[Courtesy of Peter J. Brown, originally published at Japanese in Space.] 

In his address to the Diet in mid-September, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda stated that - 

“In order to call forth the aspiration to become a pioneer of a new era among the young, we will advance the development of human resources, including the bringing up global human resources, and educate to develop people’s ability to learn and think on their own. Furthermore, we will be exploring policies to open up frontiers of a new Japan, including the establishment of a new community development model which aims to achieve prosperous furusato (homelands), the development of sea areas which are said to be a reservoir of marine resources, and the establishment of a strategic scheme for promoting the development and use of outer space.” 

This fleeting reference to a new space strategy was followed a bit later on by a few comments on Japanese national security issues. 

“There is also an increasing lack of transparency in the security environment surrounding Japan. In such a situation it is naturally the responsibility of the government to create a system in time of peace  that is capable of responding swiftly to any crisis that may unfold in order to ensure regional peace and stability as well as safety of the  people. In accordance with the new National Defense Program Guidelines  that were formulated at the end of last year, Japan will enhance its  readiness and mobility and work to build a dynamic defense force, thus responding to the new security environment,” said Noda. 

(The full text of PM Noda’s address can be seen here)Ten days later, JAXA launched the latest of several Information Gathering Satellites (IGS), which form a constellation that will not be completely deployed until at least 2018. The JAXA web site remains silent thus far about what was the 19th H-IIA launch by the way.

The IGS launch received very little media coverage. This comes as no real surprise. Simultaneous space-related stories at the time included the looming plunge to Earth of the U.S.-built UARS satellite, and the pending launch of the first module for China’s space station. The launch of the U.S. TacSat-4 satellite – validating trends in Japanese space research among other things – and the return of the Sea Launch system to operational status after a 2-year hiatus proved to be much hotter
space news stories than the IGS launch.

Noda probably appreciated the low profile of the IGS because space and spy satellite activities in particular are way down on his agenda.

If you turn the clock back to the days in March just prior to the Great 2011 Earthquake, the Japanese space sector was in a very upbeat mood following the completion of a lucrative sale of a pair of satellites in Turkey involving Turksat and MELCO.

At the same time, this satellite transaction happened independently of anything unfolding in Japan’s Strategic Headquarters for Space Development. And while Noda apparently wants to encourage a private sector surge in space-related exports, companies like NEC Corp. are not shy about reminding everyone that they have been there, and done that already. In a presentation last year, for example, NEC listed dozens of satellites flying over Europe, North and South America and even China which are equipped with vital components supplied by NEC.

The latest IGS launch comes at a time when the U.S. is anxious to increase its ISR activities directed at China, too. So what results is a growing layer of Japanese satellite surveillance cloaked within the surge of multi-platform intelligence gathering by the U.S. focused on the same region. This increased redundancy in satellite imagery generation seems awkward at best, especially at a time when the world is awash in satellite imagery in general. The bumpy ride experienced lately by Germany-based RapidEye AG – now under the ownership of Canada-based Iunctus Geomatics – is an excellent case in point.

So, detecting what lies ahead in space during the early days of the Noda government is heavy in speculation and light in substance. The decision to go ahead with the IGS launch and all the Japanese footprints around foreign commercial satellite launch sites were made long before the DPJ reshuffled the cards and Noda arrived in his current office. The small satellite boom with its robotic emphasis - something that seems to fascinate Noda in particular – is well underway as well. What Noda and his advisors must decide is whether or not to tinker with this smooth-running apparatus at a time when precious resources are scarce and there are so many other things in Japan that require his urgent attention.

Abandoning plans to establish a Japanese space agency a la NASA for now and leaving all space-related decisionmaking inside the Cabinet Office seems to show that the Noda team is taking a realistic view of the Japanese space sector, although this is bound to stir up some objections. Expanding upon the GPS concept which has been dedicated to serving the Japanese islands from the start also makes sense so long as a budgetary balance can be maintained.

Injecting new and uncertain elements into the Japanese space agenda is something this new government seems inclined to shy away from. Noda is not Hatoyama, and Noda needs to focus on building public confidence not launching rockets. In a nutshell, space can wait.

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Peter J. Brown is a Maine-based freelance writer who specializes in satellite technology. He wrote extensively about the role of satellites in major disasters as a former senior multimedia and homeland security editor at “Via Satellite” magazine. His work on this topic has appeared in “Asia Times Online” as well as “Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness”, a journal of the American Medical Association, among other publications. He has worked on a variety of projects where improvements in emergency communications have been an important goal including the Hospital Incident Command System (HICS) which has been widely implemented throughout the U.S.
Peter J Brown has 6 post(s) on Japan Security Watch