the best site in the world for astronomical research, I assisted him in every way I could."

Akiyama arranged for Kuiper to meet with Governor John A. Burns to request funding for an access road to Mauna Kea's summit that would enable Kuiper to conduct test observations. Burns allocated $40,000 in state funds to install a gravel road from Hale Pohaku at the 9,000-foot level to the nearly 14,000-foot summit. By the summer of 1964, Kuiper had established a site-testing telescope on Puu Poliahu and pronounced Mauna Kea the world's finest astronomical observing site.

Kuiper then approached the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to fund the construction of a telescope. NASA officials encouraged other universities, including Harvard and the University of Hawaii, to also submit proposals, and in the end, selected UH to build the 2.2-meter (88-inch) optical/infrared telescope. Commissioned in 1970 and still in service today, the 2.2-meter telescope not only established Mauna Kea as the world's premiere observatory site, it also established the IfA's reputation as a world-class organization for astronomy research and graduate student education.

Akiyama felt a sense of loyalty to Gerard Kuiper and expressed extreme disappointment with NASA's decision. According to his sister-in-law and UH Foundation trustee, Margaret Ushijima, he was, "relentless in his pursuit of his dreams and objectives,…persistent, committed, and loyal to his good friend who did not live to enjoy the benefits of his discovery." In 1991, he asked the Board of Regents to recognize the efforts of Kuiper, who had died in 1973.

Also a collector, scrapbook maker, and documentarian, Akiyama preserved a record of Kuiper's efforts as well as the progress of the Mauna Kea Observatories. He donated items from his "plantation days" collection of artifacts to the Bishop Museum, the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, and the Lyman Museum in Hilo.

Akiyama graduated from Hilo High School in 1938 and the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1942. He served with the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team (the most highly decorated military unit of its size) in World War II from 1943 to 1945.