Featured Stories

Japan and the Geopolitics of Space Travel

Earth from Space – Japan in Autumn
Image captured from the European Space Agency’s Copernicus-Sentinel 3 mission in November 2023
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The geopolitics of space

This article follows on an earlier discussion of the key milestones in Japan’s development of its space programme[i] and considers the wider geopolitical context within which this programme is pursued in past and present.

Space, as humanity’s true final frontier, presents great challenges and opportunities for states who seek to expand their technological influence. However, the means to reach space are costly, which in turn means that only a few states with the necessary technological know-how are notable players – those are the great powers and the ones who got into the game early. Space therefore represents something of a mirror image of Earth’s political processes: A geopolitical competition with varying interpretations of the outer space “law.”

Cooperation is, nevertheless, an imperative if a state seeks to develop a state-of-the-art space programme. States often share the burden of costs and combine their technological capabilities through division of labour to ensure the most successful course of a project. Cooperation does, however, come with particular concerns. Due to mismatches in capabilities, states never evenly commit their resources to projects. Additionally, language barriers and methodological differences add a layer of complexity that can restricts a team’s efficacy. As such, not all states view cooperation favourably, and some take highly nationalistic approaches to their space programmes.[ii]

The Cold War was the media pinnacle of what could be called a geopolitical rivalry in outer space, but it proved to be a peaceful and somewhat cooperative rivalry. The space race between the United States (US) and the Soviet Union attracted a wide audience, as this battle proved to be a matter of prestige in the jostling between communism and liberal democracy. This ideological battle was in part based on who could achieve the most impressive feats in space. The Soviet Union initially had the US trailing, being the first to launch the first satellite into orbit, the first living being in space (the dog, Laika), the first woman in space (which the US achieved only fourteen years later), and the first space walk. The battle was definitively settled with the US’s Apollo 11 lunar landing in 1969. Having landed the first person on the moon, the US demonstrated their spacefaring superiority, but the implications of this reached to the realm of international relations and the ideological contests of the era.  Beyond the geopolitical spectacle, however, the Cold War space race also saw rules-based engagement and cooperation. The 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, when the US cooperated with the Soviet Union, is exemplary of this. This mission was the first international space mission, which makes it even more special since the cooperation came from two supposed adversaries.[iii]

During the Cold War, the overwhelming number of space-related activities were conducted by either the US or the Soviet Union, making it a bipolar competition. The end of the Cold War, by contrast, saw a marked increase in spacefaring entities, ushering in a new era of a multipolar outer space.[iv] Thus, the 2000s saw a rapid increase in spacefaring nations. With the removal of inter-bloc cooperation barriers, states combined their strengths to kickstart their space programmes and further scientific knowledge of rocket technologies. Although all states have varied private and public entities that promote their space programmes, state-owned space agencies make up the bulk of space actors. Much of this is due to the US’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which has made direct agency-to-agency cooperation a requirement. European national agencies, the European Union (EU), and the European Space Agency (ESA), are credited as “cooperation multipliers”, cooperating the most with the rest of the globe.[v]

Rules-based engagement

Outer space is tricky when it comes to law – for instance, whose jurisdiction is it to enforce laws and do general laws of property apply in space? It is necessary, first, to distinguish between “airspace” and “atmosphere” in the lexicon of international law. Since the beginning of air travel, and the efforts to regulate it, the Paris Convention for the Regulation of Air Navigation and the Convention on International Civil Aviation have stipulated that each state has sovereignty over the airspace directly over its territory. However, in an attempt to make air travel more effective, freedom of overflight was almost universally adopted for innocent passage over a state’s territory. Atmosphere, on the other hand, is a multidimensional concept that refers to the sphere above the earth’s surface that includes a state’s airspace as well as the space not included under state sovereignty. Reaching consensus on these two interrelated concepts with the added realm of outer space has proved challenging for lawmakers. Often compared with the efforts to find solid laws governing sea travel, this is not a fair comparison since the atmosphere and outer space pose far more complex challenges.[vi]

As the atmosphere and outer space are increasingly being used for all varieties of activity, states struggle to come to an agreement on what a universal code of conduct should look like. This is because it requires reconsideration of what national sovereignty entails and because the use of the atmosphere and outer space can pose a threat to national security and needs far more cooperation and consensus than do seafaring activities. Of great concern has been: to what extent do states have to “give up” a reasonable amount of control of their national sovereignty over their airspace (although some states do not cooperate)? Where does a state’s airspace end? What activities can be said to violate another state’s security (such as observational espionage)? And lastly, what are other risks related to the rapid proliferation of airflight objects and objects set for outer space? Therefore, the initial efforts to create laws of the atmosphere and outer space required a combination of skills with good understanding of science, common law, and international law.[vii]

