Narita Airport is currently swamped on a daily basis with international arrivals as Japan, especially Tokyo, enjoys unprecedented numbers of foreign tourists, a trend which is surely going to roll on until the 2020 Olympics. In spring 2015, the airport generated much fanfare when it opened a new low-cost carrier terminal fitted out with a funky “running track” interior design. How many of those arriving or departing from the now hip and bustling Narita are aware of the blood and tears that lie beneath its tarmac is debatable, though a documentary film released in 2014 has returned the remarkable story of the campaigning farmers and their various student and other allies to the public eye to a certain extent.
It is now fifty years since the government finalised its decision to build an international airport in the Sanrizuka area of Chiba. Take a walk around the airport and you still encounter some evidence of the continued resistance: disputed strips of land that are preventing a third runway; riot police standing guard.
But history has taken its toll. The original generation of protest leaders is dying off. And just like human flesh, metal and concrete also erodes and ages. It was recently announced that the former control tower will be demolished in 2018. This was the citadel of the airport, once occupied in a bravado raid by protesters in March 1978. The invaders heavily damaged the control tower’s equipment and the airport opening, scheduled four days later, was postponed by another three months.
The whole incident involved thousands of protesters and police at different parts of the airport. One activist died from burns after he drove a flaming truck into a gate. Footage of the event is extraordinary, all swirling colours of helmets and battalions of activists and police charging each other in scenes reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. The audacious saboteurs — from the Fourth International Japan faction — barricaded themselves in and unfurled a hammer and sickle flag from the control tower while a helicopter rescued the employees who had taken refuge on the roof.
It was the final gasp of the crusade to block airport, which was viewed not only as a trampling of farmers’ rights but an incursion by the imperialist and capitalist state as well as an extension of the American war machine in Asia. The airport did open, of course, though delayed by years and a fraction of its originally intended size. (It has still to reach the scale of the initial plans.) The protests continued into the 1980s against the state’s efforts to open a second runway and expand the airport. These too ultimately failed but the Kitahara faction of the protest movement is still vehemently opposed to compromise, and likely only death will make them give up their struggle.
The former control tower stands at a height of around sixty metres. It was used until 1993, when it was replaced by another tower and instead employed as a ramp control tower to guide airplanes in the parking area, lingering on the skyline like an Ozymandias monument to this folly of follies out in the Chiba hinterland. This summer, construction is due to start on a new tower to replace it and another chapter closes on the trauma of Sanrizuka.