On March 26th, 1978, the control tower at the nearly complete Narita Airport fell to an invading force of leftist militants.
For over a decade, the area surrounding the hamlet of Sanrizuka, Chiba Prefecture, had played host to one of the most central and dramatic internal movements in modern Japanese history. From 1968, leftist student activists had joined with local farmers in an often violent struggle to prevent the central government from appropriating privately owned homes and farmland for its long-gestating international airport project.
Tens of thousands of activists had arrived from all over Japan, helping the farmers erect fortresses of steel and earth; ramshackle watchtowers emerged from pristine farmland slated by government officials for appropriation. Even as the mass movements of the New Left in the rest of the country fizzled out, with popular opinion turned against increasingly violent student factionalism, Sanrizuka remained a site of popular confrontation with the Japanese state. Now, newly-elected Prime Minister Fukuda had made the completion of Narita one of his cabinet’s primary goals. The airport neared its announced opening date; foreign dignitaries received their invitations to the pre-opening ceremonies. The activists knew only bold action could prevent this final government victory.
But the militants from the Fourth International had a plan. Better yet, they had the documents detailing the layout of the central airport control tower. Around the main airport grounds, thousands of riot police marched past sealed fences and barbed wire; but the militants knew of another way inside. While innumerable activists from Leftist, Christian, anti-nuclear, women’s lib, and anti-pollution groups battled the riot police in the streets of Sanrizuka, fourteen militants snuck towards the control tower in the dead of night. The sewer system was their point of entry. The most startling event of a decades’ long civic struggle was about to unfold.
For the past four decades, if you’ve flown into Japan, chances are your plane alighted at Narita International Airport.
Indeed, Narita was my very first experience of Japan. I was only 16, entering the country as a high school exchange student. After years of dreaming of being able to go to Japan, I was finally there, about to embark on a multi-month homestay, and Narita was the gateway to it all. The arrivals lobby, the open-air convenience store inside, even the bidet-affixed toilets in the lobby restroom – those first moments of Japan are burned into my mind.
I was with a large group of fellow American high schoolers, and I can still remember clambering onto a tour bus bound for Tokyo with all of them. While we were too excited and distractable to take much notice of our surroundings outside of the bus, I do remember looking at surprisingly lush greenery out the window. Everything seemed different; the car brands, with those small k-trucks; Japanese language road signage; the color of the foliage, even the highway seemed strangely narrow from my American perspective. Amidst the exhaustion of long-haul travel and the exhilaration of finally being in Japan, I noticed something else: it was taking a surprisingly long time to actually get to Tokyo.
This is because Narita International Airport, originally named New Tokyo International Airport (新東京国際空港), is not actually in the city limits of Tokyo. In fact, it’s not even in Tokyo Prefecture. Rather, it lies 63.56 km (around 40 miles) away, in neighboring Chiba. This distance from Tokyo often causes some grumbling from those with reasons to regularly come and go from the country. Narita’s out-of-the-way nature is one reason some in Japan prefer Tokyo’s more centrally located and original airport, Haneda.
For long decades, however, there was cause for a much deeper hatred of Japan’s busiest international hub.
From the Fields of Narita
Most people who enter Japan through Narita know nearly nothing about the surrounding area; for them, Narita City, Chiba Prefecture, is just a stopover on the way to bigger places. Besides knowing the name of the airport, Narita City itself is a bit like the shtetl from Fiddler on the Roof: “People who pass through Anatevka don’t even know they’ve been here.” Few would stop to consider the vast stretches of concrete, the highways and byways leading to and from the three terminals. Airports, like most major infrastructure, can feel like massive, eternal checkpoints. We just want to get through them as quickly as possible, rarely questioning how they got there in the first place.
Yet up until the 1960s, the land on which the airport stands was a very different place. For hundreds of years, it was farmland tenured by peasants lorded over by one or another local daimyo. Chiba Prefecture was home to many such competing samurai lords, their fiefs smaller than the huge tracts of territory in regions further afield. This variety has left Chiba with a uniquely pluralistic history when compared to other Japanese prefectures. It has also given the hamlets and villages that dotted the once sparsely settled regions of the Bōsō Peninsula a notable independent streak.
