Et in Arcadia ego: In search of Sanrizuka

1

An airport is a peculiar place, a bubble where somnolent or excitable passengers in limbo sleepwalk between international hops. An airport is not a real place, it is somewhere between. Although it is supposed to be all about transport and aviation – in fact, even when flying, you are perpetually in transit. Airports are interludes, thresholds for departure or arrival, for stopovers and stretched-out hours of dull, unnecessary shopping while waiting for the next flying machine. But an airport is more than just a shell for conveyance of bodies and freight.

The airport is vessel of national pride and a symbol of a booming economy. And so it was with Narita, intended as another bauble on the Christmas tree of Japan’s post-war bonanza: the shinkansen, the Tokyo Olympics, the Osaka Expo… But it was not to be; the airport only eventually opened after a long delay, a third of its planned size, and following several deaths and countless arrests and injuries. The anti-airport protest movement, led by a coalition of New Left groups and local residents from villages in the Sanrizuka area, refused to give up, even after the state began to appropriate the land for the airport by force and not even after the airport opened for passengers.

anti narita airport sanrizuka protest airport movement japanese new left

Security measures remain high today. Visitors are stopped and ID-ed even before they enter the facility. This isn’t passport control. This is radical control. The movement continues, in the face of the expansion plans that would finally bring Narita to the size it was initially planned to be, three and a half decades on from its opening.

It is always tempting to regard large-scale construction projects, especially when funded by a bullish state, as a folly. For every triumph (the Berlin Reichstag), there is a flop (the Millennium Dome). For every acclaimed design, there is an eyesore. What is interesting in the case of Japan was not simply the vast slush fund for the construction industry the airport became, or how yet again a nation was left poe-faced when its grand schemes didn’t quite work out as planned — but that the whole affair might be symptomatic of the post-war disregard for the environment and rural culture. Japan after 1945 was a constant construction site that saw the mountains tunnelled, the rivers dammed, the shorelines concreted.

Apologists would have it that the “construction state” that Japan became after the War was another warped result of Westernization, much like the military fascism that led to the invasion of Asia. However, in Dogs and Demons the writer Alex Kerr argues that the environmental effects are symptoms not merely of economic cynicism and government corruption, but of a native Japanese obsession with control, especially when it comes to nature, which the culture believes or frequently portrays as harmonious only if tamed. What is the Construction State if not bonsai or ikebana run amok? Other nations with similarly high concentrations of volcanoes, seismic fault lines and other natural hazards do not engage with such destruction of their own soil. There would seem to be an sick dichotomy at the heart of wa (Japanese-ness) — both a love of nature visible in Zen gardens and the haiku poetry of Bashõ, and a destructive, constructive zeal for taming and engineering, with results that are literally more concrete.

It is worth remembering that even pre-industrial Japan was adept at building artificial islands and its overlords delighted in carrying out massive landfill schemes. Highways, malls, and bay developments might well be the arteries and stations of the new, but Japan has seemingly always been constructing monuments, always on the quest for a new project of some kind. The same lust for building that created castles at Osaka, Himeji and Azuchi extends to the present to the Tokyo Skytree and the Hikarie shopping complex in Shibuya that are trumpeted as major national events. Saying that, grandiose undertakings seem to accompany the rise of any civilization in history — consider the Pyramids or the ancient cities of the Aztecs or Incas.

Irrespective of theories of fountainhead, rural Japan has now become a mere nostalgic pipe dream, where urbanites or suburbanites drive out to remote locations to take part in “eco” experience weekends. You get to dress up as a farmer and find out what it is like to harvest rice. You get muddy and feel bucolic, imbued by a sense of the image of “old Japan” peddled by food and drink advertising.

This nostalgia wells from a spring — notions of the furusato. The furusato literally means “old village” but is much more than that. It is the old community, the native place; a hometown with a maternal aura, a congenial Eden. In Marilyn Ivy’s phrasing, it also colloquially forms something akin to the American idea of your “hometown”. [1] In Germany there is the concept of Heimat and perhaps furusato is not dissimilar. But furusato wistfulness ignores the complexities of agrarian history in Japan — the strife in the villages and the yonaoshi rebellions ignited by economic strictures. This imagined community conjures up a false landscape of fraternal bliss amongst the paddy fields, a united, classless rural Japan. And yet villages had headsmen and small landowners; they were all “poor” but nonetheless there were always disparities of have-not.

