September 28, 2011:
Japan recently launched another photo reconnaissance satellite, replacing a radar equipped spy satellite that failed last year. A Japanese rocket was used for this launch. Four years ago Japan launched its fourth spy satellite into orbit, also using a Japanese-made rocket. The third bird was launched five years ago. The first two were launched in 2003. The 2006 launch was the second of three optical reconnaissance satellites. The cameras on board can make out objects as small as one meter (39 inches) in diameter. The new photo satellite can detect objects .6 meters (two feet) in size. The best U.S. spy satellites can make out much smaller objects, but for Japan's needs, .6-1 meter is adequate. At this point, none of the four birds carry radar, to provide all weather coverage. Technically, the satellites are in violation of a 1969 Japanese law, which mandated Japan only use space for non-military purposes. To get around this, these satellites are technically non-military, and are not controlled by the military.
Japan had long refrained from launching military satellites, but this changed when North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan in 1998. Japan promptly set out to get eight surveillance satellites in orbit by 2006, in order to keep an eye on North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missile efforts. This proved impossible to do. While two Japanese satellites were launched in early 2003, another two were destroyed during late 2003, when the rocket malfunctioned.
Japan has long relied on commercial photo satellites, and whatever they could get from the Americans. But for high resolution shots, on demand, of North Korea, and electronic eavesdropping from space, they need their own spy satellites. It is believed that the Japanese spy satellites are also being used to watch military developments in China and Russia.
The Japanese program has cost nearly three billion dollars. The optical satellites weigh about a ton, while the radar one weighs about a third more. The United States provided a lot of technical assistance on the design and construction of the satellites. Japan built its own rockets to launch them. Like most spy satellite users, Japan does not report on how effective they are. It is known that Japan could get more detailed photos from commercial satellites. But those are not controlled by the Japanese government.