The areas that eventually became Chiba were the site of multiple peasant uprisings; tax revolts were not uncommon. Despite a lasting devotion to conservative, top-down feudalistic power structures within communal farming life, the farmers of Chiba maintained a willingness to fight back against overreach from local power. This was part of a catch-all ideology known as Nohon-Shugi. David Apter, sociologist and historian of the battle against Narita, described Nohon-Shugi thusly: “It’s main emphasis [was] local solidarity and the unity of landlord against higher authorities.” This belief was based on an origin myth held by locals: that previous to the formation of the Tokugawa Shogunate, that they’d been peasant-warriors. It was the intrusion of the samurai, they believed, that had turned them into serfs forced to obey the whims of upjumped daimyo. This sense of local autonomy would soon become the basis of one of the most unexpected of alliances.
The Crossroads of Sanrizuka
The hamlet of Sanrizuka, now buried in large part beneath expansive tarmac, lies towards the north of Chiba. For long centuries before its skies filled with the roar of jet planes, Sanrizuka was an important crossroads. Farmers woke in thatch-roofed village homes, setting off to till their lands or go to market. During the Edo Era (1603-1867), the Tokugawa Shogunate established stables for raising war horses in the area; after the fall of the Shogunate in the Meiji Restoration, the new imperial government inherited the shogunal farmlands. In 1888, an important year for the fledgling Meiji state, the stables officially became the Shimousa Imperial Farms. (宮内庁下総御料牧場.)
The imperial stables and farmland became the soul of Sanrizuka. In the modernizing world of the early Meiji era, its farmland was used for agricultural experiments. Farmers worked the poor local soil until it became some of the best land in all of Chiba. Visitors would tour the vast imperial meadows, watching workers implementing new agricultural techniques. In Spring, the sakura trees drew crowds to walk amongst the falling petals. A local economy bloomed around the imperial farms, and villagers found pride in the work being done there.
These days, the Shimousa Imperial Farms are no more. On August 10th, 1969, the farms were officially closed to make way for the airport. Local farmers, incensed at the closure, stormed the closing ceremonies, ransacking the assembly hall. Now, only a small part of Sanrizuka Memorial Park remains to signify what was once the very heart of Sanrizuka.
Economics of Scale
The beginning of the end came for the farmers of Sanrizuka in the mid-1960s, although it was not their community that was originally slated for demolition.
The immediate post-war years were a time of great difficulty for most Japanese. Both industry and infrastructure were bombed out, and poverty and homelessness ran rampant across the nation. By the dawning of the ’60s, however, things were turning a major corner. The Japanese Economic Miracle was in full swing, as the state focused on “rationalizing” the economy, incentivizing young people to leave rural lifestyles behind and enter the workforce. Prime Minister Ikeda took office with his stated goal of “income doubling” – a goal he would essentially achieve. As Japan’s economy rocketed towards becoming the 2nd largest in the world, its infrastructure would need to keep pace. The country was growing in almost every sense – and one industry lagging behind was aviation.
In 1960, when Ikeda formed his cabinet, meeting Japan’s new aviation demands was one of the first things on his mind. At the time, Haneda Airport in Tokyo proper served as Japan’s main hub. The convenient central location, however, was far from conducive for expansion. Noise pollution ordinances and proximity to the urban sprawl meant enlarging Haneda to meet increase demand was nearly impossible. For the sake of increasing passenger, cargo, and even military capacity, Ikeda needed to find a new location that could serve the greater Tokyo area. This new airport would not only assist in economic growth – it would symbolize the new Japan emerging from defeat and occupation. The question was, where?
Taking Land to Take to the Skies
Even with rural land more expansive in the ’60s than today, the issue of where to build an airport was bound to be controversial. Japan is only 15% arable; land is always at a premium. And the undertaking of this new airport was to be the largest single project the modern government had ever attempted. With all the complexities involved at the technical, political, and local levels, difficult decisions would have to be made.
In 1965, the same year of Ikeda’s untimely passing, the initial decision was made. Rural Tomisato in north-central Chiba was to be the site of the massive project. The new government of Sato Eisako could not have bungled the process more if they’d tried. At a press conference, without any notice or consultation with the people of Tomisato, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hashimoto made the surprise announcement of the development location. The planned project would require overrunning over half of the entirety of Tomisato. Locals were outraged.
