This past August, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led by lawmaker Hiroshi Imazu, released a new blueprint for realigning the nation’s space activities and budget to better serve its overarching national security and economic priorities.

Called “A Comprehensive Space Strategy to Implement Japan’s National Strategy,” the document calls for creating a national security-focused space agency and working more closely with Japan’s close ally, the United States, in areas such as navigation, maritime surveillance, space situational awareness and missile warning. Its release roughly coincided with that of a similar report by the Cabinet-level Office of National Space Policy.

The foundation for these proposed changes was laid by Japan’s 2008 Basic Space Law, which toppled the country’s remaining barriers to using space for military purposes. The Basic Plan for Space Policy followed shortly thereafter, creating the Office of National Space Policy to set budget priorities and more closely integrate space with Japan’s broader strategic and economic and industrial goals. 

The overall trend would appear to bode well for programs including the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System for regional navigation — the Cabinet Office last year ordered three satellites to join the first already in orbit — and a proposed constellation of maritime domain awareness satellites that has yet to draw significant funding. Imazu also is eager to double the size of Japan’s Information Gathering Satellite (IGS) constellation for optical and radar reconnaissance, whose development was begun shortly after North Korea fired a long-range ballistic missile over Japanese territory in 1998.

But not everyone is onboard with the new direction. In particular, the Ministry of Education, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), which oversees the civilian-oriented Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, worries about the diminution of its own role and budget.

Imazu was elected to the lower house of Japan’s parliament, or Diet, in 1990 and held several senior defense-related positions before taking the reins of the Space Policy Committee in November 2013. On Sept. 26, Imazu became chairman of the LDP Policy Research Council’s Research Commission on Security, a position that could strengthen his hand in redirecting Japan’s space policy. 

He spoke recently with SpaceNews correspondent Paul Kallender-Umezu.

What drove you to make the report that your committee released in August? 

About eight months after I stepped down as senior vice minister of the Defense Agency — now Japan’s Ministry of Defense — on July 5, 2006, North Korea tested its Taepodong-2 prototype ICBM. I realized we were almost completely dependent on the United States for information and defense. I started studying space policy issues that led me to support the Basic Space Law passed in 2008. 

When it comes to national security space, to be honest, it’s been terrible. The Basic Law was supposed to prioritize national security along with industry. But just as we were implementing it, the Democratic Party of Japan came into power in late 2009 and made the first Basic Plan of 2009, which was not funded. 

When the LDP returned to power in December 2012, I became chairman of the Comprehensive Space Strategy Committee. I realized that national security space requires extra funds. National security space and industrialization will require about 3 trillion yen ($28 billion) in funding over 10 years. But if the Ministry of Finance is unwilling to provide extra funds, what are we going to do? That’s why I set up the investigation and report. 

How would a national security-focused space agency help?

Rather than getting each ministry to ask for its own budget, a space agency will combine everything into a single budget request and will have the sanction to increase the budget for industrialization and national security purposes. We need to budget through the Cabinet Office and the new space agency. I went to the finance minister and obtained a decision to do this in the LDP. Regarding establishing the space agency, this is written as LDP policy. But these decisions raised a lot of opposition from the various ministries. MEXT was afraid that it would lose funding. So it was decided that we would stick with individual ministries making their own budgets for the time being. But I want Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to make a final decision on both points. There is a lot of opposition from bureaucrats, some of whom say it will never happen. We have not given up at all. It remains written as policy. But MEXT is very alarmed. 

So the next steps are?

If we can get the security programs we’ve recommended up and running in the next year or two, that’s going to take money. To secure that money, that’s going to take a Cabinet-level political decision. For the moment, we are looking at raising the total space spending budget to 5 trillion yen over 10 years.  

How does the latest, or midterm, report by the Office of National Space Policy fit in with the LDP’s wishes? 

