A sailor secures material recovered from a high-altitude balloon shot down off the South Carolina coast, Feb. 10, 2023.

A sailor secures material recovered from a high-altitude balloon shot down off the South Carolina coast, Feb. 10, 2023. (Ryan Seelbach/U.S. Navy)

TOKYO — Balloons seen in Japanese airspace between 2019 and 2021 are presumed to have been Chinese spy craft, Japan’s Ministry of Defense said Wednesday.

The balloons were spotted in Japan’s Kagoshima prefecture on Nov. 20, 2019; Miyagi prefecture on June 17, 2020; and Aomori prefecture on Sept. 3, 2021, the ministry said in a statement emailed to Stars and Stripes.

“As a result of repeated analysis, we have come to the conclusion that the balloons are strongly presumed to be unmanned reconnaissance balloons flown by China,” the ministry said.

The Japanese government has asked for confirmation from China and demanded no further such incidents. The incursions are “totally unacceptable,” the ministry said.

The U.S. military has shot down four flying objects over U.S. and Canadian airspace this month, including one that, officials say, was a Chinese spy balloon.

Releasing details of the process used to determine the origin of the craft spotted over Japan would reveal national defense capabilities, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters at a news conference Wednesday morning.

However, public broadcaster NHK, citing unnamed Defense Ministry sources, reported Wednesday that Japan relied on intelligence about the Chinese balloon that was shot down Feb. 4 by a U.S. fighter over the Atlantic Ocean off South Carolina.

Japan had not previously reported Chinese spy balloons in its territory, Kyodo News reported Wednesday.

“We will make greater efforts than ever in gathering information and conducting surveillance against balloons, including unmanned reconnaissance balloons by foreign governments, in the future,” the ministry said in its statement.

Japan’s air force is authorized to use weapons, including air-to-air missiles, when responding to airspace violations, Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said during a news conference Tuesday morning.

“Generally speaking, it can take necessary measures against a foreign balloon that enters our territorial airspace without permission if it is decided that such measures are necessary to protect Japanese citizens’ lives and property,” he said.

Taiwan has also said it would shoot down any suspected Chinese military objects approaching its shores, according to The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Wang Wenbin, spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Tuesday that the U.S. since May 2022 has at least 10 times illegally “released multiple high-altitude balloons from its territory, which have continuously circled the globe and flown over the airspace of China and other countries,” according to a news conference transcript on the ministry website.

He said the U.S. balloons flew over Chinese territory without “the approval of relevant Chinese authorities.”

John Kirby, the White House national security spokesman, afterward on MSNBC denied Wenbin’s claim of U.S. surveillance balloons over China. “Not true. Not doing it. Just absolutely not true," Kirby said in an interview on the “Morning Joe” program. “We are not flying balloons over China.”

Shooting down a Chinese balloon would lead to a backlash from China, according to James Brown, an international affairs expert at Temple University, Japan Campus, in Tokyo.

“Furthermore, there is a small risk of debris striking individuals or infrastructure on the ground,” he said in an email Wednesday, noting that Japan in June 2020 canceled plans to buy the Aegis Ashore missile-defense system due to fears that parts of inceptors could cause damage on the ground.

“I expect that Japan would prefer to respond by closely tracking the balloon and issuing a diplomatic protest to Beijing,” he said.

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Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.
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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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