With the backing of the Japanese Socialist Party, local labor unions, and the surrounding town councils, 1500 people marched on the prefectural capital. With the doors closed to them, they broke inside the Chiba capital building, demanding that Tomisato not be sacrificed to the airport plan. The anti-airport movement was a success; the central government balked. Yet even if Tomisato would be spared, somewhere else would still need to be chosen for the project.
In 1966, secret negotiations between Chiba Governor Tomono, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and the ministry of Transportation found what they considered the best alternative. Only a few miles northeast lay an extensive plot of imperially owned land, surrounded by less densely populated hamlets. If land would need to be expropriated, then why not start with the emperor’s meadows in Sanrizuka?
Against the State
The Sanrizuka area appeared ideal because of its sparser, poorer population, which in tandem with imperial holdings would make land acquisition easier. Or, at least, so the thought went. Yet the Sato government once again made the same mistake as with Tomisato, announcing the airport site during a broadcast before consulting with the locality itself. In the agricultural co-ops, village assemblies, and local political organs, shock and anger reigned.
The government, of course, intended to compensate farmers. Life in the hamlets could be a hardscrabble lot, and with younger generations attracted to city life and a higher income, being bought out could even be attractive. The issue, however, was lack of choice. Lack of consultation. For the proud farmers of Sanrizuka, having their land usurped from beneath them was a bridge too far.
In distant meeting halls and university campuses nationwide, activists leveled similar rage at the state for the perceived violence of government expropriation. To members of the various New Left sects already engaged in protest against state overreach, however, the unpopular airport plan was not just a source of anger – it was an opportunity. The Tomisato incident had already proven the state could be beaten back when its schemes seemed unjust. That made Sanrizuka the clear next battleground for those who wished to prove the violence that undergirded modern Japanese society.
Birth of the Hantai Domei
With their base of operations only a short jaunt from the area, the first group to arrive in Sanrizuka were members of the successful Tomisato Hantai Domei. (反対同盟, Alliance of Opposition.) The leaders of the organization, flanked by around 40 members, toured the villages and hamlets surrounding Sanrizuka. Locals in opposition to the airport heeded the Tomisato villagers’ advice, and quickly set up their own Hantai Domei based on their lines.
The new Sanrizuka-Shibayama Hantai Domei would become the nucleus around which the fight against Narita Airport would commence. It was a diversified organization, with a discreet executive board, representatives from 26 villages, and separate corps based on membership. The Elder’s Corps; Women’s Corps; Youth League; Action Corps; and Boys Corps; each would actively strive to prevent the state from achieving its goals.
At first, the Hantai Domei membership consisted of local farmers and their families. The initial leadership, including patriarchal “bosses” who wielded great local power, was eager to negotiate with the government. Their goal was to get the best possible deal for their communities (and, indeed, themselves). It was only later, as the government failed to properly meet local demands, that active resistance would come into play.
Before anything, though, the Hantai Domei would need a leader. The man they chose would soon become the figurehead around which the entire battle against Narita Airport would be waged.
Tomura Issaku, the Christ of the Crossroads
On June 25th, 1966, the members of the nascent Hantai Domei sought to find themselves a leader. The first person they asked was the President of the Narita City Farmer’s Organization; he claimed he was too busy for such efforts. Other local bosses were asked. All responded in the negative. It seemed that those with the most local sway all wanted nothing to do with leading the push-back against Tokyo. Perhaps in desperation, the Hantai Domei members turned next to one Tomura Issaku – the only prominent Sanrizuka villager to have participated in the Tomisato movement.
When three Hantai Domei representatives arrived at Tomura’s household, the older man was working on one of his sculptures. Tomura was an artist, specializing in metalwork. His initial answer to the request was to demur, despite supporting the cause. Pressed, however, he finally acceded. He asked his wife to stitch him a sash upon which the words “the truth will set you free” would be visible. The next day, he gave his inaugural address as president of the Hantai Domei in front of 1,200 farmers.
Interestingly, Tomura was not himself a farmer. Nor was he a “boss.” Rather, he was a local landowner, and, uniquely, was also a prominent Christian. Despite the pause his religion gave some around him, Tomura’s near-fanatical Christian sense of justice would be a guiding force for the movement he would now lead.
