Free enamel pin when you buy any two Atlas Obscura products. Shop now.

See Imagined Artifacts From the Japanese Space Race That Never Happened

A moon rock vending machine—part of Jorge Mañes Rubio's "Mission U-TOPIA" project. (All photos: Jorge Mañes Rubio)

A moon rock vending machine—part of Jorge Mañes Rubio’s “Mission U-TOPIA” project. (All photos: Jorge Mañes Rubio)

Everyone knows the story of the Space Race. Deadlocked on Earth by the tense standoff of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States battled for supremacy beyond the atmosphere, staking resources, time, and national pride on attempts to achieve various space travel milestones.

The Soviets launched the first satellite, the Americans won the sprint to the moon, and astronauts and cosmonauts kept trading victories for a couple of decades, until their home countries shifted priorities. The whole chapter now stands as a half-inspiring, half-ludicrous testament to the driving power of one-on-one competition.

But what if someone in a country far from the conflict became determined to make their own way to the moon? What if a man from Japan had been part of the Space Race?

During a museum residency at the Akiyoshidai International Art Village, artist Jorge Mañes Rubio asked himself that question. He quickly decided to answer it in the best way he knows how—by inventing a world in which it had happened.

Akitoshi's moon meteorite, discovered on the UBE Industry Golf Course.

Akitoshi’s moon meteorite, discovered on the UBE Industry Golf Course. 

Rubio created a character named Akitoshi Fujiyama, a Cold War era engineer who, while practicing his swing at the local golf course, stumbles upon a turquoise moon rock that possesses “outstanding properties.” Before reporting his discovery to the authorities, Akitoshi breaks off a piece of the rock for himself—a decision that launches him on a lifelong quest, affecting his family, his country, and, potentially, the entire planet. “It was romantic, the idea of one person trying to step into this race all by himself,” Rubio says.

U-TOPIA, an abandoned casino that served as Akitoshi's headquarters (and gave the project its name).

U-TOPIA, an abandoned casino that served as Akitoshi’s headquarters (and gave the project its name).

Rubio is a sort of sociohistorical alchemist. When he travels, he absorbs what he sees and hears, and uses it as raw material to “reimagine what could be instead,” he says. While bicycling and driving around Yamaguchi Prefecture, he was struck by the diverse landscapes—golf courses, rice paddies, and limestone quarries—all of which conferred a sense of remoteness. “It really looks like another planet—like if you are on Mars or the moon,” he says.

Akitoshi's flight jacket. In the story, it was designed by his wife, Akiko Fushiyama, who hoped the patches would stand in for real mission experience; in real life, Rubio made them out of old kimonos with the help of local women.

Akitoshi’s flight jacket. In the story, it was designed by his wife, Akiko Fushiyama, who hoped the patches would stand in for real mission experience; in real life, Rubio made them out of old kimonos with the help of local women.

Rubio wrote Akitoshi’s story down—you can read it here—but the real magic happens thanks to a series of carefully created artifacts. Rubio, who originally trained as a product designer, uses a similarly alchemical process to make these objects, enlisting both local materials and local people. Friends from the town’s auto body shop created a chassis for the spaceship, and the women of a nearby village donated their embroidery skills, and their old kimonos, to make the patches on Akitoshi’s flight jacket. UBE Industries, the largest manufacturing company in Japan, provided Rubio with most of his building materials—and, after being on the receiving end of much cajoling, let him explore their limestone quarry, where he found his “meteorite.”

Akitoshi's moon rock. Rubio dyed the rock the color of UBE's logo, using ammonia he got from the company.

Akitoshi’s moon rock. Rubio dyed the rock the color of UBE’s logo, using ammonia he got from the company. 

“I’m interested in giving these objects something intangible—something that you can’t really touch, but lets you feel that they’re special,” says Rubio. Carefully displayed among period-appropriate moon maps and lunar land deeds, these artifacts engender such a strong sense of history that many of the exhibit’s patrons thought Rubio had not created Akitoshi’s story, but unearthed it.

“Even my friends asked me, “how did you manage to get ahold of a three-kilo meteorite?” he says.

Akitoshi's wife, Akiko Fushiyama, in front of a shoji screen made out of Uplex—a material manufactured by UBE Industries, and used in satellites and spaceships to block galactic cosmic rays.

Akitoshi’s wife, Akiko Fushiyama, in front of a shoji screen made out of Uplex—a material manufactured by UBE Industries, and used in satellites and spaceships. Shoji screens “were created to give some sort of intimacy, or to protect someone or somebody from the view of strangers,” Rubio says. “I thought, maybe in the future, these objects will help to protect us from galactic cosmic rays.”

Rubio hopes that, by creating these alternate pasts and presents, he will make people think about potential futures. In keeping with the spirit of his time and place, the character Akitoshi hopes to go to the moon not for exploration’s sake, but to get rich quick off of lunar minerals. “In a few years,” Rubio says, “we’ll probably go back to the moon again, and it probably won’t be countries fighting to get there early, but it will be companies that will actually start digging. I thought this story could, in a way, start conversations about that.”

A limestone quarry in Yamaguchi, repurposed as a futuristic, industry-riddled moonscape.

A limestone quarry in Yamaguchi, repurposed as a futuristic, industry-riddled moonscape. 

Consider it long enough, and the story seems less fantastical than realistic—which is Rubio’s main goal. “I think that’s really when the magic happens, you know?” he says. “When you get a bit lost and you don’t really know what’s true and what’s not, and what belongs to this world and what belongs to the artist’s imagination.”

Akitoshi's workspace, "re"created inside the museum. "There is a wall clock set up on lunar time," Rubio says. "You can really tell he's up to the task of going there."

Akitoshi’s workspace, “re”created inside the museum. “There is a wall clock set up on lunar time,” Rubio says. “You can really tell he’s up to the task of going there.”

Lunar land deeds, which Rubio obtained from various seedy moon realtors.

Lunar land deeds, which Rubio obtained from various seedy moon realtors.

A ready-made mission control room inside U-TOPIA.

A ready-made mission control room inside U-TOPIA.

A "lunar module chassis," built at the local auto body shop.

A “lunar module chassis,” built at the local auto body shop.

 Rubio attached a NASA Moon Map to the back of an UBE Industries truck, and drove it continuously up and down a highway used only for transport to and from the manufacturing plant.

Rubio attached a NASA Moon Map to the back of an UBE Industries truck, and drove it continuously up and down a highway used only for transport to and from the manufacturing plant.