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The small, neat island of Tanegashima, off the southern tip of Japan’s southernmost main island, Kyushu, is an outpost celebrated for witnessing the first meeting of Japan and Europe when a Portuguese ship made accidental landfall on one of the Bali-esque beaches in 1543. The Portuguese brought rifles that the locals copied and perfected. Tanegashima’s also big in the world of knives – the island’s smithies still ring to the sound of traditional labour, appreciated equally by well-paid chefs, connoisseurs of craftsmanship and, inevitably, the sort of people who hang samurai swords over their fireplaces. The best of all claims to fame of this baby atoll, though, is its newest: since 1969, Tanegashima has been home to the Japanese Space Centre, part of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the launch pad for its liquid-hydrogen-fuelled dreams of infinity.

And the uninitiated don’t need long to work out that this is where it all blasts off. Once you’re free of your pocket-sized prop-plane and making landfall of your own at Tanegashima’s small, neat airport you’ll find yourself surrounded by space’s cutesy commercial paraphernalia. Jostling with the noodles and bottles of Pocari Sweat at the airport shop are: astronaut key-rings, rocket pens, shuttle soap, beach towels boasting illustrations of the solar system, powdered space food spanning tonkatsu to toffee ice-cream and inflatable aliens. On the way to JAXA, past groomed fields of sweet potatoes and sugar cane, past hedgerows thick with wild flowers, past glimpses of palm-lined beaches, are monuments to space. Signposts in the shape of rockets, sculptures of rockets, shops that have nothing to do with rockets using rockets to decorate their frontages. You know you’re getting warm when you hit rocket topiary.

“People on the island are very proud of the space centre,” says Kazumasa Narita, JAXA’s 24-year-old press officer, “it makes them famous.” Success for a JAXA press officer could be ­measured in memorising truncated technical phraseology. For the next launch to achieve its goal, the H-II B rocket will blast away from the LP2 launch pad, propelling the HTV (H-II Transfer Vehicle) towards the ISS (International Space Station) where an SSRMS (Space Station Remote Manipulator System) will ­attempt to dock with the ISS via the CBM (Common Berthing Mechanism). One abbreviation out of place and you fear the whole mission could go TITS UP.

For the average two launches a year, Narita-san and three new colleagues look after 150 journalists clamouring for better access, to get that all-important foot closer to the roaring ­engines. What about when they’ve switched off their Dictaphones? What’s a big night on little Tanegashima? “Oh, it’s not very much – people just drinking sake or something,” says Narita shyly.

The island’s dense foliage and undulating topography make the hulking launch pads and retro-futurist concrete testing ­facilities seem like lumbering mythic beasts poking their ­terrifying heads around Ionian hillsides. Because while the structures are massive (LP2 features the world’s largest sliding door), the facility, in space centre terms, is a titch: only 2 per cent of Tanegashima’s area is given over to JAXA; the whole island is the same size as Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. And while we’re in hard-hat country, although the fences and controlled areas keep the sense of officialdom in the humid air, the atmosphere isn’t as paranoic as one might imagine Cape Canaveral or the Baikonur Cosmodrome still to be. Within earshot of the ocean surf squats a vast concrete blast-test amphitheatre, built to withstand an inferno. It is suggestive of obliteration, but it’s all civil, not military. It’s modest. It’s Japanese.

“In many countries, rocket technology is like missile ­technology, but not in Japan – we are limited to only peaceful purposes,” says Norio Sakazume, the director of the centre. The head honcho joined as an engineer in 1997 and, in April, came to be regarded as officer material through his speciality of designing and fine-tuning the LA7 series of engines, the white-hot machines that have powered 15 launches to starry success (the one failure, down to a malfunctioning inducer, was fished out of 3,000m of seawater and brought back to base for a self-flagellatory fine tooth-combing; “I was going home at 3am or 4am,” says Sakazume).

In the director’s large wood-panelled office, decorated with as many rockets in as many forms as are displayed on the drive from the airport to the base, it’s difficult not to think of the space programme as a military endeavour. The brute force of the boosters and the immense scale of the hardware seems too monstrous to be non-violent: Monocle’s witnessed launch is of an HTV supply vehicle propelled by a 56m-long, 530 tonne rocket – a tower block with a bomb-like engine beneath.

