A few years ago, back when airplanes still flew, I landed at Narita International Airport outside Tokyo, returning to Japan after a trip home.
As the plane taxied toward the terminal, I could see a long billboard rising above a large metal fence that ran along the runway. It said, and still says, in large, red letters: “DOWN WITH NARITA AIRPORT.” Strange tourism slogan, I thought.
Narita International Airport is Japan’s busiest international hub. If you’ve been to Japan, there’s a good chance you entered the country there. According to the numbers on their website, Narita had been welcoming over 30 million international passengers per year pre-COVID, and they were trending upward.
Strangely, those 30 million yearly tourists were greeted to Japan with a billboard calling for the downfall of their port of entry. There had to be a story.
It turns out the anti-airport rage goes back more than a half-century, to a time when Japan was a much more protest-heavy and politically active society than it is today.
In the early 1960s, the Japanese government began scoping out locations for a new airport to serve the Tokyo region. They decided on a farming area in Chiba Prefecture, but of course that meant relocating the farmers.
Many families adamantly refused to leave their land, but this wasn’t going to stop the airport, naturally. The impasse generated protests. Student groups in Tokyo caught wind of the dispute and happily joined in on the farmers’ side. (Japanese students in that era were legendary for their protests. It was the ‘60s, man.)
So, tens of thousands of farmers and college students locked arms, figuratively and literally, to face off against the government and it’s airport. It’s impossible to cover all the action that unfolded over the next decade, but here are some highlights.
Things began in 1966 with standard written protests to officials. When terminal construction began in 1967, protesters made roadblocks to hamper access.
As runways were being built in the early 1970s, holdout farmers erected towers on their land to obstruct test flights. Riot police were a constant presence, and clashes over the years led to injuries and fatalities on both sides.
After 12 years of confrontation, Narita International Airport (then called New Tokyo International Airport) was set to open on March 30, 1978. On March 26, however, protestors stormed the airport, gained access to a control tower, and destroyed $500,000 dollars’ worth of equipment. The grand opening was pushed back to May 20, and that’s when the real fireworks started.
An article in the Nashua Telegraph dated May 20, 1978 reported, “Some 13,000 riot police were mobilized to secure the airport against an estimated 15,000 demonstrators,” who were “throwing firebombs and rocks’’ as the police beat them back with water cannons. Vehicles burned. Power cables were sabotaged. Japanese air traffic stopped.
A quote in the Telegraph from Issaku Tomura, a farmer: “Whether the airport remains opened or closed our struggle will continue. No one can guarantee that the airport is safe. No matter how many riot police come and no matter how many laws are passed, we will continue our struggle against it.”
True to Tomura’s word, a passive resistance continues to this day. Go to Google Maps, zoom in on Narita International Airport, and you can find the tiny isolated plots of holdout farmers right smack dab in the middle of the airfield.
Dilapidated buildings on useless land in the middle of Japan’s busiest international airport, tens of millions of people ushered around the properties every year, and a “DOWN WITH NARITA AIRPORT” sign to greet them.
It’s hard to know whose side to be on. Is this a heroic story about the perseverance of the little guy? Or is it a cautionary tale about spite? The farmers fought for a half-century to preserve their way of life, but in the meantime that way of life disappeared around them.
The airport came, and the area changed irrevocably. Most people took the buyout, so those communities are long gone. Decades later, holding onto the last few parcels of land seems to have become less about sticking up for themselves and more about sticking up a middle finger.
Everyone has the right to prioritize, and some people will choose to prioritize spite. Never giving in, even in the face of enormous personal cost, is a kind of strength, I suppose.
But surely a better type of strength is what you could call “calculated yielding” — realizing when you’ve pushed your protest too far for your own good, and having the strength to bring yourself back to a reasonable place.
The principle Narita taught me: Hold principles, but don’t let principles hold you. That’s something we should all be down with.
Justin Whittinghill is an Owensboro native who works as an assistant professor of English at Kanazawa Institute of Technology in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan. His column runs on the last Sunday of the month in Lifestyle. He can be reached at email@example.com.