The Globally-Aware Island: An Earthzine Conversation With Japan’s Shin Aoyama

Deputy Director-General of Japan’s MEXT, Mr. Aoyama

Deputy Director-General of Japan’s MEXT, Mr. Aoyama


This month’s G-8 summit in Japan put Earth observation on the big screen – thanks in part to encouragement by Japan’s government, which played host to the annual meeting of heads of state from the world’s richest nations. Earth observation’s place on the agenda was not a complete surprise. Japan is a leader in forging international partnerships to enable Earth observing missions, as well as a proponent of the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO).


To learn more about Japan’s Earth observation programs and philosophy, Earthzine contributor Peter Fairley interviewed Shin Aoyama last month by telephone at his Tokyo office in Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). Mr. Aoyama, Deputy Director-General of MEXT, represents Japan within GEO. In addition he oversees a wide range of large-scale research and development projects ranging from disaster prevention to Japan’s contributions to the International Space Station to nuclear fuel recycling.

Q&A

Earthzine: You were involved in planning for this month’s G8 Summit meeting in Hokkaido, which focused on climate change. Are world leaders aware of the key role of Earth observation?

Aoyama: Yes. Actually our Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda visited Yokohama where they have the Earth Simulator, the supercomputer system to predict and recognize what is happening on the global scale. He was really impressed by the fact that this global issue cannot be avoided because of the system’s inertia, and by what we are doing on global Earth observation.

Earthzine: Was Earth observation on the agenda at the G8 meeting itself?

Aoyama: Yes. There was some deliberation on the environment and global observation issues. And in the official communiqué G8 leaders pledged to accelerate efforts to meet growing demand for Earth observation data by accelerating development of the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). It also affirms their support for capacity building for developing countries in Earth observation.

Earthzine: Let’s talk about Japan’s Earth observation program. Japan has made significant contributions to Earth observation R&D through successful programs such as the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, a joint initiative with NASA, and the joint ESA-Japanese EarthCare mission. What is MEXT’s philosophy for developing national technological and economic infrastructure while also promoting such international cooperation?


“We need a sustainable life on this Earth
and we need Earth observation to keep
our activities within a sustainable manner.
This issue is global.”

Aoyama: We need a sustainable life on this Earth and we need Earth observation to keep our activities within a sustainable manner. This issue is global. No single nation can design or afford a perfect Earth observation system because the Earth system is complex. We need as many eyes as possible and we need as many participants in Earth observation as possible. This is why we support GEO. The number of countries and organizations participating in GEO is getting bigger and bigger and for space-based observation in particular there is the non-binding organization for satellite launching agencies, CEOS, which is working very well. So I think at this moment we have a very good situation.

Earthzine: Why is water such a big focus for Japanese Earth observation?

Aoyama: Water is one of the big issues in the Asia-Pacific region. I’d like to refer to one thing that Prime Minister Fukuda noted during the first Asia-Pacific Water Summit held last December in Beppu, Japan. He said that Asia-Pacific region enjoys spectacular growth and prosperity but at the same time the region is facing various water-related issues. He said there can be no escaping the fact that the situation is extremely severe and highlighted three important responses: securing safe and clean water resources, countermeasures for water disasters, and enduring water supplies for agricultural use.

Japan itself is in eastern Asia and the monsoon has very significant effects on our water system. We really need to know what’s happening and what is going to happen in this area. That is why Professor Toshio Koike at Tokyo University and others are the main engines promoting the Asian Water Cycle Initiative (AWCI).

Earthzine: Can you describe what the AWCI is?

Aoyama: At this time it’s in a demonstration stage. The 17 participating countries each registered one river in their territory and then share all data relating to its flow. All of the participants integrate the data with other Earth observation data and analyze it to provide useful information to reduce flood damage, or to manage irrigation. This is showing very concrete water management outcomes.

Earthzine: It will become a broader effort looking beyond river flows?

Aoyama: That’s right.

Earthzine: Why is it helpful to work together as a region?

Aoyama: Many countries in Asia lack a well-developed water management infrastructure. AWCI is an opportunity to step up to the very latest technological level.

Earthzine: Looking beyond water management, Japan must also respond to a broad range of natural disasters, including not just typhoons but also tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Does Japan have Earth observation technologies for disaster mitigation and response that could serve as models for other nations?