The report more or less is of the same opinion as ours. That level and depth of agreement wasn’t around before. Roughly speaking, the Japanese government hasn’t really had a clear-cut and unequivocal space strategy until now. This time we have a National Security Strategy, and now we are going to have a space strategy that’s connected to it. We now have the makings of a national security space strategy in rather the same way as the United States has.  

Will Japan double the IGS fleet? 

Well, the midterm plan says “about 10 satellites.” And we’re going to go to the full constellation of seven Quasi Zenith satellites as soon as possible. But for IGS, we are looking at around a 10-satellite constellation.

What about space-based missile warning? 

Although we are researching various Japanese-built sensors, we’d like to link and coordinate with the U.S. Space Based Infrared System. I’m particularly interested in Slow Walker [a U.S. program using missile warning satellites to track aircraft] — that’s a personal thing I’d like to ask the U.S. about. I think it’s important to track the takeoff of military aircraft beyond our current radar range. There’s a debate about enhancing our early warning capabilities using unmanned aircraft. As far as I am concerned, a space-based system is essential. 

At the moment we rely on data from the United States but we ought to contribute. Space-based early warning research has been stuck in the research phase for year after year now, because we know that if we invest in space-based early warning it’s going to be very expensive. Some people just ask, why don’t we just use U.S. data? They say it will cost a fortune to design and build a Japanese solution. But we can come up with a solution. The Ministry of Defense is researching smallsats now, and we’ll be able to launch several tens for military purposes.

How has the cooperation dynamic with the United States changed? 

We’ve moved beyond conventional military cooperation. Space is becoming very important. What is more important is a joint strategic vision and much deeper integration in defense issues, including space. So when it comes to a new space agency, we must get agreement in the party to advance this and then get an agreement at the Cabinet level to do this. We must complete this reform. 

What are the other top priorities for military space now? 

Well, as far as the Ministry of Defense is concerned it has to be maritime domain awareness. And that’s not just Japan. The United States and Australia, our alliance partners, both feel that this is where they most need new data. This is the top priority. The second is space situational awareness.

Why are these efforts so important?

The cause of all this is China. When we look at even their conventional forces now — ground, air and maritime — it’s gotten to the point where we must invest more to be able to deter them as allies, the U.S. and Japan. In cyber and space, unfortunately, it’s now come to the point where we have to face threats in these domains. We have to be able to protect and deter. Space is incredibly important for defense. We have to set a 10-year target and proactively go and get the money for it. Behind that there is also the national security aspect of China and its various forms of anti-satellite weapons programs. The other concern I have is Mach 6- and Mach 7-capable hypersonic missiles. Such weapons make our current ballistic missile defense systems obsolete. 

The National Security Strategy released in August by the Japan’s National Security Council describes JAXA as being akin to a technology incubator for national security and industry. Can you give me an example of what JAXA would do in this capacity? 

Let’s take scramjets, for example. I think that’s a great technology. JAXA should be supporting those sorts of programs. 

What are your priorities in the area of space launch?

We are going to need a small-medium launcher that’s faster and more flexible, and that can launch a lot of smaller satellites more quickly. At the moment the H-2A launches two or three times a year at most at a cost of $80 million or $100 million. If we look at the Epsilon rocket, we can use it more quickly, more regularly and less expensively. And look at the H-3. It’s very big. JAXA doesn’t listen to us. It’s another research project. When you look around, you have to decide what sort of payback you are going to have on your investment. With the H-3, lots of people are worried about what it can be used for or who is going to use it. Me too.

With science now the third priority behind national security and industry support, what is Japan’s future with the international space station?

I’ve talked to JAXA President Naoki Okumura on this, and JAXA is going to continue with it for the time being. But it has no national security purpose. The space station has been a research project for scientists. But when it’s over, we have to clearly make a clean cut and look at space programs from the point of view of their utility for national security and return on investment. 


A graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where he won the Horgan Prize for Excellence in Science Writing, Paul Kallender-Umezu is co-author of “In Defense of Japan: From the Market to the Military in Space Policy” (Stanford University...