The Evolution of Japan’s Space Strategy: Its Dual-Use Nature and Implications for the Japan-U.S. Alliance

In recent years Japan has begun to be considered as something of a “space power”, with its technological advancements in key areas such as robotics being a key contributing factor. Since 2008, the Japanese government has sought to develop its space policy as a national strategy. Its outer space aspirations are tied within the framework of “peaceful uses of outer space” in accordance with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that stipulates exploration and use of outer space for “peaceful purposes”.

However, Japan’s space policy has long been restricted by the influence of its “peace clause”, or Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. Owing to the normative influence of the peace clause as well as so-called culture of “antimilitarism”, a “resolution on the development of outer space and its basic use” was adopted in the Plenary Session of the House of Representatives on May 9, 1969.

Japan’s “Non-Military” Space Policy and the 1969 Diet Resolution

Based on the 1969 resolution, Japan’s space policy on the development and launch of rockets was limited to being “non-military” in nature and of “peaceful purpose” which could contribute to the advance of research, improvement of the lives of citizens, the welfare of humanity, the development of industrial technology, and international cooperation. Based on the 1969 resolution as a “principle of peaceful use of space”, it was decided that the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) was forbidden to research and develop its own satellites.

In the budget committee of the House of Representatives on February 06, 1985, the Japanese government explained that the “peaceful purpose” clause in the 1969 resolution meant a “non-military” purpose and the SDF was not allowed to possess satellites for lethal and destructive purposes, let alone acts of aggression. However, the government also argued that use of general satellites, such as Inmarsat and Intelsat, by the SDF should not be restricted by the 1969 resolution. The 1985 official view by the Japanese government confirmed that the SDF would be able to utilize satellites for peaceful purposes, but the Japan Defense Agency (JDA) was not allowed to research and develop its own satellites.

The Basic Space Law and the Dual-Use Nature of Japan’s Space Technologies

Takeo Kawamura, a legislator of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as a former Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) played a leading role in deliberating the necessity of a legal framework to modify the 1969 Diet resolution. As a result, the Basic Space Law was created on May 21, 2008, which was promulgated on May 28, and entered into effect on August 27 of the year. The Basic Space Law modified the conventional Japanese space policy. It stipulates that Japan’s space policy needs to contribute to international peace and security as well as the security of Japan on the basis of the Japanese Constitution as well as international agreements. Importantly, the Basic Space Law does not limit the use and development of outer space to “non-military purpose” and allows the Japanese government to conduct research and development of satellites for the defense of Japan as well as the maintenance of international peace and security. Since then, the dual-use nature of space technologies has facilitated the evolution of Japan’s space policy both in the civilian and defense fields.

On May 18, 2020, the Ministry of Defense (MOD) established the Space Operations Squadron as part of the Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) with 20 personnel in the Fuchu Base in Tokyo. The mission of the Space Operations Squadron is to monitor space debris and suspicious satellites so that they do not collide with Japanese satellites. The Defense Ministry plans to expand the Space Operations Squadron into a unit with 100 personnel and to cooperate with the U.S. as well as the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) for establishing a space monitoring system in 2023. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), more than 500,000 space debris between 1 and 10 centimeters in diameters exist in outer space. Moreover, there are 5,000 satellites orbiting the earth and only 3,000 of them are active, so it is important to prevent space debris from colliding with each other. The squadron is also designed to “monitor the activities of satellites of countries that may seek to disrupt Japanese and/or U.S. satellite operations through, for instance, the use of anti-satellite missiles, laser irradiation, communication jamming, or so-called ‘killer satellites’.”

Advancing Japan’s Space Strategy in the Japan-U.S. Alliance System

The establishment of the Space Operations Squadron has strategic implications not only for Japan’s space strategy but also for the Japan-U.S. military alliance. The unit will cooperate with the U.S. Space Command established by the Trump administration in 2019, much due to the “growing Japanese concern that China and Russia are seeking ways to interfere, disable or destroy satellites.” At a launch ceremony of the squadron, Defense Minister Taro Kono stated that “It is important that we gain superiority in the space domain as well… We must adapt to the new security environment as soon as possible.” Indeed, China succeeded in its anti-satellite weapons test in 2007, and therefore, the U.S. has encouraged Japan to cooperate in facilitating U.S. supremacy in the military utilization of outer space over China and Russia.

From a perspective of military technology, modern weapons systems are dependent upon the military use of outer space. In particular, global positioning system (GPS) satellites of the United States are essential to control military drones and monitor the military units. Since both Russia and China have demonstrated their military capabilities to destroy satellites in outer space, it is considered to be critical for the U.S. Space Command to defend its military and commercial satellites from possible attacks. Therefore, the Japanese government is expected to play a supplemental role in defending U.S. GPS satellites.

In this sense, Japan’s space policy has been developed by the occurrence of “new threats and uncertainties” in East Asia, and “alliance pressure” from Washington. Since Japan has relied on “defense support program” (DSP) satellites of the U.S. Forces that could detect the exact moment when ballistic missiles are launched, the protection of the DSP satellites is vital to the defense of Japan, especially its ballistic missile defense (BMD) system. Japan’s space policy has been continually evolving and it is speculated that Japan and the U.S. could be the first military alliance to conduct defense cooperation in outer space which could have profound strategic implications for the Japan-U.S. military alliance.