With the Basic Space Bill becoming law on May 21, the long-standing ban on
Japan's military use of space assets and promoting the space industry is
The law focuses on the reorganization of Japan's space management structure. A
new headquarters for space development and strategy is to be set up under the
cabinet, with the prime minister serving as its director general, to develop a
comprehensive space strategy.
When Japan's Space Agency was established in 1969, the Diet (parliament)
unanimously adopted a resolution committing Japan to using space "for peaceful
purposes only". While this term has internationally been understood as
"non-aggressive" from the
advent of the space age, the same term has been interpreted as "non-military"
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) endorsed the former interpretation, which
allows the military use of space within the boundaries of the inherent right of
self-defense. Since space activities are characterized by their dual
civilian-military nature, restricting the development and use of space to the
"non-military" realm was impossible, especially as the rapid development of
space technology blurred the demarcation between civil and military functions.
Sooner or later, Japan's "non-military" principle was doomed to be circumvented
to adjust to the new reality.
That day came in 1985 when a unified governmental view was issued that
interpreted the "non-military" principle as permitting the use of satellites by
the Self Defense Forces (SDF) as long as these satellites were widely used in
everyday civil life. This interpretation paved the way for the SDF to use
images gathered by Information Gathering Satellites (IGSs) in 2003 to assess
the missile threat posed by North Korea.
Yet problems remained. Operated for "civilian" purposes, IGSs were under the
control of the Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center, not the SDF. Furthermore,
the image resolution of the IGSs was no higher than that of commercial
satellites available in the market. As a consequence, IGSs were almost of no
use for true defense purposes.
The Basic Space Law, therefore, changes the interpretation of "peaceful
purposes" from "non-military" to "non-aggressive" as understood by the rest of
the world. Article 2 of the law specifies that the development and use of outer
space will be carried out in accordance with international law, including the
OST, based on the pacifist spirit of the constitution of Japan.
Under the new law, the SDF can manufacture, possess and operate its own
satellites to support its terrestrial military operations, including ballistic
missile defense (BMD). Immediate candidates for SDF procurement would be
satellites for reconnaissance, early warning and tracking and communications -
all to enhance BMD capabilities.
Given that Japan is the United States' largest BMD partner, Washington may
eventually expect Tokyo to intercept a missile launched toward US territory
should a Japanese satellite detect such an attack. However, this is not
possible under the current interpretation of Article 9 of Japan's constitution,
which prohibits Tokyo from exercising the right to collective self-defense.
Japan's inability to intercept a missile targeted at its ally while possessing
the capability to detect such an attack may lead to the weakening of one of the
most important alliances in the world. Because collective self-defense is a
delicate issue in Japan that goes well beyond space policy, an easy solution
cannot be presented here. A realistic goal is to reach a comprehensive
strategic agreement between Japan and the US covering both military and
civilian use of space, in which challenges faced by the two countries are
Such challenges include the clarification of the roles and functions of space
assets used in the BMD partnership and the dissolution of the 1990 Japan-US
Satellite Procurement Agreement. Concluded at a time of escalating trade
friction with the US, the procurement agreement obliges Japan to open its
non-research and development (R&D) satellite procurement to foreign
The conditions imposed on Japan by the agreement are stricter than those set by
the World Trade Organization Agreement on Government Procurement. Reflecting
Japan's disadvantageous position compared with European countries vis-a-vis the
US, 12 out of the 13 satellites that the Japanese government has procured since
1990 were US-made.
Therefore, it is not surprising that Japanese industry, which has taken the
1990 procurement agreement as excluding satellites for defense proposes,
expects that lifting the "non-military" principle will create opportunities to
obtain governmental contracts for non-R&D defense-purpose satellites.
Japan's struggling financial situation may well disappoint the industry,
If Tokyo and Washington want to build healthier bilateral space cooperation,
both military and civilian, they must face up to and negotiate issues about
which each nation feels dissatisfaction. Japan is an important partner for US
civil space programs, ranging from the construction of the International Space
Station to the GPS Standardization Agreement and lunar exploration. When it
comes to the GPS agreement, Japan has always stood by the US strategy. Security
and economic ramifications have changed considerably since the early 1990s, and
Japan is no longer an economic threat to the United States.
In this context, discarding the 1990 Satellite Procurement Agreement would
benefit not only Japan but also the United States. Such a generous move by
Japan's most important partner would enable closer cooperation between Japan
and the US in their civil and defense space activities by allowing Japan to
develop its own satellites and strengthen its space capabilities. By
reinforcing their alliance, Japan and the US can help bring peace and stability
to East Asia, which would surely be in the interest of the United States.
Setsuko Aoki is professor of policy management at Keio University. She
specializes in international law and space law. The views expressed in this
piece are the author's own and should not be attributed to the Association of
Japanese Institutes of Strategic Studies.
AJISS-Commentary is an occasional op-ed
type publication of The Association of Japanese Institutes of Strategic Studies
(AJISS) consisting of four leading Japanese think-tanks: the Institute for
International Policy Studies (IIPS), the Japan Forum on International Relations
(JFIR), the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA), and the Research
Institute for Peace and Security (RIPS). Used by permission.