He started racing on mini-bikes before becoming Japan's 250cc champion in 1989. He moved to his homeland's Superbike championship in 1993. By 1997 Kawasaki considered him ready for the Superbike World Championship.
Initial testing displays and results suggested that they were not wrong. At the A1-Ring, Akira became the first Japanese rider to win a Superbike World Championship race outside his homeland, also winning Sugo later in the year to come 4th overall. 1998 was dominated by two huge crashes. At Monza the bike hurtled through the gravel at the Ascari Chicane before catching fire due to a burst fuel line, with Akira fortunately nowhere near it. At Laguna Seca he was running 2nd when Doug Chandler's wild card Kawasaki went out of control on the run into the Corkscrew corner and harpooned Akira. It was a frightening moment, yet Yanagawa only missed one further round. He was classified 2nd in that race, as the restart was abandoned following another pile-up. On his return he took two 4th places, and followed this with two podium results at Sugo. This was good for 7th overall.
In 1999 and 2000 he came 5th overall, with a win at Sugo and five third places in 1999. He was 9th in 2001, crashing on lap 1 of his 100th WSBK race at Sugo but scoring two 3rds at Monza, as Kawasaki gradually lost interest in the Superbike World Championship, focusing instead on developing a MotoGP bike for 2002. Yanagawa raced in Japan's Superbike series while testing this, and briefly raced it before returning to a testing role. He has continued in the All-Japan series, leading it in 2007 before losing out to Atsushi Watanabe, and also entered for a one-off MotoGP round at Motegi 
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