Aoyama: We are an Earthquake-prone country. The recent quakes in Szechuan China a few weeks ago and last month’s Iwate-Miyagi Inland Earthquake in northern Japan helped renew memories of the Great Hanshin Earthquake that hit Kobe in 1995, killing more than 6,400 people and destroying over 100,000 buildings. After that earthquake the Japanese government formed a headquarters group for earthquake research to unify observation research activities at various public institutions and universities in Japan. Earthquake data is quite important to understand the earthquake processes and to know what scale of earthquakes could happen in the future and in what kind of time frame. So the MEXT is promoting R&D for Earthquakes and other natural disasters at the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention (NIED). They have developed the world’s best and most dense seismograph networks and provide observation data to the concerned authorities in Japan and researchers. With that data the researchers are reporting a number of findings on active faults and ocean trench quakes.

The NIED and the Japanese Meteorological Agency jointly created the Earthquake Early Warning System that went into operation last October to issue earthquake alerts immediately after the occurrence of earthquakes and protect residents before strong tremors arrive. The warnings can also trigger a prompt slowing-down of trains and an emergency stop of elevator cages at the nearest level. In the recent Iwate-Miyagi Inland Earthquake school children some tens of kilometers away from the epicenter were able to escape from the earthquake damage.

To mitigate earthquake damage NIED has also developed a testing facility called E-defense which can shake life-sized buildings and infrastructural systems under real earthquake conditions and stand as a tool of ultimate verification. This is a kind of huge table that is vibrated three-dimensionally by actuators. Nowadays with these seismographs scattered around the nation we have the input data to reproduce the motions during an earthquake. So far experiments have been carried out with multistory steel frame buildings, wooden houses, a bridge, reinforced buildings and so on and the results are being incorporated into the redesign and refurbishment of existing infrastructure. We are bringing more knowledge to construction sites.


“In order to think about countermeasures
for global warming you need to have more
sophisticated or detailed data or information.”

Earthzine: How will GEOSS, the international system of systems that GEO is developing to share and integrate Earth observation data, affect Japan’s earth observation programs?

Aoyama: Our highest authority for deliberating science and technology policy, the Council for Science and Technology Policy that is chaired by the Prime Minister, finalized its Earth observation strategy two months prior to the completion of GEO’s 10-year implementation plan for GEOSS. So we have a similar strategy and program. You cannot find basic differences in the policies of Japan and GEO.

Earthzine: So Japan’s policymaking already factors in GEOSS?

Aoyama: Yes.

Earthzine: Does that mean there is less pressure to make Earth observations?

Aoyama: Actually on the contrary. We need to have more sophisticated Earth observing systems. We need to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions or energy consumption so we need to have more sophisticated systems to assess what kinds of activities are the sources for the carbon dioxide emissions in a regional sense and what kind of consequences they may have on the regions. In order to think about countermeasures for global warming you need to have more sophisticated or detailed data or information.

Earthzine: Are you concerned about the sustainability of GEOSS under a voluntary organization such as GEO? Will countries continue investing in Earth observation?

Aoyama: Yes, as long as the system is needed by the participants. At this moment we suffer from very stringent financial conditions but actually we can keep our Earth observations in an appropriate manner along with the GEOSS development I think. This is a very big point for Japan and also for the rest of the members of GEO.

Also remember that the technology is developing rapidly. You could not imagine say five years ago the kind of 100-year projection of global warming on a very full-color screen provided by the Earth Simulator. In five years we will have various new technologies at hand for the Earth observation to get a much more detailed image of the global system.

Earthzine: One foundation to realizing the societal benefits of GEOSS is its promotion of free and open access to data. How is Japanese data policy evolving?

Aoyama: The Japanese data policy is quite simple. We have an act on access to information held by administrative organs. This defines non-disclosure information and information held by the national government that is not in this category shall be made public. I think we can find a way to share and make free access of data from the Earth observations.

Earthzine: Do you think the public hears enough about Earth observation? Does it get the public attention that it merits, or needs?

Aoyama: When the IPCC received the Nobel Peace Prize with the former Vice President of the United States, Mr. Gore, the global warming projection of the future Earth from the Earth Simulator was broadcast several times in Japan and the Japanese people really got accustomed to knowing or feeling what is happening on this Earth. This kind of public outreach opportunity is quite important and the Prime Minister Fukuda is mentioning global environmental issues in every corner of his activities. I think this is very good. This is something for the people of the world.

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