he new law that reorganizes Japan’s space management structure and lifts a longstanding ban on military space activities is a welcome, if long overdue, example of policy catching up with reality, both in principle and in practice.


The Basic Law for Space Activities, which was approved in May by the Diet, Japan’s parliament, recognizes the intrinsic strategic nature of space activity, particularly for a nation as technologically advanced as Japan. Yes, there is a strong national security angle here, but space also plays an important role in other strategic areas including the economy and public safety, and the law recognizes that by putting space under the direct purview of the prime minister’s office.


Previously space policy and priorities in Japan were set by a commission within the sprawling Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Under the new law, these activities will be carried out by a body in the prime minister’s cabinet office led by a minister for space.


It is inevitable that much attention will be focused on the law’s elimination of a 1969 resolution that committed Japan to using space for peaceful purposes only. Under the Japanese definition, the so-called peaceful purposes resolution
ruled out using space not only for offensive purposes but also for defensive or service-type military functions, such as surveillance and communications.


In reality, of course, the ban has been circumvented as the need has arisen, the most obvious example being the decision to
develop a system of optical and radar reconnaissance satellites in the wake of North Korea’s surprise launch of a Taepodong missile over Japanese territory in 1998. Perhaps in recognition of the sensitivity of the matter, the program was given the innocuous-sounding moniker of Information Gathering Satellites, although tellingly, its management was assigned to the prime minister’s cabinet office.


The new law does not permit the deployment of offensive capabilities, such as weapons, in space. Rather, it would open the door to wider use of satellites for surveillance and support functions, with possible early applications being missile warning and communications.


Advocates say the law also will pave the way for a variety of civil application programs, such as a constellation of disaster monitoring satellites, and even lead to more funding for science missions. This remains to be seen.
Japan in recent years has struggled to maintain even flat funding for space activities, resulting in seemingly endless deferrals of projects in their design phase; the idea that the elevating of space within the decision-making bureaucracy will somehow open up the funding floodgates seems a bit optimistic.


But the Diet has at least laid a foundation for stronger oversight and better prioritization of projects, potentially enabling Japan to get more for the money it has to spend. If the cabinet office can use its authority to advance needed projects while curtailing questionable ones that seem to drag on endlessly and sap the overall budget – to the benefit of no one save the contractors directly involved – the Diet’s move will be judged a success, even if funding remains scarce.