And the history of conflict, the Second World War, does play its role in the development – the relatively slow development – of the Japanese space campaign. To the victors the spoils, then: the US and USSR fought it out in increments of ­hi-technology, more-than-sky-high achievement, high drama, high dudgeon, iconic moments of human endeavour and mega expense. Beside this thinly-veiled, tit-for-tat militaristic big dick competition, Japan – as well as the highly successful ­European programme – was afforded a Zenish-otherness by being excommunicated from the space race, saving itself countless yen and very probably the lives of more than a handful of test pilots.

“Basically, this vehicle has the ability to launch mankind,” says Sakazume pointing to a H-II B model on his coffee table, “but the problem persists in Japan – ‘who should be the person to ride the first manned flight?’ In the US, Europe or Russia, if a test pilot dies he is applauded for his national service, but in Japan people cannot have such a thought – dying for the country has been taboo for a long time.”

Sakazume’s humble explanation of history’s echoing ­lessons goes a long way to explain why a nation renowned for technological wizardry and superior engineering lags behind in supplying the world with heroic examples of flag-planting upon the surface of our dusty pock-marked neighbour. Is he jealous of China and India for getting their men in space? “Well, if you look at this one flight then the Chinese succeeded,” demurs the director, “but, really, we have other focuses.”

And it’s partly true. One focus is light, efficient engines and fuselages – JAXA’s current best performance takes a rocket weighing 260 tonnes to launch a two tonne satellite payload, while the standard US-designed rocket weighs 780 tonnes but still only gets a two-tonner into space. It’s like a Prius taking on a Hummer.

In 2015, there will be a decision made as to whether to shoot a Japanese astronaut into space from a Japanese rocket (there is a Japanese astronaut, Koichi Wakata, residing in the International Space Station, but he caught a Nasa flight). If that decision is “hai” to the sky, 2025 has been set as the date for a manned launch from Tanegashima. As Sakazume says, the ability to launch a man into orbit exists in the lightweight, fuel-­efficient rockets for which Japan has become renowned, but the politics and cost – it’s 10 times more expensive to launch a man than a satellite – are currently prohibitive. But the diplomatic director isn’t without a caustic word for the competition, “We measure our competitiveness in cost, which we measure in ­materials and labour,” he says, “but in China and Russia it is measured in press.”

JAXA’s official goals of deep space exploration and research and development are laudable, possibly tactical sidesteppings of the tempting but hubristic urge to have your own Major Tom spinning in a tin can far above the world. But if space is the future, rather than just a fixation of Cold War commanders’ misplaced megalomania, then I’d rather Toyota was providing the transport than Lada or Tata or GM, frankly.

Timeline of Japan’s space place

1962: Kagoshima Space Center established. 1964: The Institute of Space and Aeronautical Science founded at the University of Tokyo. LAMBDA rocket launched, reaching an altitude of 1,000km. 1969: NASDA established at Tanegashima Space Center. 1970: L-4S-5 launched, putting Japan’s first artificial satellite OHSUMI into orbit (Japan was the fourth nation to succeed in satellite launch, following USSR, US and France). 1975: M-3C-2 launched, carrying TAIYO for observing soft X-rays and ultraviolet radiation. 1979: Opening of Space Museum at Tanegashima Space Center. 1982: Building of facility for launching H-I rockets at Tanegashima Space Center. 1985: M-3SII-1 succeeds in launching Japan’s first interplanetary explorer SAKIGAKE. 1991: M-3SII-6 launches solar observation satellite YOHKO. 1997: Astronaut Takao Doi performs Japan’s first spacewalk. 2003: JAXA formed to tie-in the three separate former Japanese space organisations, NAL, NASDA and ISAS. 2008: Astronaut Akihiko Hoshide flies on the Space Shuttle Discovery and Takao Doi flies on the Space Shuttle Endeavour to work on the International Space Station. 2009: H-IIB launches the HTV to supply food and essentials to the ISS.

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