Airbus and Boeing may face new competition from Japan. The Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry recently announced plans to invest 4 trillion yen ($26.46 billion) to establish a public-private partnership for the development of next-generation hydrogen-powered aircraft.

According to AFP, the ministry stated in a declaration: “It is important for us to manufacture the next-generation aircraft based on Japan’s competitive technologies while contributing to the decarbonization of air transport.”

Japan expects the new sustainable aircraft development to be completed after 2035.

Japan’s last commercial aircraft project was the YS-11 turboprop airplane in 1962, developed to replace the discontinued Douglas DC-3 and performed well domestically. However, the company faced challenges after the appreciation of the yen made it difficult to sell overseas. Production of the YS-11 ended in 1973, but the aircraft had a long service life, with its last commercial flight in 2006.

Japan’s latest aircraft development project—the Mitsubishi SpaceJet—failed to take off as planned due to some development issues and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries announced last year the termination of this highly anticipated project. However, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs believes the abandoned SpaceJet project provides a rationale for aircraft projects that share risks between private and public sectors and rely on international cooperation.

Aiming for Hydrogen Power

Japan’s plan is ambitious. The new project aims to develop a new technology aircraft: hydrogen-powered aircraft, aligning with Japan’s plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

Iwata Kazuyuki, Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry, stated: “In new business areas of carbon-neutral technologies including hydrogen, our goal is to take a leading position.”

Airbus has also announced plans to develop a hydrogen-powered aircraft by 2035 and to start operating an A380 hydrogen test bench by 2026. Boeing is more reserved, predicting that hydrogen-powered flight may not commence until 2050.

Hydrogen fuel is an attractive option because the aviation industry aims to reduce carbon emissions by 2050. Hydrogen combustion does not emit carbon dioxide, allowing airlines to offer zero-carbon flights.

Hydrogen is not the only sustainable option for the project. Relevant departments have stated that research will be conducted on the most feasible fuel options. An official from the Ministry of Economy told AFP, “There is no specific decision yet, but possibilities include hybrid, hydrogen combustion, and hydrogen fuel cells.”

Shortly before Japan announced this news, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) embarked on a tour of six Southeast Asian countries with its C919 and ARJ21 regional jets, having kicked off the activity at last month’s Singapore Air Show.

As Boeing and Airbus face production challenges, COMAC clearly sees an opportunity to attract new customers. It remains unclear whether Japan can timely develop a competitive new fuel technology aircraft to meet the demands of airlines.

Minister Iwata stated: “For sustainable growth of the Japanese aircraft industry, we cannot be content with our position as a component supplier.”