The advance of furusato nostalgia and its most overtly calculated manifestation, furusato-zukuri (programs and projects to “make native places”), has become stronger the more the population has shifted to the major cities, and the regional communities have withered. The prelapsarian furusato has become exotic and distant, but also, ever so slightly, an idea that stirs up tingles of guilt for the past citizens have left behind. (The general populace was not without concern for the effects of the economic boom it was benefitting from; a 1973 survey found that nearly sixty per cent of people believed that economic growth had more negative effects than positive, with environmental pollution cited as one factor. [2]) The LDP even introduced a proposal just about furusato in 1984 and then in 1985 set up the Furusato Information Center to promote rehabilitation of furusato with an annual budget of $4 million. [3] Television, media and advertising abound in programmes singing of the charms of regional Japan. In the 1970’s the ad agency Dentsū co-ordinated the promotional campaign Discover Japan for Japan National Railway (the predecessor of JR), which was immensely successful. [4] It advocated not collective travel — the famous images of Japanese tour groups — but solo adventures in search of lost landscapes of beauty and nature in the native backwaters. The economic drive was moving forward so rapidly that already for citizens, to visit the regions was like an act of exploration, a trip back in time. (And in some ways betraying the cynicism of the campaign, Discover Japan was launched in 1970 in part as a means for boosting domestic tourism and keep up the demand for the rail infrastructure that had been built around the mammoth World Exposition.)

discover japan jr rail japan advertisement campaign 1970's

An ad for the Discover Japan campaign. Note the tagline in the bottom left: “Beautiful Japan and I”. The campaign was inviting travellers to journey in search of a lost Japanese paradise, fusing nostalgia, mystery and adventure.

The rail and travel companies continue today to push imagery of pristine rural sights on vacationers who, when they arrive, will find fake historical streets, concreted rivers, familiar convenience stores – but one carefully frame-able photo spot. The furusato themselves have joined in this cajolery by adopting nicknames and mascot characters, and perhaps most of all, by turning regional cuisine into kitsch, defining a place predominantly by its specialty tastes. Japan’s prefectures have opened official food stores in Tokyo selling souvenirs (omiyage) so you can even enjoy a furusato experience without having to leave the city. If you do, well, then you get a “furusato” that is in fact more like a plaza selling photo opportunities and local delicacies in ready-made boxes for ease of taking back home on the shinkansen.

And if conservative nostalgia for the furusato and the village deserves to be challenged, so too does Marxist readings of the social structures that see only Tokugawa state versus oppressed peasant. Peasant rebellions were often versed in terms like yonaoshi — world rectification – but for the most part the flare-ups were sparked by levees and harsh conditions. Feudal Japan was patriarchal; appealing to your social betters often resulted in the local lord improving your plight, even if it might mean, such as in the case of brave Sakura Sōgorō, that you are put to death in the process.

Rural protest was often conservative; many of the farmers involved in the anti-airport movement were LDP voters. Likewise, some elements of Japanese ultra-nationalism was concerned with rural and environmental causes, and violently protested large corporations that trampled over countryside customs. All this made the mix at Sanrizuka particularly confused and new. There were a lot of voices at play during the height of the movement, and while things have calmed down considerably — the airport certainly isn’t going anywhere soon — the protest continues.

Unlike the almost parallel Discover Japan, the farmers of Sanrizuka were not being encouraged to take mystical journeys into the unknown realm of forgotten hometowns and ancient lands. Their Eden was being expropriated and they fought back, supported by hordes of radical students and workers who rushed to this endangered idyll.

Must I thus leave thee, Paradise?—thus leave
Thee, native soil, these happy walks and shades?

But Miltonian analogies only satisfy in part, not least because the land for the airport’s first phrase also included a large property owned by the Imperial Family. Moreover, this “Eden” is not “lost”; it’s still there, albeit much concreted and occupied. Demos continue to happen regularly. The protest movement even now publishes a weekly organ. Arcadia is suspended in transit. I took a trip into this plundered province.

2.

Look at any map of Chiba and you don’t see farms. You see golf courses. Sanrizuka is no exception; it is encircled by the gentile putting pastures. Chiba has become a place for recreation or aviation, for playing a round of golf or flying off to Saipan for a break. (Perhaps it is no mean coincidence that Tokyo Disney Resort is also located in Chiba.) Getting to Sanrizuka by train is impossible. The most feasible route is to change trains at Narita, leaving a carriage full of suitcase-borne, airport-bound vacationers, to catch the very infrequent trains that run along the Shibayama Line. The railway features only two stops, Higashi-Narita and Shibayama-Chiyoda, and is mostly financed by Narita International Airport as a sop for the residents who were cut off from Narita proper by the monolith of the airport. It has been awarded the distinction of being Japan’s shortest railway line, at just 2.2 kilometres. It ends on a raised slab of concrete in the middle of the countryside, with the airport on one side and Shibayama-Chiyoda Station below it. From here one must skirt around the entire south of the airport to reach Sanrizuka.

