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To make Japan a hub for space travel; Mihoko Shintani, lawyer, speaks of next space business

We interviewed Ms. Mihoko Shintani, a lawyer knowledgeable in space business, about her background before becoming a space lawyer, motivations for her business, and her efforts in Space Port Japan Association (which she serves as a director, while working as a member of the TMI Associates).

Sorabatake interviewed Ms. Mihoko Shintani, a TMI Associates lawyer who is knowledgeable in space business, about the Space Law which began to attract people’s attention with the enactment of the two laws in 2016.

We heard Ms. Shintani about how she became a Space Lawyer, her motivation for her job, and her efforts at Space Port Japan, which she currently serves as a director while being a member of TMI Associates.

“Only way I could learn the space business was from the contract.”

―So, I heard that after you graduated Keio University School of Law, you received training at the Supreme Court, joined TMI Associates, and also experienced studying at New York Columbia University Law School. What led to your interest in studying about space law?

Credit : sorabatake

Before studying abroad, I dealt with many disputes related to intellectual property rights such as technology, brands, and entertainment. However, in experiencing the life in New York as a student, I came to think that I want to work for “Japanese Manufacturing” by seeing the enthusiasm of many excellent Japanese businessmen who had pride in Japanese products and worked hard in foreign country.

Next thing I wanted to do was to get trained at the US head office of a major heavy industry (hereinafter called Company A), but I had no connections. Fortunately, I heard that my senior friend had a business appointment with company A, so I asked to take my resume and requested a chance of interview. This was when I was in my early 30s.

―That’s a great enthusiasm.

Through the training, I heard from General Counsel that  “there is literally no Space Lawyer in Japan, and this situation may lead to the damage of national interest”. So, I made up my mind to become the first space lawyer in Japan, and returned home.

However, when I returned to Japan and said that I want to specialize in space business, I heard people say “that’s impossible! No one has ever done it before,” or “are you sure?” or “what were you doing abroad?” or ”wow, that’s a big dream (with cold stares)”.

Under such circumstances, Mr. Tanaka (lawyer, and the representative of our office) said “You can try it, but will need a lot of patience” and supported me with encouragement. I am grateful for the members in the office who offered me support since the very beginning.

Memo by Sorabatake

Among major law firms, TMI Associates is said to have a venture-like spirit.

―Getting involved in space related projects, did you feel any difference from other industries?

I found out that the risk sharing in outer space is set force in contracts. For example, satellite cannot be repaired once it is transported to outer space. For this reason, there is a difference in concept of satellite sales contracts from that of liability for warranties generally applied in civil law; I think the contract is well thought out.

Memo by Sorabatake

In general, when someone purchased goods or real estate without noticing defects (=in this case, defects that cannot be discerned by only looking at its appearance), it is able to ask the manufacturer or the seller for compensation or cancel the contract. However, this is usually not possible “after launching (=once the service is proceeded)” in the space business.

Space business practices such as this are rarely written in books or papers. Even in a single launch contract, there are clauses that states from completely different points of view; to give an example, like those between Space X and Ariane Space. Those differences may have been made due to their sales know-how. To become more familiar with the space business legal affairs, I needed to get more knowledge from “practical work experience”.

Then, at that time, I got an opportunity to give a written opinion about dispute in space business between private companies as a third opinion. To specialize in the space business in the future, I read a huge amount of materials thoroughly in a very short time, made full use of what I have learned, and put my brain into full gear and wrote the opinion with my junior lawyers who had been working with me around this time.

In the meeting with the Legal Department after submitting the opinion, the operations department members who read my written opinion also came, and so I had a chance to discuss with both of them. Fortunately, they recognized me as a person who understands the practice of space business, and considered that the opinion that I submitted might resolve the dispute with least damage.

Our team got officially hired as an agent for this dispute, and also got a chance to analyze the huge volume of space business contracts that the client had signed in the past. I can’t say anything about this dispute, but after it was resolved, I received many offers from other clients through recommendation. Business operators had always been my mentor since my life in New York. I learned a lot from this case too, including both practical and technical aspects.

Also, many lawyers and patent attorneys are now in charge of the project in the office as “space team”, owing to the efforts of the members who worked on the project with me.

What I am in charge of now are mostly aerospace related case, and I think everything is connection between people. I still am getting chances to study about space business everyday, through the jobs I get.

“My motivation is to leave the space industry in Japan’s future”

―By the way, what is that book you brought in today?

Gakken Manga Secrets of the Universe Credit : Sorabatake

Well, as a matter of fact, the first thing I got interested in when I was a child was about the universe. As a child, I felt like I was being controlled from somewhere distant (laughter*), and I wanted to know what was outside the outer space. So, before entering elementary school, I begged my parents that I wanted “Gakken Manga: Secrets of the Universe”. Unfortunately, I didn’t get it.

―Did your parents not buy Gakken Manga? (laughter*)

Ms. Shintani: Maybe I was so curious that it made my parents worry. A client who heard this story bothered to find it and send it to me!

To be honest, the past path up to the point now was sometimes too painful, and got depressed many times. However, I think I was able to hold out and try hard because I had a passion for the universe since I was a child.

