Japan’s Latest Political Shake-up Stirs Hope for Space Agency Overhaul

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TOKYO — A 3-year-old proposal to wrest control of the Japanese space program away from competing ministries and put it under Cabinet-level management should gain traction under Japan’s newly seated prime minister, according to the chief architect of the proposed reorganization.

Takafumi Matsui, the Tokyo University professor who chaired a committee that Japan’s Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy chartered to draw up overhaul plans, is encouraged by the Aug. 29 election of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) latest Cabinet reshuffle.

Matsui said the Cabinet appointments announced Sept. 2 — the same day Noda took office as Japan’s sixth prime minister in five years — remove many of the political obstacles that so far have prevented the government from implementing the reorganization his committee recommended some 17 months ago.

Matsui told Space News he is hopeful the Noda administration will be able to push through a decision by the end of September to set up a Cabinet-level department to run the nation’s space program and get the necessary legislation through the Diet by the end of the year.

Matsui’s April 2010 report urged the Japanese government to break up the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and establish a small space agency within the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office to take over budgeting and planning for the nation’s space program. The proposal was a response to the Basic Law for Space Activities the Diet passed in 2008. The Basic Law called for Japan to institute the Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy, which in turn was supposed to implement Cabinet-level management of the nation’s space programs.

The prescribed reorganization, however, has been held up by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s parent organization, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). Under the leadership of Tatsuo Kawabata, MEXT opposed Matsui’s original April 2010 proposal as well as a watered-down version published this past June that would force MEXT to cede about 30 percent of its budget to the Cabinet Office, which would then use the funds to set up its own department to run Japan’s proposed Quasi Zenith satellite navigation system, Matsui said. Because the plan was supported by the Liberal Democratic Party — Japan’s conservative ruling party for more than 50 years until its defeat in the 2009 elections — the previous MEXT minister was able to enlist more liberal members of the DPJ to stall movement on the plan.

“It’s not that we gave up. The future is now, and we are still waiting for a decision,” Matsui said.

Takaaki Iwasa, director of MEXT’s Office for Space Utilization Promotion, said that the ministry continues to oppose even the diluted proposal in part because it fails to give adequate guidance on what parts of MEXT’s budget would be cut. “We stressed that it is not fair that one organization should have the power of both coordination among concerned ministries while dealing with its own projects,” Iwasa said in a Sept. 1 interview. JAXA’s funding accounts about 60 percent of Japan’s overall space development budget, according to government figures.

However, Matsui said the balance of power within the Cabinet has swung back to members who can push the plan to completion. He cited as examples Motohisa Furakawa, the newly appointed state minister for space development, and Seiji Maehara, who holds the powerful position of chairman of the DPJ’s Policy Research Committee. Both men back the proposed restructuring. The original Matsui plan was formulated under Maehara when he was space minister but floundered after he was named foreign minister in September 2010.

Wakayama University professor Hiroaki Akiyama, who helped draw up both plans as a member of Matsui’s committee, agreed the prospects for finally centralizing management of Japan’s space program are much improved with Noda as prime minister. “Noda was formerly head of the DPJ committee to promote the Basic Law  and understands space issues,” he said in an Aug. 29 interview.

Whether the deadlock can be broken, Akiyama said, depends in large part on who is leading MEXT.

Matsui, for his part, said he was encouraged that Noda’s choice for MEXT minister, Masaharu Nakagawa, is thought to be neutral on space issues.