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Hanging Out in Japan’s Space Village

Peter Timko
Knoxie le Roux
August 8, 20239:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)

“And this is the time I delivered 'unaju' to space.”

Noriaki Inami angles his laptop toward me and hits play. We both lean in to watch a grainy video clip of the classic boxed eel and rice dish majestically ascending into the stratosphere, the Earth’s cloudy horizon receding below. “We used a special balloon to deliver it. This was a promotional campaign to raise awareness about this company’s partnership with JAXA,” says Inami, adding somewhat suddenly, “Next year, it’s my turn, I’m going to space.”

As it turns out, Inami has been aiming for the stars for a long time. Back in 2005, he booked tickets to fly with Virgin Galactic. When the original flight was delayed, he spent the intervening years running his own space consulting business, INAMI Space Laboratory. Now, after a long wait, his launch date is approaching and he couldn’t be more excited — his business card lists his occupation as “future astronaut.” Still, he doesn’t see himself as a mere tourist. “I lost my leg a long time ago,” he tells me between sips of beer, “Here on Earth, I use a prosthetic, but in space things are different. I think it’s important to show how space can change our ideas about disability and that anyone can be an astronaut.”   

In another context, meeting a space mogul scheduled to be a groundbreaking astronaut would be surprising. But, on this particular night, Inami fits right in. We’re at Cafe & Bar Nagareboshi, a monthly meetup hosted by ABLab, a membership organization formed to bolster space business in Japan. Held at a small bar in Tokyo’s Suidobashi district, the salon brings together an interesting mix of space enthusiasts to drink, chat, and connect over their shared passion for a space-bound future. 

The Space Village

I came to ABLab through my work with the ARIES project, an ethnographic initiative tasked with exploring the many ways people and communities around the world relate to space exploration. As part of my research, I’m spending a few months in Tokyo to get a handle on what the Japanese space industry looks like as it steps into the new space era. Around the country, and especially in and around Tokyo, there’s a thriving ecosystem of ambitious start-ups, business networks, student organizations, and gathering spaces all working to put Japanese space operations on the map. Currently, this community is still fairly niche. In fact, many jokingly refer to it as the “space village” for how tight-knit and provincial it can be at times. And it’s true — after just a few weeks of hanging around various space events, I began seeing familiar faces, and becoming a familiar face myself.  

The space village wasn’t always there; it had to be built. Like other countries, a lot of this process was structured by the state. Japan has a long, storied history as a space power — NASDA, the country’s first space agency got its start in the early 70s, and JAXA, its successor organization, has been a major partner n the ISS and other high-profile missions. In 2010, the agency even pulled off the world’s first asteroid sample return mission with its Hayabusa probe, an impressive bit of engineering and an important scientific milestone. However, in the past decade or so, there has been a growing emphasis on fostering a private space industry.

A turning point began with the 2008 Basic Space Plan, which outlined the government's intention to build a domestic market for space-oriented business. Following this, the Japanese Diet has passed a series of laws and frameworks aimed at making commercial space operations a more enticing proposition for local firms. For instance, the 2016 Space Activities Act streamlines access to orbit while the 2021 Space Resources Act provides a legal path for private companies to explore, extract and use various space resources. These laws, alongside a slew of government grants and other financial incentives, are hoped to double the size of Japan’s space sector in the coming decade, with a rough target of a $21.1 billion dollar valuation by the early 2030s. 

The plan has met some success, Astroscale, headquartered in Tokyo, seems poised to construct and capture an anticipated market for orbital debris removal, while iSpace, another Tokyo-based company, is currently preparing a second lander mission to the moon. While these companies may be the most likely to make international headlines — after all, lunar landings, even uncrewed ones, are still quite the spectacle — the Japanese new space world includes much more. 

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My night with ABLab is a window into the neighborly side of the space village. My Japanese is conversational at best, and it only really excels if the conversation sticks to a select few topics, like what my name is and which objects are where. Still, mingling around the venue, I meet a wide range of people, each with their own connection to the cosmos. There’s a programmer creating blockchain tools for satellite data, an architect specializing in space station interiors, and interns from a small launch startup. Soon, the featured event of the night begins. It's a presentation and Q&A on space hygiene and cosmetics with Shintaro Teraoka of the Space Beauty Organization. He speaks of the challenges of living in orbit, how extraterrestrial environments could produce new beauty standards and the ways space-based research could make useful advancements for use on Earth. Everyone listens with rapt attention. Afterward, I make my way to the back of the room to chat with a pony-tailed engineer. He’s building an experimental propulsion drive in his garage. As we talk, I leaf through a large sheaf of hand-drawn schematics; while I can’t vouch for the technology either way, the dedication is definitely there.

