TOKYO (AP) _ Japan will begin a research program this year aimed at possible development of its own space shuttle, a government official said Thursday.

In fiscal 1987, which begins next month, money for shuttle research will be included in the national budget for the first time, Masami Uemura of the Science and Technology Agency said.

Japan has depended on the U.S. space shuttle program in its plans for manned space flights and transport of material into space. However, a flight by a Japanese astronaut on the U.S. shuttle, originally scheduled for later this year, was postponed to 1991 after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in January 1986, Uemura said.

''We will decide whether to actually develop our own shuttle based on the results of the research,'' he said.

If Japan does decide to build a shuttle, it will not be ready until the early 21st century, Uemura said.