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

As I try to exit the small station I come up against a conundrum, that one of the busy over-convenience of modern urban living literally reaching the end of the line. There is no IC card reader at the ticket gates. How am I to zap my Suica, my magic green pas that ordinarily facilitates my daily sojourns through the rail arteries of Tokyo? No one is about. I am flustered, for a moment rudely thrust back into the recesses of recent history — in truth, a mere handful of years ago — when transportation relied on flimsy paper tickets that you fed into the ever-hungry slot. I call out, meekly. An elderly face pops out of the window next to the two-lane barriers (one in, one out, though neither feels harassed by the press of passenger bodies). This elder statesman of the Chiba railways is not apparently not in the least shocked by my blue eyes or my white skin. “What should I do?” I ask him in Japanese. “I came with this.” I hold up my redundant IC card, sheepishly now since it is fully charged with digital “money” but void here in the sticks, technology having been exposed for the charlatan it is. “Sorry,” he apologises, “you can’t use that here.” He is sincere and fusses out a little slip of paper for me. I pay the difference from my transfer at Narita — the JR fare having already been deducted when I entered the gates there — and I am left with this odd voucher in the hand. Its awkward size, halfway between a regular ticket and a formal receipt, makes it hard to fit in my wallet. He has handwritten the station name on it and instructs me to give it in where I next use my IC card, so they will know why my digital “self” is trying to enter a station without having “exited” yet. The attendant is old and thin, but unhurried. Even in these sans-IC card wilds, there is a procedure for things.

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

In front of the station, visitors are greeted by a roundabout car park, nondescript except for the statues of haniwa in the middle, advertising the kofun (burial mound) sites to be enjoyed in the area. These haniwa figures, models of those enclosed in the ancient barrows of Japan, dot the road, their hands held up like incomplete primitive mannequin, their mouths agape nonsensically.

It is actually possible to skirt around the whole of the airport, walking along busy roads and high fences, laden with barbed wire and CCTV cameras, but also with the lush, abundant vegetation such as airports seem to tolerate at their fringes. It is a kind of no-man’s land, the occasional runner or cyclist breaking the monotony of vehicles. A pedestrian is in border country. It is both noisy from the planes taking off and also eerily quiet from the absence of life. A single old woman farmer — septuagenarian? octogenarian? — stoops in her patch of soil to deal with her radish crop. But otherwise it is just traffic and warehouses on one side, eternal metal enclosure on the other. A pedestrian might be taken for a madman walking this route in a country of void — or perhaps an eager plane-spotter, hoping to get an esoteric angle for his shots.

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

I recall Apter and Sawa’s description of the airport from the early 1980’s. The tension remains, though the main paraphernalia of the protest movement has been (forcibly) dismantled. At that point the second runway was not yet built and there were lots of huts surrounded the ground that had been appropriated or purchased for the first phase of the construction.

On desolate patches of land one sees billboards in huge, angry Chinese characters that proclaim the people’s struggle against the airport. In the middle of a field adjacent to the airport where three farmers still live, there is a huge windmill built by militants as the symbol of the Hantai Dõmei [the anti-airport protest league]. The road around the area is heavily guarded, giving the airport a besieged look. There is a feeling of tension at every turning of the road, every path, every gate. If as a solitary walker you were to explore the road, you would be followed by two sets of binoculars, those of the militants from their fortresses and those of the police from their steel watchtowers. You would probably be followed by a police jeep or offered rides by detectives in civilian dress. If you drove in a car driven by a militant from one of the sects, you would probably be followed or stopped and questioned by the police. [5]

The surveillance continues and if you hang around certain spots you may be followed. I at least did not see any cars, though the state was there, even in this wilderness.

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

A couple of kilometres from Shibayama-Chiyoda Station you come across a bizarre stark white stupa, utterly incongruous in this abandoned landscape. And then right by the stupa there is the entrance to the Museum of Aeronautical Sciences, marked by colourful airplane replicas that welcome cars of families on the weekend. Up the slope to the museum and you find a lot filled with numerous small aircraft that visitors can climb into and experience. Japan is full of museums and monuments. Often the museums are just that, monuments — to an area’s pride or hubristic schemes to attract crowds simply to see something new for its own sake. It often feels like every minor town has its own museum or cultural centre, or both. And frankly, that hunch is probably growing more accurate each year, since the country has been on a decades-long museum binge. There were 3,449 museums in Japan by 1997, which had then increased to 5,614 by 2005. [6] They sit like the “lifeless things” described in Ozymandias, surrounded by barren economic wasteland.