A Matter of Faith
Tomura ran the Hantai Domei out of his home, surrounded by his avant-garde metal sculptures. On his property there lay a small church, originally founded by his grandfather. Tomura, ensconced is his home, surrounded by books on western philosophy, was something of a saintly, aesthetic figure for those in Hantai Domei – and beyond.
He inherited his religion and talent for metalworking from said grandfather. The man had been a soldier of the early Meiji State, fighting in the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion against the samurai forces of Saigo Takamori. After the Battle of Kagoshima, Tomura’s grandfather returned from Kyushu by ship. It was in the port of Yokohama that he heard a foreign missionary preaching the gospels. The elder Tomura was moved emotionally by the sermon, and converted to Methodism. Returning to Chiba, he found employment as a guard at the imperial estates. He would later make metal tools for the experimental farms.
Tomura Issaku held this pedigree quite dear to his heart. He was a serious Christian, yet maintained an equally serious devotion to the emperor. In Tomura’s disgust towards the idea of the airport being built over the imperial holdings, one can even grasp the eventual uneasy melding of radical and conservative elements within the Hantai Domei itself. That very land was the reason the government selected Sanrizuka – it meant that much of the space needed for the airport would not have to be sought from farmers and other landholders. Yet for Tomura, whose family had moved to the area to help serve the imperial farms, the very usurpation of imperial land seemed almost sacrilegious. To the Leftist militants, however, the emperor was the ultimate imperialist bourgeoise – and defending his honor was unpalatable.
Unfurling the Big Tent
Under Tomura’s leadership, the Hantai Domei began to expand in membership and prominence. While the government reached out to farming families to secure their lands, the Domei staged mass rallies. Funds were collected to buy up single plots of land in the area designated for the airport, to be owned by the organization itself; with such small properties in their hands, it would be extremely difficult for the government to obtain the unbroken tracks of land it needed. This also prevented farmers in need of money from selling off their lands wholesale to the government behind Hantai Domei backs.
As the months passed by, the membership of the Hantai Domei diversified. Leftist students first reached out via the popular Zenkyoto all-Campus Joint Struggle Committees in September of 1967. Unlike the young leftists, the Hantai Domei was itself not radical in its politics; many farmers were lifelong backers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Yet as the LDP failed to address their concerns, many farmers turned away from their former political affiliations; all comers would be welcome if their intent was to help stave off the hands of the government.
So it came to be that the network of support relied upon by the Hantai became so vast. It consisted of any number of varied subaltern resistance groups; Okinawan, Burakumin, and Korean rights groups, anti-nuclear peace organizations centered around Hiroshima, and, of course, all manner of diverse leftist organizations. As of the mid-80s, some 17 separate activist sects were represented by members living full time in the Sanrizuka area.
The “Mother” and “Father” Movements
Tomisato had been a great success, but the activists had other precursor movements on which they based their actions. The farmer-militant protests at Sanrizuka had two, older “mother” and “father” movements: Kita-Fuji in 1947 and Sunagawa in 1956.
During the Kita-Fuji event, women from around the slopes of Mt. Fuji near where a Japanese military base was being transferred to US control built the first ramshackle fortresses of the young protest movement. Angered at the loss of land and cultural shifts signaled by the arrival of US troops, mothers set up huts in US artillery ranges manned by three women at a time. Women veterans of Kita-Fuji made early visits to Sanrizuka, helping establish the practice of erecting fortified “solidarity huts” on farmers’ lands. These huts would be manned at all times, becoming spaces of both daily life and martial vigilance for activists. Massive steel watchtowers would emerge from them, providing views of any government or police actions on the surrounding lands. Some activists would make these solidarity huts their homes for untold years.
The Sunagawa Struggle (砂川闘争) in western Tokyo began in 1955 and raged on for two years. It was a response to the nearby U.S. Air Force’s Tachikawa Air Base’s plan to expand its airfields to be able to better serve bombers – an expansion that would require forcing 140 Japanese families off their land. This overstep in the early post-occupation years generated massive amounts of anger, becoming the most violent anti-base movement in Japanese history. Local families barricaded their homes. When riot police arrived to dislodge the residents from their property, thousands of students, labor activists, and socialist party members were there to meet them. They sat in rows, unarmed, dressed in white and bedecked with white headbands – all the better to make visible the blood they were about to shed. When the police beat the peaceful protesters, injuring thousands with cameras rolling, public sentiment turned against the government.
