The Aug. 26 resignation of Japan’s embattled prime minister Naoto Kan could well turn out to be great for Japan’s space program. Here’s why: two of the leading candidates to replace him, Seiji Maehara and Banri Kaieda, as former state ministers for space development, have a vested interest in tying up some very important unfinished space business.

Seiji Maehara, 49, is not only a hawk and advocate of a more robust security structure, but as former state minister for space development he was instrumental in trying in spring 2010 to push through a radical shakeup and simplification of bureaucratic control of the government’s space activities. This was stymied and he’ll be looking to get his plans back on track. Likewise, the efforts of his replacement, 62-year-old Banri Kaieda, to push through Maehara’s plans were blocked by a recalcitrant Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) that has spent the last three years opposing any moves that would diminish its space budget and planning authority.

To add injury to insult, in his latest stint as Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), the main rival to MEXT for space development funding, Kaieda has seen at least one major program — the ASNARO reconnaissance satellite fleet — delayed through lack of budget. So if Kaieda becomes PM, it’s a fair bet he’ll be looking for some payback.

Maehara for his part is known to strongly support the launch of Japan’s Quasi-Zenith Satellite System, a regional GPS system, and indeed told Space News back in October 2010 that this is his priority. If Maehara is elected leader Aug. 29, he’ll likely spend a good month or more taking control of the reins following the chaotic administrations of Kan and his predecessor Yukio Hatoyama, and then get to work implementing his old plans.

At heart is MEXT’s opposition to the enactment of the 2008 Basic Space Law, which mandated that Japan should set up — within two years’ time — a space agency in the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office to run Japan’s national space programs. Until the Cabinet Office established a small hit squad called the Secretariat of Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy to enact this, control of Japan’s space program straddled a number of different bureaucracies, including MEXT and METI, and numerous committees. So the Secretariat was created to sort out the mess by setting up the new space agency.

Except it couldn’t.

First, MEXT has adopted an attitude that, politely put, is implacably opposed to giving up its financial power. Think of the National Rifle Association and gun control. You get the picture.

Because it runs the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), MEXT has a grip on about 60 percent of Japan’s total space budget. And when under Maehara’s control in spring 2010 the secretariat laid out a simple six-page blueprint that called for dismantling JAXA and setting up of a lean space agency with the Cabinet Office, MEXT dug in.

The strategy worked, partly because Maehara’s party, the ruling Democractic Party of Japan (DPJ), then suffered a crushing upper house electoral defeat in July 2010, which then fatally weakened its ability to push through any changes under Kaieda.

And so things have rumbled on. A recent report by the secretariat proposed a compromise —- asking for MEXT to “only” give up around 30 percent of its budget to the Cabinet Office. MEXT turned up its nose at the offer.

Time is running short. Japan’s budget request for 2012 already is delayed. The formation of the new space agency is already more than a year later than mandated by the Basic Law.

What Japan and Japanese space development badly, badly need is a strong leader, whether it is Maehara, or Kaieda, the 54-year-old finance minister Yoshihiko Noda, or another contender that has yet to emerge.


Paul Kallender is Space News’ Tokyo-based correspondent.

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...