Since no spacefaring entity can claim ownership of space, or even a part of space, laws governing engagement are usually reached on consensual terms, in the form of treaties and resolutions which reflect various principles and norms. Technically, then, there is no such thing as “space law”, per se. One of the founding agreements is the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) Outer Space Treaty, adopted in 1967. This treaty functions as a statement of intent for the usage of space, emphasising mutual benefit, freedom of navigation, and above all, peace. Fundamentally, the treaty states that the outer space realm shall be the “province of humankind”.[viii]

However, where there is influence to be gained, or money to be made, there will be controversy. Space-based resources have recently drawn greater interest from spacefaring entities which seek to extract and utilise these resources in future. As resource extraction technology improves, the likelihood of greater conflict and competition is set to increase. One effort to avoid such contesting has come from the US with its Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, followed by other states adopting similar legislation. This act states that spacefaring entities can lay claim to resources in space, provided they are the first to encounter a particular object. Despite the International Institute of Space Law acknowledging the legitimacy of the act, and its accordance with the Outer Space Treaty, it has expressed concerns over future outcomes. The Hague International Space Resources Governance Working Group was established to promote international cooperation and dialogue for the development of an international framework that deals with outer space resource extraction.[ix]

The issue of security also looms large as states develop outer space weapons and increasingly view space through a strategic military lens. The Draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects, propagated by the Russian Federation and China in the ambit of the United Nations, is aimed at preventing an(other) arms race in outer space. It has been a contested process, illustrating the complex nature of the international relations of spacefaring.[x] The collaborative academic project to develop the Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS) is often highlighted as an effort to develop a neutral framework for decision-making on space-related military activities.[xi]

Japan’s outer space strategy and US centrality

Within this context of cooperation, competition, and disagreement on the law of the space commons, where does Japan stand? As discussed in the previous article,[xii] Japan is no stranger to rocket technologies, as it became the fourth nation to successfully put a satellite into orbit. For several decades, Japan’s space programme was defined by pacifism and a desire to further the science of space travel. Under the 1969 principle of the peaceful use of space resolution, the Japan Self Defence Force (JSDF) was not allowed to develop space technology associated with anything potentially related to military use. However, this was gradually abandoned as growing tensions in East Asia prompted the development of rocket technologies for the JSDF’s Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system in 2003.[xiii]

In 2003, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) was created through an amalgamation of the then various space institutions.[xiv] In 2008, Japan passed the Basic Space Law, reforming Japan’s Space Development and Use strategy by expanding the scope and vision for Japan’s ideal use of outer space. JAXA’s finance was now handled centrally and was to initiate deeper engagement with states that shared Japan’s vision of a peaceful use of outer space. Security concerns in the realm of space are also regularly mentioned in the law.[xv] Since 2008, Japan has followed what has been called a “dual-use” space policy, which sees the pursuit of both civilian and security research and implementation.[xvi] In 2012, a new policy adopted by the Prime Minister and Cabinet Office allowed JAXA to engage in security projects alongside the Ministry of Defence.[xvii] These gradual steps indicate the growing security concerns Japan attaches to outer space.

Following then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s championing of the reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution in 2014, the JSDF has had even more room to engage with overtly military procedures. This has allowed the JSDF and JAXA to cooperate in the realm of outer space security matters.[xviii] For example, in 2020, Japan established the Space Operations Squadron as part of the Air Self Defence Force. The squadron has been tasked with the monitoring of satellites crossing Japanese satellites’ orbits, as well as space debris. This comes through the use of anti-satellite missiles, laser irradiation, and communication jamming. This unit is set for expansion, as well as for greater cooperation with the US Space Command.[xix]

Japan’s close relationship with the US on security matters is also reflected in its newfound interest in outer space and security matters. As such, in fear of disruption to the US’s global guarantee to freedom of navigation, Japan has depended on, and closely monitored, the US’s Defence Support Programme (DSP) network. The DSP monitors satellites due to new and intensifying threats and uncertainties on Earth’s surface, something of importance for Japan’s protection of its BMD system.[xx] In recent US-Japan joint meetings on space cooperation, both states have expressed their wish to strengthen their combined space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities while also enhancing their Earth navigation satellite systems. The US has committed to providing Japan with SSA payloads for the upgrading of its Quasi Zenith Satellite System (QZSS) to improve its Earth observation capabilities. Additionally, both states emphasised the importance of accelerating agreements for the Artemis mission.[xxi] The Artemis mission seeks to establish more regular missions and deepen scientific research on the moon so as to set the foundation for future exploration of Mars.[xxii]