The Sunagawa Struggle was so successful that not only was the base expansion shelved, but President Eisenhower decided to drawback 40% of US troops stationed in Japan. Sunagawa proved that protest could work, even against the imperialist might of the United States. The Hantai Domei in Sanrizuka was convinced they could replicate that success.
Hurtling Towards Violence
Despite the building protest movement on the ground, the Sato government was little moved. The Tokyo airport project was simply too important; it would have to be built somewhere. The Tomisato movement meant the location was changed, and it also cut the size of the project in half (the airport was originally to have five runways), but little more could be forfeited. The Hantai Domei initially sought to curtail government planning by peaceful discussion, going through well-trodden routes via personal connections with Chiba officials and LDP and Japan Socialist Party assemblymen. The government ignored these attempts at opening discourse and instead began extensive negotiations with individual farmers for the sale of the necessary territory. This unwillingness to budge set the government on a direct collision course with the Hantai Domei.
The first violent confrontation between the government and the Hantai Domei occurred on October 10th, 1967. Two thousand riot police were assembled to help guard government surveyors as they examined the lands on which the airport was to be built. The Hantai Domei blocked the roads, refusing to budge; the riot police attacked.
The mood of the Hantai Domei and its movement shifted following this first battle. This was when the solidarity huts became more fortified, and the movement began to take on a more militarized aspect. Each hamlet in the area mustered its own corps; all protesters, even children, were armed with staves. Both the Japanese Socialist Party and Communist Party pledged support. (In November, the students of the New Left began to arrive, and they would soon drive these “old Left” party members out of the movement).
By the time the government would attempt a second land survey, the level of violence would be greatly increased.
Who’s Who in Sanrizuka
Tomura Issaku was the central figure in the Hantai Domei, respected by both local farmers and student radicals. Around him gathered a circle of prominent anti-airport leaders, each of whom would play important roles in the drama that unfolded – often in the form of martyrs (or even betrayers). Tomura perceived the struggle against the airport as distinctly Christ-like, and the narratives of Sanrizuka became appropriately biblical in his eyes.
Tomura, and later Hantai Domei leader Kiyohara, were supported by the tireless work and compassion of their wives. In this aspect, these radicals still maintained a fairly traditional patriarchal order at home. In Apter’s words, “although in principle both men saw the Sanrizuka movement as a way of liberating women, their practice in the home fell short.” This was an issue present throughout the New Left, wherein professed ideas about gender equality clashed with gender-based hierarchies within leftist groups. Nonetheless, women were some of the most important activists within Sanrizuka, whether supporting or fighting. Images of older women dressed in traditional clothing clashing violently with police could have dramatic, emotional effects on the Japanese population. Nothing better communicated the unjust violence of the state.
Equally important were the Leftist militants, for whom Sanrizuka became a defining and lasting focus in the nationwide New Left movement. Tomura himself reached out to them, recognizing in their radicalism something pure and admirable. First came student representatives of the non-sectarian (ノンポリ, “non-political”) Zenkyoto student organization. They were quickly replaced by members of the various prominent sects, whose membership often devoted their entire lives to the cause and were willing to brave injury, arrest, and even death.
The most significant of the New Left sects in Sanrizuka was Chukaku-ha. (中核派, short for Japan Revolutionary Communist League, National Committee.) Chukaku-ha, which maintains a headquarters in Tokyo to this day, professed anti-imperialism and anti-Stalinism; like many sects, international Communist revolution has been their overarching goal. They were the first to arrive at Sanrizuka after Zenkyoto, becoming instrumental in much of what occurred thereafter.
The Fourth International, too, has been a major player. Supported by more everyday workers than any of the other sects, they possessed a unique appeal to normal citizens. They also strived to prevent Chukaku-ha’s still-ongoing deadly war with splinter group Kakumaru-ha from interfering with anti-airport activities. The third-largest presence was the sect Kaiho. Essentially every New Left group in Japan had some involvement in the movement.
