Japan's new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, is continuing the state policy initiated by his predecessors in office, Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga, and is devoting his main efforts to boosting economic recovery and strengthening the nation's defence capabilities in the face of the expansion of China and Russia.
On the military front, Japan's Air Self-Defence Force has recently strengthened its national space surveillance system with a second Space Operations Squadron, based at Hofu Kita Air Base in Yamaguchi Prefecture, 765 kilometres from Tokyo. Its mission is to track, monitor and prevent third countries from generating electromagnetic interference that could pose a threat to Japanese state and commercial satellites.
The Kishida government wants to maintain and secure its capabilities in the outer space domain and is accelerating the process of creating an organisation dedicated to protecting its satellites from offensive actions. It also wants to prevent accidental accidents, such as those caused by the hundreds of thousands of objects and debris of different sizes and shapes that travel unchecked around the Earth at speeds of thousands of kilometres per hour.
The newly formed Hofu Kita Squadron is complementary to Japan's first military unit dedicated to outer space safety. Exactly two years ago, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe established the first link of a small Space Force at Fuchu Air Base near Tokyo.
Air Self-Defence Force Chief of Staff General Shunji Izutsu plans to establish a third Squadron as soon as possible and to form a Brigade-type entity structure, which should begin operational service in 2023. Such a Space Operations Brigade is intended to prevent either China, North Korea or Russia from interfering with, disabling or damaging Japan's vast satellite fleet, which would affect the Asian technology giant's economy and security.
The activation of the second Space Operations Squadron has received maximum attention from the Japanese space ecosystem. The launch ceremony was attended by the Secretary of State for Defence, Makoto Oniki, the President of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Hiroshi Yamakawa, and the Director General of the National Space Policy Secretariat, Yasuyuki Kasai.
Special guest at the event was General James H. Dickinson, head of the US Space Command. It should be noted that no government in Tokyo takes a step forward in the space field without prior consultation with Washington, its main ally. Also present were military representatives from a dozen nations with which Japan cooperates in the surveillance of the outer space domain, but so far not including Spain, which has a Space Surveillance Operations Centre (SSOC).
General Izutsu's plans, already approved by Defence Minister Nobou Kishi, include putting into orbit in 2026 the first satellite equipped with sensors to track the space environment. And deploying a constellation of secure communications satellites to serve Japanese military forces wherever they are.
While freedom of action in outer space is crucial for the Japanese government, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is also focusing on increasing the potential of its space industry, which has a turnover of around $11 billion.
Tokyo aims to double these figures by 2030 and the Basic Space Law approved by the Council of Ministers in July 2020 envisages important initiatives to reach a turnover of around 20 billion dollars in less than 10 years. At nearly 65 years of age and a professional in high politics, Kishida knows how to measure the goals he has set. It is not for nothing that he was already Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defence during Shinzo Abe's term of office (2012-2020).
With an enviable national space exploration programme under JAXA, Tokyo now wants to develop the outer space economy as much as possible and capitalise on decades of multi-billion dollar investment. The current Space Act seeks to deploy constellations of small platforms, increase the number of satellites in the Quasi-Zenith constellation - which since November 2018 has increased the accuracy of GPS signals over much of the Indo-Pacific - to seven, and to cooperate with NASA on the return to the Moon and future missions to Mars.
One of the most important new features of the 2020 edition of the Space Act is a closer collaboration between public authorities and the private sector. The aim is for the authorities, large companies and entrepreneurs in the country of cherry blossoms to coordinate their efforts and get to work on the construction of spaceports. The ultimate goal is to put Japan at the forefront of Asia in the commercial use of space.
In the United States, there are more than 20 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-approved spaceports, mostly in deserts or remote locations. In contrast, the projects proposed in Japan "are close to large cities" because of the country's limited territorial extension, but "mainly to promote the local economy", said the diplomat and space law specialist Kimitake Nakamura, Minister and Deputy Head of the Japanese Embassy in Spain, during his speech at the 2nd Space Law Congress held at the end of April in Madrid.
Local administrations, companies and entrepreneurs interested in the commercial exploitation of spaceports have formed an association called Space Port Japan. Its main objective is to build the first spaceport in Asia in Japan, and to turn the country into a major business centre dedicated to space travel.
In the municipality of Taiki, there is a project to build take-off platforms "for vertical launches and for the landing and recovery of spacecraft," says Nakamura. Also in Kushimoto and Shimojishima on the island of Okinawa. Even Virgin Orbit, Richard Branson's British company, has an initiative to build a spaceport at Oita airport. From there it would launch and land its WhiteKnightTwo mothership with tourists aboard its SpaceShipTwo suborbital aircraft.