On the night of 15 February, a patch of land near one of the runways at Narita Airport was filled with the ranks of riot police facing off against an angry crowd of dozens of residents and activists. With the Chūkaku-ha helmets and flags, with the chorus of Sprechchor chants, it seemed like something out of Japan’s “season of politics” from the 1960s and 1970s, only this time with many of the participants livestreaming the events via their phones.
The police were there to oversee the seizure of Shitō Takao’s farmland, which has become a emotional and symbolic lodestone for the anti-airport movement, a kind of last-stand Alamo that activists are determined to protect at all costs. The first such forced removal since 2017 (when the Yokobori Site Struggle Headquarters hut was removed), it was unusual enough that it was announced beforehand and reported by the mainstream media, making a standoff and clash between supporters and the authorities inevitable.
A court ruling last September authorized the removal of structures from the 4,600-square-meter lot of land, on which the seventy-two-year-old Shitō has doggedly continued to farm while planes fly low overhead. The courts ordered Shitō to surrender the land back in 2016 but its seizure has been delayed by further legal proceedings and the presence of a small tower occupied by activists. Around three hundred police officers guarded the operation on 15 February in which vehicles demolished the most visible elements of resistance — the watchtower and a large sign that said “No Farm, No Life” — and also set about tearing down bamboo trees and other farm structures. Activists were physically removed from the tower and the land was eventually fenced off, though protests and demolition carried on right through the night and into the next day. Videos from news media and circulating on social media showed some scuffles, with protesters (who numbered perhaps as many as one hundred) hitting riot police officers’ shields. At least three people were arrested for obstructing public officials, according to media reports.
Activists from Zengakuren streamed the events live on their popular YouTube channel.
The airport hopes to straighten a taxiway that is currently forced to steer around the land, though another ongoing court case over a second lot of Shitō’s land still prevents it from proceeding with construction. Narita is full of design quirks like this, such as the shrine that is encircled by the airport’s security fences, or the Shibayama Railway line that runs almost entirely under the airport before reaching its one and only stop in the middle of nowhere on the other side. Strange as they may be, they reveal the troubled history of the airport; they are the results of compromises made to appease residents during the protracted negotiations over its construction and expansion.
While the protests against Narita Airport are relatively well known, many are surprised that they are still ongoing, with rallies and marches held regularly (albeit with far more modest numbers of attendees compared to the thousands in decades past), lawsuits filed in the courts, and resistance against the removal of the towers that protesters erected.
Usually known in Japanese as the “Sanrizuka struggle” (after the name of the farming area affected by the development of the airport), the anti-Narita protest movement emerged in the 1960s as soon as the plans to build the airport were announced. The movement quickly took on a political character, whereby the local residents, who were mostly farmers, were supported by young New Left activists who saw the construction of the airport as part of the infrastructure that was underpinning Japan’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The residents and activists held mass protests to oppose the land seizures and built fortified towers and “solidarity huts” to guard the areas not yet taken by the state. As the airport construction proceeded and even after it opened, it turned the surrounding land into scenes resembling fiercely fought siege warfare.
Over the course of the struggle, hundreds were injured and arrested, and people were killed on both sides (by my count nine, plus at least two suicides and five deaths in a helicopter crash), including in the 1980s and 1990s, when the movement gained renewed impetus over opposition to further expansion of the airport. Security checks were common when entering the airport from the train station until recently, and a glance in a certain direction out the window of your plane as it touched down could reveal a large sign defiantly denouncing the airport from the edge of the disputed land.
A dissertation waits to be written that considers the anti-airport movement through the lens of hauntology. At the risk of reducing what was a genuinely life-and-death struggle for many participants and residents to pat academese, both the airport and protest movement are haunted by failure: neither side has won outright and so the whole struggle remains in a state of perpetual stasis, spectral and tense. Yes, the airport was ultimately built and opened, yet at incredible cost in terms of human life and time. Though “finished”, the airport has never reached the size and scale originally designed, and even after the recent expansion of the airport to meet the demand for inbound tourism in the 2010s, it is merely the shadows flickering on the cave wall, haunted by its initial vision as a grand transport hub for the whole of East Asia. The protest movement itself is also haunted — by its inability to halt the construction, by internal splits and betrayals, by infighting and death.
Despite the presence of a museum in the area dedicated to the history of the airport (including the protests), despite the largely retrospective perspective and elegiac tone of recent documentaries like The Wages of Resistance: Narita Stories (2014) and The Fall of Icarus: Narita Stories (2018), the movement resists easy historization. As the events on the night of 15 February showed, the struggle continues to this day.