David Apter describes what drew the New Left so strongly towards the Narita Airport project:
In Sanruzuka, the state (or its surrogate the airport) could be attacked directly and the principle of class struggle against imperialism could be raised. Forming a coalition of workers and peasants against the state became the first objective. It was hoped that the attack on Japanese imperialism and militarism at Sanrizuka would lead to a new AMPO, this one on a wider and more popular scale.”Apter, David E. (1984). Against the State: Politics and Social Protest in Japan. p.122
Sects brought with them their experience in organizing and protesting, first gained in the mass 1960 anti-AMPO struggles. The farmers, usually much older than the often 20-something militants, brought experience of a different kind: wartime combat. Many of these men had been born in the Meiji or Taisho eras, and had served in Japan’s military abroad before and during WWII. Although their base politics could not have been more opposed, these former soldiers of the Japanese imperial state often looked on the radicals in their midst as “grandsons and granddaughters.” Together, they made for a formidable force.
Who’s Not in Sanrizuka
With nearly the entirety of the Japanese New Left involved in Sanrizuka, perhaps most interesting is who was not. While the Japanese Communist Party and Japanese Socialist Party were both present in the early days, they were soon expelled from the movement. The sects had wanted the old-school parties out (especially after JCP members fled a confrontation with police, leaving sect members vulnerable), but it was Tomura who made the final decision. The Hantai Domei leader was greatly affronted by the failure of attempts at working within the established political system, and quickly came to hate anything associated with politics as normal.
Also conspicuous in their absence was the most violent fringe of the New Left. The infamous Japanese Red Army, active in various forms throughout the era of Sanrizuka, was strictly banned from partaking in the movement. While the Hantai Domei was willing to use violence against riot police and to destroy government property, terrorism of the kind used by the JRA was a bridge too far. The JRA, whose murder of civilians and each other was responsible in many ways for turning Japanese sympathy away from the New Left, would have to make a name for themselves far away from the fields of Chiba.
The Hantai Domei may have eschewed the violence of the Red Army, but in many ways, their ideals were much the same. Even in 1984, at the home of the late Tomura, a faded decal on a front-facing window still proclaimed support for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – the self-same organization to which, even then, Shigenobu Fasaku’s JRA was still aligned, and with whom her organization had planned the murder of over 20 at the Tel Aviv Airport.
Intersectional violence was also banned. While Chukaku-ha and Kaiho would kill over 40 members of their equally murderous rival Kakumaru over the decades, such warring was done strictly away from the region around the airfields. The Hantai Domei made every leftist sect sign a pledge that they would not bring their infighting to the movement.
And yet, violence was still a major theme of the Sanrizuka Struggle. Tomura himself began to advocate for it as his ire towards the government grew. To again quote Apter,
Tomura articulated a set of principals satisfactory both to the sects and to the Hantai Domei in universal, absolute, and passionate terms. The more passion, the more violence, and the more absolute the judgements. Tomura gave violence dignity and made dignity violent.”Apter. 112
Tomura may have been a Christian, but he was no priest. In aspect, the man could come to appear as no less than a warrior monk, brandishing literal weapons in defense of his beliefs.
In April 1968, the government began its second survey of the land scheduled to be expropriated. In anticipation of the surveyors’ arrival in the hamlet of Yokobori, some 400 activists were mobilized, constructing wooded blockades which prevented entering the site. Bamboo spears were hidden in bushes; razor wire lined the roads. Barrels of human excrement were placed on roadsides, acting as ammunition for activists to hurl at encroaching police.
The farmers themselves wielded the very tools of their trade. Spades, shovels, rakes, hoes – they all became weapons to use against the thousands of armored riot police guarding the government surveyors. It was spring, and the busiest time of the year for the farmers, yet their produce was allowed to rot in the fields as implements intended for creation instead became tools of violence. Tomura stated that such tools-turned-weapons could be the symbol of the movement, and that the farmers should take pride in them.
Ten thousand riot police were needed to check the militants; even then, the land survey took over three months. Many were injured, and hundreds of militants were arrested. A certain Mrs. Ishibashi, nearly 90 years old, was arrested when police came to raid the solidarity hut built on her land. She poured human excrement and urine onto the officers as they approached, yelling that they would not take away the land on which she had raised eight children all on her own.
The second land survey provided a huge spectacle, showing the determination of the thousands rallying to the Hantai Domei flag. Yet this was only the beginning of the intensification of the violence.