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

The Museum of Aeronautical Sciences is not quite the “colossal wreck” as imagined by Shelley. At least it has buoyant paraphernalia in the shape of its hands-on outdoor exhibits. Tucked away at the other side of the car park is a much smaller and more muted affair, the Narita Airport and Community Historical Museum. The facility opened in June 2011 and attracts people partly as a sideshow to the Museum of Aeronautical Sciences. As of 2013 (when I visited), it had welcomed 20,000 visitors. [7]

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

It is a sincere place that neither glorifies nor glosses over the details of Narita’s trouble conception. On the one side of the one-floor, one-room museum are panels in crimson with titles such as “Days of Confrontation”, in which are explained the major episodes of the protest movement and with exhibits of many of their tools. You can see an oil drum that was beaten with a stick to call locals to a muster should developers or police arrive. There are actual banners and texts used during the early campaigns. (The exhibits have been donated by elements of the protest movement that eventually negotiated with the airport authorities; Hantai Dõmei, like seemingly all Japanese radical movements, was not free from fracturing and factionalism.) However, it is a fact that with the creation of such a museum and its “presentation” of the events, the struggle has truly evolved from one that is active to one that is memorialized — one where the demo gear of helmets are no longer worn but put on display beside used Molotov cocktails. In the middle of the space is an emaciated tree, rescued from the airport site and enshrined here like a kind of animistic relic. Meanwhile, planes take off metres away, the noise rumbling through the small building every few minutes.

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

The other side of the museum is more positive, charting the history of the airport after it opened in panels that are a calmer blue, and filled with statistics about passenger numbers and other “fun facts” for the anorak. Ultimately what emerges is a tale of strength and triumph following much adversity, that after so much hardship, it seems the struggle to build the airport was worth it in the end. And so we have such a section as the one titled “A Ray of Light Shed in the Community”, focussing on the favourable effects on the community, like the revival of festivals and a running competition held around the airport in 1996.

And for a museum that attempts to introduce a period of immensely assertive activism and antagonism, it does not resist the Japanese love for domestic neatness. Visitors take off their shoes at the entrance, placing them into lockers and wearing slippers in the exhibition area. Order prevails in the end; the inner (uchi) remains protected from the outsider (soto).

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

The museum is located in Iwayama, not far from where the protestors’ giant steel pylon stood. The base of it remains, though it is locked behind a large gate and one cannot get close. The planes literally take off and soar into the sky right over it. A gaggle of jaunty elderly day-trippers on a walking tour approach. Given their generation, it is tempting to think for a moment that they too have come to see the steel cadaver but instead they pass by, no doubt on their way to the aeronautical science museum. I move on.

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

Many countless towns around Japan have fallen victim to the rural curse of an ageing population and agricultural decline. Sanrizuka and its surrounding villages and hamlets might too have been yet further examples of this if the airport had not come along to make their narrative a wholly different one. But like the DMZ in Korea, another contested borderland, nature has entered to reclaim the peculiar space of the airport in general. While Narita’s further development remains in limbo — and the facility in high-security mode — nature is free to indulge in that most satisfyingly smug of environmental inevitabilities: the process of rewilding not planned as conservation, but one of nature creeping back to make lush what was tamed.

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

You can continue skirting round from Iwayama to Sanrizuka, though the route is desolate for the most part. I encounter three policemen in riot gear, forming a kind of ad hoc checkpoint along the perimeter road. Asking for permission to pass through, they are surprised to be even noticed but give assent. Further along, there is a hill with a viewing platform for plane-spotting photographers. By the time you turn left on the road and away from the airport at last, you are keen to encounter any form of civilization that is not an airport facility. Instead there is a pachinko parlour, long closed, and a love hotel discreetly tucked down one alley, its sign promising couples a romantic view of the planes landing and taking off from their room.

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

At Sanrizuka’s junction itself there is a memorial park and museum dedicated to the old imperial pasture, which had once existed in the area and hosted experimental farming and respected visitors. The bulk of the estate was handed over to the Airport Authority during the first phase of development. It is said that the late Hantai Dõmei leader Issaku Tomura’s house remains but I searched in vain, having only the vaguest of directions on a hand-drawn map, and there was no one around to ask except passing motorists who showed no signs of stopping in the town. A walking foreigner was so unusual in Sanrizuka that bicyclists would ring their bell, though whether in warning or greeting, it was hard to tell.

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

sanrizuka narita airport protest movement sites

Photo: William Andrews

WILLIAM ANDREWS

[1] Marilyn Ivy, Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan (University of Chicago Press) [1995], p.31
[2] Ando, Takemasa, Japan’s New Left Movements: Legacies for civil society (Routledge) [2014], p.142
[3] Jennifer Robertson, It Takes a Village: Internationalization and Nostalgia in Postwar Japan, in Mirror of Modernity, edited by Stephen Vlastos (University of California Press) [1998], p.116
[4] Ivy, p.34 passim
[5] Apter, David E; Sawa, Nagayo, Against the State: Politics and Social Protest in Japan (Harvard University Press) [1984], pp.23-24
[6] Kerr, Alex, Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan, first published in 2001 (Hill and Wang) [2002], p.223. Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT), Present Status of Museums in Japan [2008], p.1
[7] Conversation with museum staff

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