The Narita Airport protest movement, or the Sanrizuka struggle, is probably the longest social movement in Japan. Many believe it is consigned to the past, an iconic yet extinguished part of the radical militancy of the 1970s. That is wrong. Yes, the figures in the movement are dying off (after all, the movement started five decades ago). But the movement is alive, albeit non-violently. The protests by residents and far-left activists continue in the form of rallies and marches as well as lawsuits, publications and more. A demonstration is scheduled for 14 October in Narita City and will certainly come with a large police escort.
In addition to this animate aspect, however, the Sanrizuka struggle also represents a problematic and unresolved trauma for the nation-state, local area, activists and police. People are still attempting to come to terms with what happened during the most turbulent years of the movement. The recent documentaries The Wages of Resistance: Narita Stories and The Fall of Icarus: Narita Stories in part addressed this from, respectively, the experiences of the now-ageing farmers and the far-left activists.
We had a reminder of the lingering unsettled state of affairs during the early hours of 13 September, when one of the two runways at Narita was closed for three hours after an unexploded shell was found buried in the ground.
Contractors stumbled upon the shell while drilling at night. Japanese media reported that it closely resembles the kind of homemade mortar (hakugekidan or hishōdan) commonly used by far-left groups during the militant protests against the airport. Is the shell a leftover projectile fired (largely symbolically) by Chūkaku-ha or Kakurōkyō, the two main far-left groups involved with the Narita protests?
Leading up to the airport opening in 1978, residents and activists fiercely resisted the land surveys and expropriations, leading to many arrests, injuries and deaths (on both sides). Even after the airport had started operating, the fight did not simply ebb away. Activists besieged the airport in “solidarity huts”, maintaining a vigilant watch over the employees, police and residents (for signs of betrayal). Militant acts of sabotage, arson, small bombs and mortar attacks continued through to the 2000s, with a prominent spike in the 1990s. Each new stage in the airport expansion, such as building the much-delayed second runway in the 1980s, prompted fresh mass protests. It is worth remembering that the scale of the airport is still not as large as was originally planned and that, if nothing else, the protracted movement has succeeded in preventing that from coming to pass.
But of the 40 million passengers and 250,000 flights that pass through Narita each year right now, how many know this history, let alone the movement’s current status? Churned up in the soil of the airport, a lot more is buried other than unexploded shells.