Life in the Opposition
From this point onwards, mass battles between riot police and anti-airport activists became commonplace. Militants led attacks on construction sites and airport offices. Riot police responded by besieging solidarity huts and making mass arrests. Thousands were injured on both sides. Police and activists were killed. Meanwhile, the government put more pressure on farmers to sell. The idea of simply taking the land by force, sans any compensation, began to gain traction in government circles.
As the years passed by, the anti-airport movement morphed from a protest event in and into something more like an ongoing way of life.
For many of the militants living on the farmland in Sanrizuka, the farms around Narita had become a sort of refuge. Indeed, as many of them reached ages beyond which gainful employment in society at large became unlikely (30 tended to be a cut-off), the farms became the only space in which they could live a normal life and find a welcoming society. As David Apter wrote in 1984 (when the struggle was still ongoing but diminished), “as they turned their backs on the institutional structure of society, society turned its back on them.” The farmers and militants thus formed a sort of symbiotic relationship.
Apter continues: “Although farmers and militants have in common the loss of both their place and function in society because of changes in the political economy and their own responses to those changes, in the end, it is the militants who are the more vulnerable.”
The Story of Oki Yone
Tens of thousands of lives were touched by the Sanrizuka conflict. People were uprooted from their homes; graves were demolished and paved over. Police were killed. People recieved life-altering injuries. Activists spent years in prison. At yet, resistance took well over a decade to begin to wane. As the lands needed for the airport project slowly fell to the government, one old woman persisted in her opposition, all the way to her death. Her name was Oki Yone.
Oki Yone was born to an impoverished farming family in the regions near Sanrizuka. At age seven, her family, unable to afford to feed her, sold her off to work as a nursemaid. Eight years later, at age 15, she fled from the site of her indentured servitude. Working odd jobs around the Tokyo metro area, she eventually made her way back towards Sanrizuka. She met a man, with whom she purchased a tiny plot of agricultural land. They lived together in a minuscule hut until the man passed away. Oki Yone then continued to live a solitary life, up until the arrival of the militants, who helped her farm her land and kept her company.
It just so happened that Oki Yone’s tiny parcel was within the first ring of land needed for the building of the airport. The government offered her good money to give up her land; she refused. Before long, all the other farmers in the first-ring zone had sold and moved away. Only Oki Yone remained. Her rice fields filled up with sand as construction commenced; riot police heckled her day and night. When they entered her home, she threw hot miso soup at them; in the fields, she wielded sickle and rake. Tomura was greatly inspired by her strength; she was the one from whom he received the idea that the farmers should fight with their own implements.
The Expropriations Begin
Oki Yone’s stubborn refusal to sell was hampering the progress of the initial airport construction. And yet, Chiba governor Tomono still refused to put into action expropriation orders authorized by the central government. He announced that he would not allow the seizure of Oki Yone’s small plot of land; still trusting in his word, the activists didn’t feel the need to patrol her house as vigilantly. It was then that the riot police struck. On September 20th, 1971, They came for Oki Yone as she was threshing in her field; they assaulted her, breaking her teeth and carrying her off on a riot shield. The government pulled down her house; nothing of it remains.
Oki Yone was perhaps second only to Tomura in terms of the inspiration she lent the Sanrizuka movement. Tomura himself saw her as a Biblical character; the poorest, and yet the strongest. She even adopted a young radical who arrived to join the movement, who himself became a farmer; thus, by the time she passed away, her influence continued to persevere. She lived a difficult, hardscrabble life, but in the end, found a cause and a community, and passed into legend.
Winning the Battles, Losing the War
The list of unique battles fought between the Hantai Domei and airport authority is too extensive to properly do justice in this space alone. Each league within the Hantai Domei; each sect and hamlet; all achieved their moments of glory. In a single union demonstration, 17,500 people were gathered from across the country to show their opposition to the airport. Farmers, veterans of WWII, turned their farmland into veritable fortresses. They dug trenches and created a massive interconnecting series of tunnels and underground fortifications, like those used by Japan in the islands of the Pacific War.
Activists used Molotov cocktails to fend off bulldozers and cranes; police shot back with water cannons and crushed fortifications under armored earthmovers. Then, in 1972, the Hantai Domei erected a massive, 200-foot-tall steel tower directly in the path of test flights for runway A. The opening date for Narita Airport was pushed back again and again.
