U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy (center) visited Japan's Tanegashima Space Center during the February 2014 launch of the NASA-JAXA Global Precipitation Measurement Mission. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — As American and Japanese officials praised the strong relationship the two countries share in civil and military space activities, one Japanese officials at a recent forum said he sought to elevate his country’s role in that partnership.

In a speech at a Dec. 10 event here on the U.S.-Japan alliance in space organized by the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, Takeo Kawamura, a member of the House of Representatives of the National Diet of Japan with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said his country should become “equal partners” with the U.S. in space.

“The main idea I have here is to move from dependency to coexistence with the U.S.,” said Kawamura, speaking through an interpreter. “That’s my challenge today, to establish a more equal relationship.”

One specific area he mentioned as an area for greater partnership is in the area of space-based navigation. Japan is developing a regional satellite navigation system called Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS) that, he said, could be integrated into the overall American Global Positioning System.

Kawamura also suggested Japan could agree to build GPS satellites themselves. “We could handle the manufacturing of GPS satellites, and Japan can launch them for the U.S.,” he offered, with the U.S. providing the navigation payloads for those spacecraft. “This is a possible scenario.”

American officials at the forum, while not endorsing Kawamura’s offer to build GPS satellites, were open to greater cooperation between the two countries in navigation. “What can we do with QZSS satellites and GPS satellites?” asked Chirag Parikh, director of space policy on the White House National Security Council. “There are opportunities for enhanced capabilities, there are opportunities for resiliency, and there are opportunities even for hosted payload capabilities.”

Parikh said the U.S. was open to greater cooperation with Japan in other areas, from remote sensing to classified discussions regarding space threats. “The spectrum of opportunities is endless,” he said. “It really requires some imaginative thinking to push forward on some of these things.”

That desire for enhanced cooperation also extended to civil space, including the countries’ participation in the International Space Station. On Dec. 8, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan would agree to extend its participation in the ISS through 2024, joining the U.S., Russia and Canada.

A formal agreement regarding that extension, however, is still being finalized. “The Japanese government is still coordinating with the U.S. government towards the agreement of a new cooperation framework. When the agreement is set, Japan will officially decide to commit to the International Space Station through 2024,” said the public affairs department of the Japanese space agency JAXA in a Dec. 8 statement.

Japanese and U.S. officials at the forum confirmed that the agreement was still being finalized. Yoshinori Komiya, director general of the Office of Japanese National Space Policy, said an amendment to the country’s national space plan extending ISS operations through 2024 will be adopted “after an agreement with the U.S. government.”

“We’re not there yet, but we’re very close. We’re having conversations about the extension of space station with the government of Japan through 2024,” said Parikh. “We’re very encouraged with what’s happening right now.”

Kawamura, in his remarks, offered a conditional endorsement of continued cooperation of the ISS. “The ISS is a symbolically significant program because it shows bilateral cooperation with the U.S.,” he said.

However, he said that, in the future, justifying the 40 billion yen ($330 million) Japan spends on the station program each year solely on its value in international cooperation may become difficult. “It’s a political problem of costs versus benefits,” he said.

Representatives of both countries at the forum expressed interest in expanding cooperation to include commercial space ventures. Masakazu Toyoda, chairman and chief executive of the Institute of Energy Economics Japan and a former government space official, said he expected the Diet to take up legislation in the next year regarding both commercial remote sensing policy and indemnification of damages from commercial launches.

One member of the U.S. Congress who spoke at the forum hoped that future cooperation specifically included development of commercial suborbital launch systems. “I don’t see any reason why Japanese and American companies should not be operating in partnership to develop suborbital transportation,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) “I would encourage that type of cooperation in commercial space.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...