An overview of Japan’s space activities

This is the first of a series of articles on the "Frontlines of the New Space Era in Japan". This series will analyze space activities in Japan, with a focus on policies and business frameworks, including regional cooperation in Asia-Pacific.

"Unmanned Mars exploration imagination". Image courtesy of Akihiro Ikeshita.

Let us go back a decade, to 2008. The Summer Olympic Games were held in Beijing, the iPhone 3G had been introduced by Apple, and it was also the International Year of Planet Earth (anyone remember this?), declared by the United Nations.

In Japan, the year 2008 turned out to be a special turning point for the space community; Basic Space Law, which has since served to be the foundation of all Japanese space activities, was enacted by the Diet (Japanese Parliament) on May 21st.

Prior to its creation, space development projects in Japan were chiefly focused on research and development schemes. The primary reason for this was that the leading ministry regarding space activities in Japan had been Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), which also administrates science and technology policies in general. Japan’s space agency, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), was under the jurisdiction of MEXT, hence their position was heavily influenced by MEXT’s policy framework.

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With the country being referred to as the “land of the rising sun,” space has often been a familiar topic for many Japanese. For example, an ancient folk tale which dates back to the 10th century called The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (also known as The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) features a beautiful princess who turns out to be an alien from the moon.

If you take a look at anime/manga pop culture, a 1974 anime Space Battleship Yamato brought about a huge science-fiction craze in Japan, which was followed by other space-themed mega-hits such as Galaxy Express 999 (1977), Mobile Suit Gundam (1979), Planetes (2003) and Space Brothers (2007).

Before 2008 and the Basic Space Law, the Japanese R&D space projects did make their contribution to, and make their presence known, in the international space community.

A significant example would be the robotic spacecraft Hayabusa (aka MUSES-C), developed by JAXA and manufactured by NEC. Hayabusa succeeded in becoming the first satellite to collect and return a materialized sample from a near-earth asteroid.

Hayabusa image courtesy of JAXA.

Observation satellite Hinode (aka Solar-B) was responsible for brand new observation data on the Sun to help understand the various physical phenomena that occur in the solar atmosphere. Hinode, developed by JAXA and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) with joint-cooperation from NASA and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) of UK, was manufactured by Mitsubishi Electric and was highly praised for its contribution and achievements in the community of solar physics. The findings from Hinode had the privilege of being featured in Science magazine, a leading journal in scientific research.

However, the growing utilization of space-related technologies and infrastructure worldwide led the Japanese government to consider the necessity of reforming its space policy-making structure.

After the enactment of Basic Space Law in 2008, the Strategic Headquarters for Space Development (SHSD) was set up in the Cabinet, led by the Prime Minister himself. As for the secretariat, following several structural changes made within the government since then, the National Space Policy Secretariat (NSPS) set up in Cabinet Office is currently serving SHSD since 2016.

Establishment of NSPS. Photo courtesy of Aiko Shimajiri.

These moves provide a clear indication on where the legislation regarding space policy is located within the government, creating stronger political leadership. The changes have led to shifting the space policy from its traditional science- and-technology-oriented style to a more “comprehensive” national strategy, based not only on science and technology but also on the promotion of the space industry as well as the utilization of space for national security.

After its establishment, SHSD worked out a Basic Plan on Space Policy in 2013 (and revised it in 2016), which is considered the masterplan for space activities by the Japanese government. They also began publishing the Implementation Plan of the Basic Plan on Space Policy annually, breaking down policy agendas considered in the Basic Plan into concrete tasks and showing precise time schedules to achieve them. The tasks described in the Implementation Plan are not limited to domestic policies but also include some international aspects, such as plans to further enhance space cooperation frameworks, especially in the Asia-Pacific regions.

What’s expected to arrive, in the context of Asia-Pacific

Regarding the Implementation Plan of the Basic Plan on Space Policy, the Japanese government is presently reviewing it to prepare for the latest version, and an invitation for public comments began on August 1st. The invitation is expected to close on August 31st, to be followed by numerous other consultations and political considerations within the government.

The latest Implementation Plan will be published under the name of SHSD later this year. It is noteworthy that the Implementation Plan spares pages for “Collaboration on Space Activities within Asia-Pacific Region.” Here, the term “collaboration” refers to two aspects; one is regarding a multilateral framework such as activities with the Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum (APRSAF) and the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA), while the other would be a mutual bilateral framework, such as the collaboration with Thailand to promote the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS), or a collaboration with Indonesia to promote space and marine sector collaboration, and so forth.

APRSAF-24 Meeting. Image courtesy of APRSAF.

The promotion of QZSS in Thailand is defined as one of their prime agendas.  The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) has delegated a satellite positioning professional to Thailand since 2016, in order to assist the consolidation of GPS-based control stations across the country.

This was followed by the arrangement of a Memorandum of Cooperation in 2017, which was signed between the two governments to establish an Integrated Data Center of the GNSS Continuously Operating Reference Stations (CORS) Network in Thailand. In April 2018, a consultation council to promote such Japan-Thailand cooperation was established, as well as verification tests to solve traffic congestion issues in Thailand by utilizing navigation systems. As shown here, the original government-to-government collaboration is starting to gather various stakeholders towards the actual implementation of social infrastructure.

The industry is also loaded with expertise and heritage in different segments of the space activities today. “Old-Space” companies are represented by long-established space manufacturers such as Mitsubishi Electric, NEC, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and IHI Aerospace, while “New-Space” ventures such as Astroscale, iSpace, and Infostellar, are on their way to grow their business areas and perhaps eventually lead the market.

In March 2018, Prime Minister Abe announced a fund of 100 billion yen (about 900 million USD) to support space-related start-ups. The investment will be starting from 2018, for up to five years, via Development Bank of Japan (DBJ) and the Innovation Network Corporation of Japan (INCJ).

Strong leadership from the government and innovation from the industry have given a huge boost to Japanese space activities over the past decade. Based on these contexts and background, in this series of articles I would like to share about and analyze the activities at the frontlines of Japan’s space industry, with the main focus being on policies and business frameworks; and possibly some indicators on the Asia Pacific regional cooperation as well.


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