Japan had long voiced concerns about continuing to rely on one of the best known satellite-based navigation systems around, namely the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) that went operational in 1995. Back then Japan was, as it is now, fairly explicit about developing equivalent indigenous capability in case it was cut off or denied access.
The country’s quest for technological independence materialized in the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS). The National Space Policy Secretariat in the Cabinet Office calls it the “Japanese GPS,” one of a handful of other Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) systems around the world like Russia’s GLONASS, Europe’s Galileo, India’s NAVIC, or China’s Beidou.
It may be less well known, but QZSS is one of the top priorities of the Japanese government. Like its counterparts, it is aimed at providing highly precise and standalone PNT service across all of Japan, East Asia, and Oceania, irrespective of physical, geographical, rural or urban terrains. As elsewhere, its uses will include economic and national security, as well as anything in which accurate positioning and/or timing is critical: transport navigation, mapping, traffic control, finance, banking, topographical surveys, personal and public safety, crime fighting, climate research, natural disasters, military targeting, and so on.
Over the long run, an integral part of QZSS development is the parallel effort to advance and deepen the infrastructure of geospatial information. Japan enacted the Basic Act on the Advancement of Utilizing Geospatial Information (AUGI) in May 2007 with this goal in mind. All of this is recognized as part of the national critical technology, according to the Satellite Positioning Research and Application Center (SPAC). SPAC has been working to help build and institutionalize a geospatial information society across the domestic and international market since its formation in February 2007.
Meanwhile QZSS infrastructure is already being put in place. In September 2010, the first QZSS satellite (Michibiki) was launched. In February 2017, JAXA transferred its control to the Cabinet Office, which began trial services a month later. The objective is to form a looped figure-8, stretching from Northeast Asia down to Australia, with one satellite always near the zenith over Japan for full time coverage. A functioning constellation is projected to go into place in 2018. While the system has always been billed as complementary to GPS, Japan wants a constellation of seven satellites in the early 2020s; with that number the country can replace the U.S.-based GPS and achieve sustainable and standalone regional PNT on its own.