TOKYO — The Upper House of Japan’s Diet June 20 passed legislation that shifts control of the nation’s space policy and budget, and opens the door to military space development programs with an emphasis on space-based missile early warning.

The legislation, which implements a 2008 law that directed a sweeping reorganization of Japanese space activities, enables the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office to take control of the planning and budgeting of Japan’s government space program. It also removes an article in a prior law governing the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the nation’s equivalent to NASA, that had restricted JAXA’s ability to pursue military space programs.

Prior to the legislation, JAXA had been de facto controlled by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), and was overseen by a MEXT committee called the Space Activities Commission.

At the same time, JAXA’s space development has been restricted to an extremely narrow “peaceful purposes only” policy, which meant the agency was unable to develop specifically military space programs.

The new legislation enables the Cabinet Office to set up a Space Strategy Office, headed by the prime minister, that will have the ultimate say on all policy and budget decisions. It will be supported by a consultative Space Policy Commission of five to seven academics and independent observers.

The legislation also scraps MEXT’s control of JAXA and abolishes the Space Activities Commission, said Kazuto Suzuki, associate professor of international political economy at the Public Policy School of Hokkaido University.

Japan’s space development has been hampered by the peaceful-purposes-only restriction, and by what many outside MEXT see as programs focused too much on technological development for its own sake, leading to expensive launch systems and satellites that serve little practical purpose for the nation, Suzuki said.

The passing of the law ends a process that began nearly a decade ago by politicians looking for ways to leverage Japan’s space development programs and technologies for security purposes to bolster the nation’s defenses in the face of increased tensions in East Asia.

On top of an increasingly confident China, Japan faces a potentially belligerent and unstable North Korea just across the Sea of Japan. Since 1998, North Korea has consistently flouted and broken promises, norms and international laws in developing and testing nuclear weapons and missiles.

JAXA will now be permitted to develop space programs in line with international norms, which are governed by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. The treaty allows military space development, but not the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in orbit.

The Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) will all have a form of “joint control” over JAXA. As such, the space agency will gradually move away from its purely scientific, nonmilitary role, said analysts and experts involved with drawing up the legislation. Under the new arrangement, each ministry will be able to propose its own space programs.

METI, for example, is interested in promoting dual-use Earth observation and reconnaissance satellites and an air-launch space access system, according to the ministry.

Suzuki said there is strong bipartisan political support for Japan to develop and launch its own missile early warning system to support the nation’s small fleet of Aegis destroyers for upper-tier defense, and its PAC-3 systems for lower-tier defense.

The Cabinet Office also will take direct control of the budget and program development of Japan’s regional navigation system, called the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System.

More immediately, the Cabinet Office is likely to set up the Space Strategy Office and Space Policy Commission as early as July 1, said Norihiro Sakamoto, a research fellow at the Tokyo Foundation, a think tank based here.

The Space Strategy Office will quickly move to draft new laws and policies to shift Japan’s space focus away from purely research and development programs to a more national, security-orientated approach that encourages the industrialization and commercialization of Japan’s space industry.

In particular, Japan needs to draw up a comprehensive space law, a “Space Activities Act,” that will provide a legal framework for privately funded space initiatives, and a five-year space plan to run through the second half of the decade.



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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...