―Please tell us more about your passion for space and your motivation for your work.

Actually, when I moved to New York was the same with my husband’s transfer, and my child was only one year old. Working on studies and raising a toddler at the same time was very difficult, and sometimes I shed bitter tears for there was too little time.

On the other hand, there was a point of view visible because I was raising my child. I thought of the world after my death, the world which our children will live; and I thought of what future we can leave for children in Japan. If we take a wrong step in selecting a turning point now, we may leave future Japanese children a country without freedom to access to the universe. This thought of mine lead to my activity in Space Port Japan.

Future pictured by Space Port Japan, the key of Japanese industry after the Tokyo Olympics

―I heard that you work as a director at Space Port Japan, which got established in 2018 and became a hot topic. Please tell us a little about the reason why you participated in it.

Memo by Sorabatake

A spaceport is a spacecraft landing site. The world’s first private space port was built in New Mexico(USA) in 2011. The site area is seven times larger than that of Narita Airport(Japan).

Reference:Spaceport America

Memo by Sorabatake

Space Port Japan(SPJ) is an organization which works for opening of a spaceport in Japan. There are 32 companies in member, including ANA Holdings Inc,  Airbus Japan, Dentsu Inc, and other local governments and venture companies.

I think it is necessary to establish a field which shows that Japan is essential in order to leave “space” as an “industry” in the era our children live. For this reason, I had been suggesting that “In-Orbit Servicing” including removal of space debris leads the field.

Also, as I heard someone say that “one who controls the spaceport may be the one to control the space business”, I felt it important for “industry to become a monolithic union”. So, I called on people around me who seemed to have the same feeling as mine, and we established the group.

I think space business is a global battle. If it is better to launch from abroad, it will go abroad and do so even if it is a Japanese company. To give an example, domestic(Japanese) language services and culture-based services are needed in internet business, but the space business does not require them.

Spaceport is an industry that has already been started all around the world. There are 12 spaceport located in the United States, and the preparation is under its way in England. I am sorry I cannot say anything now, but many things have been moving in Japan every day since the establishment of SPJ, and we are planning to make interesting announcements soon.

―I already have a feeling that it is going to be interesting from the way you talk. Is there any challenges in operating spaceports?

I think, after all, it is the fact that there are no rules regarding manned space flight. I want to start rule making at some point, because it takes time to establish a law.

However, performing manned space flight is not only the way to operate the spaceport. For example, opening spaceport which operates within existing aviation law as a business, such as doing spaceplane flight tests or launching small-sized rockets, is also considerable.

―What do you think is the key for Japanese spaceports to be admitted globally?

I think the key is Japan’s “high technology” and “cooperation with surrounding industries”. There are other countries in Asia which are considering to build spaceports. They may be supported through subsidies, and there are some countries which seems to have good condition as spaceport hubs.

However, Japan hasn’t lost yet. We have extended experience and high technology in space industry. To add more, spaceport is a place where spaceplane takes off and arrives; therefore, there is an opportunity for various industries to cooperate, such as tourism industry like hotels.

I’d say that it is a collective effort of Japan. When traveling around Japan, I would like to push observing a spaceplane at the spaceport as one of the sightseeing spots. After the 2020 Olympics, some companies are planning to participate to livin up Japan utilizing spaceport.

―You mean like going to see the space shuttle in the Kennedy Space Center when visiting Florida (laughter*).

What a Space Lawyer focus on in space business

―Are there any other space businesses you are interested in?

Credit : sorabatake

I’m interested in satellite data usage business. I am looking forward to seeing which company starts what kind of business. I think the company which produced the good idea wins the business in this field.

In the field of satellite data, I think global rules must be made before the resolution of satellite data increases more. Rules which balances the satellite data rights and privacy rights are necessary. Whether the industry grows or not may be determined depending on the rules, so we need to pay attention to the global trends.

As a practitioner, I want to avoid saying “sorry, it isn’t possible with the current law” when I am asked for my opinion. I want to think through how it can be realized.

―Finally, what do you think is needed for a development in Japan’s NewSpace business?

I am not an expert in business, but if I would give my opinion, I think it is “speed and money”. After all, it’s not easy to compete with dynamic businesses supported by huge funds led by Jeffrey Bezos and Elon Musk in the United States.

However, Japan has results in the space field that performed almost the same lineup with about 1/10 of NASA’s funds, even though it is small scale. I think it is possible for Japan to establish a leading position as a hub in Asia, by opening spaceports, for example, or to become an indispensable country in a particular field.

Moreover, legacy companies in Japan have accumulated funds and technical capabilities that are incomparable with those of start-up companies. I think actions such as collaboration between legacy companies and start-up companies and/or the participation of non-space industry stakeholders will help it realize the development in Japanese space business.

Credit : sorabatake

After the interview

What impressed me the most was that Ms. Shintani talked about the “connection with clients” many times through the interview. I think space related companies and business department members trust Ms. Shintani’s effort to put herself in the client’s shoes and understand space business, thinking about leading Japan’s space industry in a good direction as a most important thing.
I want to be prepared for the “interesting” announcement that Space Port Japan is planning to announce in the near future.

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