Isaac Meyer

Historian, teacher, podcaster

Episode 140 – The Stars Our Destination


This week, we’ll talk about the birth of the Japanese space program. From its origins as the brainchild of a former weapons designer and a borderline pyromaniac, the programs now incorporated into JAXA (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) have accomplished some of the most amazing technical feats of the 20th and 21st century. How did they do it, and why? And what’s changing now with the rise of China?


Listen to the episode here.


Molt, Clay. Asia’s Space Race

Pekkanen, Saadia, and Paul Kalendar-Umezu, In Defense of Japan: From the Market to the Military in Space Policy.

JAXA’s own archivists on Itokawa Hideo and the pencil rocket.



Itokawa Hideo, the former weapons engineer turned father of the space program. Behind him is a model of the Baby Rocket, his second successful design.


Itokawa running the countdown clock for his first rocket launch, August 1955.


Itokawa Hideo occasionally engaged in self sabotage by way of excessive self promotion, as in this interview where he suggested that a rocket-boosted plane could make it across the Pacific Ocean in 20 minutes.


The successful launch of the Pencil Rocket.


A JAXA mockup of Hayabusa 2, which launched in 2014. The Hayabusa series, named in honor of Itokawa Hideo’s fighter design from 1943, performs sample return missions from extraterrestrial bodies.


IKAROS (the Inter-Planetary Kite Craft Accelerated by the Radiation of the Sun), the first successful craft to be powered by a solar sail.


A JAXA concept for Akatsuki, its Venus probe. Akatsuki went off course in 2010 but has been redirected and is now only a few weeks out from beginning its mission around Venus.


Episode 139 – The Soldiers of the Sun


Episode 141 – Fukushima


  1. I’ve been listening to this podcast over the past month or so and finally caught up on all the episodes. I’m really enjoying it. You’re doing great work.

    I became interested in Japanese history through anime and manga. When i watched an anime or read a manga that referenced history, I would often look up the history online to learn more about the context behind the references. And when listening to this podcast, I would often think of an anime and how it dealt with the history.

    For instance, this episode about the Japanese space program brought to mind the science fiction anime Space Brothers, which has an optimistic yet scientifically grounded take on the future of space exploration.

    And your series about the Meiji Restoration gave me a new appreciation for the Gintama anime. Gintama is a comedy which takes place in a twisted version of the Bakumatsu period, where instead of Commodore Perry, aliens from space show up and impose their own version of the unequal treaties. It uses this setting as a jumping-off point for humor which goes all over the place, ranging from social/political satire, to pop-culture parodies (especially of anime based on manga from Weekly Shounen Jump), to character-based comedy, to lowbrow toilet humor, and occasionally serious drama and action. But what really makes Gintama interesting is how it plays with Japanese history. Most of the characters in the show are based on historical figures from the period, with their names changed by a syllable or two. The Shinsengumi play an especially prominent role. You might get a charge out of it, although the series is over 300 episodes and wildly uneven.

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