The anthropologist David Valentine, writing on the early years of new space in the United States, observed the “remarkable solidarity” among space enthusiasts, noting that “young people who I saw enter the field as unknown volunteers in the first year of my fieldwork were rapidly assimilated… and came to be on first name terms with influential players in short order.” A decade later, my own fieldwork in Los Angeles found the industry had calcified to a degree; friendliness persisted, but the sector’s transition from fringe community to big business had instituted a more stratified social structure. In Tokyo, the community still feels small and fluid enough that a newcomer could easily find themselves sharing a beer with anyone, from a cosmic artist to a seasoned CEO.

From the Village to the World

While all this community and bonhomie is great at the personal level, there are frustrations, too. For all of Japan’s success in other industrial and technological fields, the country’s relatively small space industry is still trying to expand and find its footing on the world stage. There’s a general anxiety that if things don’t pick up, the space industry here may fall behind other growing space economies. Speaking to contacts around Tokyo, I hear a couple of different theories as to why. Some point to Japan’s more tentative approach toward entrepreneurship in general. And indeed, overall, the country’s economy is notable for producing fewer new businesses than its peers. Further, recent surveys have found that less than 8% of Japanese respondents felt their country offered good opportunities for startups, compared to nearly 50% in the US. As one observer put it at a space business happy hour,

“People here don’t want to take the risks, I know I don’t.”

Still, others point to a more subtle stumbling block: marketization. One hot day in July, I traveled out to Tsukuba, a city about an hour north of Tokyo that’s home to JAXA’s headquarters, to meet with a growing satellite communications company. The company’s chief technologist spoke of the pitfalls of being too reliant on the agency’s support. “Most companies here get their start contracting with JAXA — and JAXA has very high standards,” he explains. “So, companies get very focused on building these bespoke, perfect technologies and don't give a lot of attention to how to sell them, or how to make them scale.” I’d heard variations of this same sentiment numerous times in my few months in Tokyo. One night, I ended up chatting with a startup founder at Spacetainment Coffee, a space-focused co-working cafe in Harajuku. “We’re very good at technology, but very bad at marketing,” he told me with a soft, almost cautious tone, “we think if we build the best technology, people will come right to our door, but that’s just not true.”   

Despite these struggles, enthusiasm about Japan’s future in space continues to rise and real efforts are being made to position the country as a regional leader. In early July, I attended Spacetide, a space business conference put on by a Tokyo-based non-profit of the same name. The conference is the largest of its type in the Asia-Pacific region and this year’s was the the most well-attended event in the organization's eight-year history. The schedule was packed with speakers from around the world — there were the usual presentations from Amazon and NASA — but also an intense focus on Japan’s up-and-coming market. Potential investors could see presentations from Warpspace on its novel optical communications constellation and from Elevation Space on its newly produced re-entry vehicles. Eager students and young professionals could network and hand out resumes at a special career event. As a recruiter from iSpace told me, “We’re getting so much interest these days, it’s hard to keep up.”

After a long day at the conference, I went out for drinks with the organizers and several dozen young volunteers that helped the event run smoothly. Once again, I found myself in a room full of tipsy energy; table upon table packed with people excitedly sharing their passion for space. The small trio at my table showed the diversity at the event — here was a worker at Elevation Space, a specialist in private space insurance, and a JAXA engineer who specialized in deep space exploration but dreams of starting his own business. Over several rounds of highballs, we have a wide-ranging conversation. We touch on the day’s events (exciting, exhausting), iSpace’s recent crash landing (disappointing, still impressive), and the possibility of extraterrestrial life (definitely out there, probably not here). Finally, we get to the space village and what it may look like in the future. The consensus was optimistic, if a bit wistful.

“In Japan, space is still a dream for a lot of people, but it can be more,” one tells me, “a few years ago, the village was enough, but it’s time for us to step outside and meet the world.”

Peter Timko
Knoxie le Roux
August 8, 20239:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)