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The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 28: A planetarium and a submarine 1

     Around the time Frank Champion challenged the big sky with his home-built airplane, an incredible man built a submarine and explored the ocean. It was in the spring of 1950 that I joined the OAA (Oriental Astronomical Association), but a little earlier in the autumn of 1948, my first encounter with the OAA took place. It was at the night of the harvest moon. The only entertainment in those days was either going to the movies or listening to the radio. It was three years after the war, but the destruction of the city were still evident. It was really the dark time facing an extreme shortage of food and housing.
     There was a serial radio drama on NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) called "Yakochu (noctiluca)". During the theme music at the beginning of the program, you would hear the narration: "Stars in the night sky, please do not turn off your lights", a heartfelt plea. These words seemed to symbolize the dark time. We lost our home and paper-making factory during the great July 1945 air raids. The desperation and poverty was beyond words.
It was dark even in the city's business district. The ruins of war-time destructions were visible everywhere and streetcars were running through the desert-like devastated landscape. I would wandered around without any particular purpose. I hated the dark depressing air at home and would head outside before I realized it. It was a life without any hope and I was an 18-year-old who had no idea how to live the rest of his life.
     When I was about to pass a makeshift movie theatre, I saw a few people standing in a large area in the middle of the ruins across the street. to my surprise, it was a public viewing night on a full moon. They set up two 15cm refractors, the size uncommon in those days. They were showing a harvest moon through their telescopes to people on their way back from the movies. Who in the world is doing a thing like this? The calling card I got from them said "the Oriental Astronomical Association, Kochi Division". The OAA Kochi Division would visit mainly elementary and junior high schools across the prefecture to hold public viewing nights like this. At that time, the OAA founded by Mr. Takayoshi Murakami and others had their Kochi Division office located in Kochi Prefecture Cultural and Education Association building at Obiyamachi, Kochi city. The current Geisei Observatory administration office is also housed in the same building, though unrelated to the OAA office. This may be just a coincidence, but I cannot help but feel it is more than a mere coincidence.
     The OAA Kochi Division was founded soon after the war and the core members were three returned soldiers. Mr. S, director of the Division was a crew member of the former Combined Fleet of the Japanese Navy and his battleship was flooded in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Assistant director Mr. O was a crew member of a fighter plane and joined sorties to the battles on Okinawa as a member of Tokkotai (a special corps in the Japanese air force, known as Kamikaze). However, he had to be rescued when his plane was forced to land on an isolated island in the southern sea. An adviser to the OAA was a crew member of a fighter plane, too. On his return from the bombings of Chongqin, China, his plane was shot and he had to escape with a parachute. All these people miraculously survived and returned home. They all contributed to the rebuilding of the nation through astronomy and say: "As we were once dead, there is nothing to fear anymore. Keeping this in mind, we will dedicate our lives to the rebuilding of the country."
     It was in the early spring of 1949 that I first visited Kochi Prefecture Cultural and Education Association building where the OAA Kochi Division was located. In the spring of 1950, the second Nangoku Expo was planned in Kochi city. In step with the Expo, Mr. S was planning to build an "Astronomy Pavilion" featuring a planetarium. In those days the only planetarium in Japan was located in Osaka and it was quite exciting to have an Astronomy Pavilion with a second Japanese planetarium.
     Now I can reveal my secret here. The person who drilled nearly 5000 holes for the planetarium stars was me, who had just became an OAA member. It was a one-meter diameter cast metal celestial globe, the heart of the planetarium. I made 6 size pinholes ranging from first magnitude to 6th magnitude using 6 kinds of drill bits relying on the Murakami Star Atlas. Holes for 6th magnitude stars are just one millimeter across and sometimes drill bits broke off. The kind of work alone required a huge amount of time and money.
On top of that, it was a mind-boggling exercise to figure out how to create the glow of the Milky Way. Mr. S, a self-made inventor, suggested an idea: to hollow out part of the cast iron globe and put a thin tin plate in its place with numerous holes made by phonograph stylus. This proved to be a great success, recreating a realistic "Milky Way" projected onto the dome.
     All the work was done in Mr. S's workshop at his residence on the edge of town. The two-months- long work continued throughout the night and I always got back home at 3 or 4 in the morning. I was a spirited 18-year-old dedicated to volunteerism to popularize astronomy and building a second planetarium in the Orient. However, I was not the only one working for this planetarium project. Mr. O was another. He was a high school classmate and both of us joined the OAA. While I was an observer of the stars, O saw the stars poetically and regarded them as literature. Naturally, he became interested in mythologies and read related astronomy books. He lived in a small town about 15 kilometers away from Kochi city where I lived. When we could not see each other, we never waited for more than three days before exchanging letters.

 "From me in a town where the sun rises to you in a town where the sun sets:
Can you hear Alhambra?"

To my letter like this with some humor in it, he replied:

"I cannot forget the sound of your guitar. I am looking forward to hearing the Memories of the Alhambra, when Orion is rising high."

     When the work for the planetarium finished late at night and he could not catch the day's last train, he often stayed at my place. We talked about the stars and our life until late and relieved the day's stress and frustration. I realized he was one of my best friends in my youth and gave me spiritual strength.
     As the Expo finished in 1950, the Astronomy Pavilion was reduced in size and Mr. O was going to Tokyo for his employment. Thinking this could be the last time I would see him, I went to Osaka to see him off. We visited the only planetarium in the Orient at Yotsubashi. I met Mr. Takeo Takagi and Mr. Fumio Toda, who were planetarium narrators there. It was the late Mr. Toda that encouraged me to write to Mr. Minoru Honda.
     On the Osaka Station platform, I could not stop tears while seeing the red tail lights of the night train receding into the darkness. I experienced for the first time at the age of 20 the sadness of separation. My disturbing premonition became a reality. He has never returned. I didn't have another very close friend I shared everything with.
     This second planetarium in Japan completed in 1950 did not stir sufficient interests and was forced to close in less than two years. Mr. S directly involved in this project accumulated huge debts and was in deep trouble. Eventually he vanished from our sight. Because he had produced many successful inventions and was striving for realization of much bigger successes as a "people's inventor", this failure of the planetarium project was deeply distressing and appeared to be impossible for him to regain his life.
     People come and go, time goes by, and the things about the planetarium was just about to be out of people's mind forever. In fact, almost thirty years have passed since the disappearance of Mr. S. However, I have to remind you that the story of Mr. S did not come to an end, rather it will begin now.

Copyright (C) 2019 Tsutomu Seki.