In Memoriam: Mitsuo Akiyama, 1920-2004
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
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
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.