In 2022, Japan’s Air Self Defence Force was renamed to the Air and Space Self Defence Force, reiterating the importance of space for Japan’s national security aims.[xxiii] This reflects Japan’s notion of a “Multi-Domain Defence Force” which fuses various security concerns into a singular defence strategy. This includes all concerns from cyberspace to the outer space, with a keen vision of US dominance in space.[xxiv] These developments must be understood in the broader context of Japan’s geopolitical reality. Japan is an island nation, significantly dependent on its ability to import goods in order to secure its interests. It is therefore imperative for a state like Japan to develop a coherent and effective national security/deterrence programme. Maintaining the maritime order set up under post-World War Two US hegemony is therefore an existential issue.[xxv] This is also reflected in Japan’s 2022 revision of its National Security Strategy (NSS), in which, among others, Tokyo’s alliance with the US is emphasised and the JSDF’s scope and mandate expanded beyond its original pacifist roots.[xxvi]

Japan’s alliance with the US, in outer space and on Earth, reflects the geopolitical rivalry currently ongoing in the global system. Although much of Japan’s interest in space is purely commercial and scientific, one cannot overlook rising concerns around the non-peaceful use of the space commons. Therefore, the Japan-US alliance needs to develop legal and policy clarity on what assets it will protect, how it will engage threats, how it seeks to promote the rule of law, and how it will interpret it.[xxvii]


[i] See Van Niekerk, G. “A Brief Overview of Japan’s Space Programme” for more.

[ii] Peter, Nicolas. 2006. “The changing geopolitics of space activities.” Space policy, 22. p. 102.

[iii] NASA. n.d. Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Accessed March 26, 2024.

[iv] Ibid. p. 103.

[v] Ibid. p. 104.

[vi]Haley, Andrew, G. 1960. “The law of space and outer space.” Southern California Law Review, 33(4). 373-374.

[vii] Ibid. pp. 374-376.

[viii] United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs. n.d. Outer Space Treaty. accessed March 19, 2024.

[ix] Bittencourt Neto, O. de O. (2021). Outer space as a global commons and the role of space law. In: C. Giannopapa and N. Antoni, eds., A research agenda for space policy. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing. p. 2-3.

[x] See e.g. on the European Union’s position on the draft treaty.

[xi] Ibid. p. 8.

[xii] Van Niekerk, G. op cit.

[xiii] Brands, Alexandre. “Japan’s changing strategic approach to outer space.” Asia Power Watch. August 23, 2023. Accessed March 18, 2024.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Government of Japan. Japan Ministry of Defense. Basic Space Law. no. 83 of 2008. adopted August 27, 2008..

[xvi] Akimoto, Daisuke. The Evolution of Japan’s Space Strategy Its Dual-Use Nature and Implications of the Japan-US Alliance.  Institute for Security and Development Policy. July 13, 2020. Accessed 18 March 2024.

[xvii] Brands, Alexandre. “Japan’s changing strategic approach to outer space.” Asia Power Watch. August 23, 2023. Accessed March 18, 2024.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Akimoto, Daisuke. The Evolution of Japan’s Space Strategy Its Dual-Use Nature and Implications of the Japan-US Alliance.  Institute for Security and Development Policy. July 13, 2020. Accessed 18 March 2024.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Government of Japan. Joint Statement of 7th Meeting. Ministry of Foreign Affairs. August 26, 2020.

[xxii] NASA. n.d. Artemis.

[xxiii] Government of Japan. National Security Strategy 2022. Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. December 2022.

[xxiv] Government of Japan. Medium Term Defense Program. Japan Ministry of Defense. December 18, 2018. f

[xxv] Brands, Alexandre. “Japan’s changing strategic approach to outer space.” Asia Power Watch. August 23, 2023. Accessed March 18, 2024.

[xxvi] Government of Japan. National Security Strategy of Japan. Ministry of Foreign Affairs. December, 2022. Also see Aksoy, C. “Japan’s New Security Policy.” for more.

[xxvii] Akimoto, Daisuke. The Evolution of Japan’s Space Strategy Its Dual-Use Nature and Implications of the Japan-US Alliance.  Institute for Security and Development Policy. July 13, 2020. Accessed 18 March 2024.