What could Japan do about foreign spy balloons over its territory?

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What could Japan do about foreign spy balloons over its territory?

  • A white balloon-like object (left) seen over the city of Sendai in June 2020 looks remarkably similar to the suspected Chinese spy balloon (right) that was shot down Sunday after overflying a portion of the United States. | KYODO; CHASE DOAK / REUTERS / VIA KYODO

When the United States shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon over the weekend, it prompted many to wonder: Could something similar happen in Japan?

Under law, Japan can scramble fighter jets to deal with any foreign intrusion into its airspace — from fighter jets and drones to balloons and other “aircraft.”

“If (an object), even if it’s a foreign balloon, intrudes into our airspace without permission, it would be considered a violation of our airspace, which we would counter with measures such as scrambling fighters,” Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki said during a regular news conference Monday.

Article 84 of the Self-Defense Forces law, which governs the military, allows it to take measures necessary to ensure that a foreign aircraft violating Japanese airspace is forced to land or leave. Balloons and drones are considered aircraft in such cases.

But Tokyo has been vague on whether the government can specifically order the SDF to shoot one down.

“We will do what we can do, appropriately on a case-by-case basis,” Defense Ministry press secretary Takeshi Aoki told a news conference Friday.

Japan may even have already seen Chinese spy balloons over its skies, including two instances of remarkably similar design.

Mysterious balloon-like objects have been spotted in Japan at least twice in the past — in June 2020 in Sendai and in September 2021 in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture — causing a stir and prompting users on social media to ask if the objects were UFOs. In 2019, an official with the Sendai Space Museum in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, also posted a photo of a balloon-like object on its website.

Sendai, Hachinohe and Satsumasendai are all home to a number of SDF camps, including air bases.

Images of the balloons from 2020 and 2021 show an uncanny resemblance to the one shot down over the weekend in the U.S.

Asked about how Tokyo dealt with the past reported incidents, Isozaki did not give anything away, saying only that Japan wanted to keep its cards close to its chest in terms of its tracking capabilities.

“I would decline to comment on the details of what the SDF did back then because it would reveal how we react,” Isozaki said, adding that the government decides which cases to disclose based on a number of considerations.

But he also said that Tokyo is looking into a possible link between those past cases and the most recent suspected Chinese spy balloon in the U.S.

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