But still, the government never seriously considered shelving the Tokyo Airport project. It was simply too important. The massive protest movement was an embarrassment, hurting the image of multiple prime ministers both domestically and abroad. Yet the airport was necessary for the skyrocketing economy of an increasingly middle-class Japan. It could not be held off indefinitely.
Tomura began to focus more and more on the necessity of increased violence. The metalworker, known for his sculptures, turned his very art towards savagery. He crafted a set of gloves through which moving metal spikes protruded from all angles with “a medieval quality, like a fragment from a chamber of horrors” – the words of David Apter, who saw them in person. These he wore into battle against the police – for into battle Tomura went, despite already being in his late 60s. When, in one clash, Tomura was beaten bloody and arrested, the psychic blow only turned him more radically against the Japanese state.
The Seige of Narita Airport
It was 1978, and the Sanrizuka Struggle had already been ongoing for over a decade. At long last, the airport had a firm opening date scheduled. Construction on the runways was complete; most of the initial land needed had fallen into the hands of the airport authority. The Hantai Domei, as popular nationwide as ever, was facing an existential crisis. This led to its most spectacular of a series of incredible actions – the invasion of the main control tower.
With only days left until the planned opening, the airport was under martial law. 14,000 riot police patrolled its confines. In the dead of night, fourteen members of the 4th International descended into the sewers from a manhole outside the airport ramparts. They had already memorized the entire layout of the main control tower, from its rooms to its stairways and elevators. They lay in wait in the sewers underneath the airport, waiting for the designated hour to arrive.
As the sun dawned on March 26th, three thousand riot police left the airport, heading for a recently rebuilt Hantai Domei fortress. They had destroyed the solidarity hut before, but now it was back, with a new concrete base, enlarged and sporting a 52-food tall steel tower. Fifty militants stood in front of the tower, blocking the way. A pitched battle commenced; steel arrows, Molotov cocktails, rocks and bricks, and more rained down on the intruding officers. All the while some ten thousand activists from around Japan were filtering into Sanrizuka, preparing for a massive protest. Police were forced to expend manpower trailing the protesters; police helicopters flew overhead.
In front of yet another Hantai Domei fortress, a combined force of four thousand militants, bedecked in red helmets with the words “Fourth International” emblazed on their fronts, began their own operation. They split into different groups, leading even more riot police on a merry chase. One of these groups bordered an armored flatbed truck, lighting fuel-filled barrels in the back of the truck ablaze. The driver put pedal to the metal, speeding towards the airport proper. The truck rammed through barricades, finally smashing in the front gate of the airport. Hundreds of protesters sprinted at the gate; soon, they were inside Narita Airport itself.
The Control Tower Falls
All this incredible action was, in fact, a mere diversion. Around 1 PM, as battles were raging around the airport on multiple fronts, the fourteen Fourth International militants snuck out of the sewers beneath Narita. They emerged, immediately running towards the control tower under police gunfire. Four were tackled to the ground and arrested; ten clambered up an antenna, entering the control tower. Six of these managed to reach the elevator, riding it to the 16th floor. They burst into the control room – the very epicenter of the airport. When control tower workers tried to stop the militants, they were assaulted and fled towards the roof, nearly 200 feet above ground; iconic images show them being hoisted to safety by police helicopters.
The militants, holed up inside the control room, took sledgehammers to the state-of-the-art navigation systems. Expensive equipment was thrown from the tower windows; huge red banners proclaiming the Hantai Domei victory followed, hanging from the tower in a sign of the ultimate victory of the anti-airport struggle. Far below, on the tarmac, battles were being waged – activists and protesters had broken into the airport from fourteen separate locations.
As the banners appeared from upon high, visible for miles around, a great cheer went up in Sanrizuka. One of the most dramatic symbolic victories in the history of the Japanese New Left had just been won, and won decisively.
And yet, only two months later, what is now called Narita Airport opened. As David Apter notes with a dark sense of irony, one of the first planes to alight at the New Tokyo International Airport was an incoming flight from the People’s Republic of China.
Long Day’s Journey into Night
In 1979, the year after the airport opened, Tomura Issaku passed away. He was suffering from diabetes and the effects of old wounds; in the end, however, it was cancer that took his life. The grave of the Christ of the Crossroads lies only a meter from the gates of Narita Airport. On it are engraved the words 「真理はあなたに自由を与える」- “the truth will set you free.”
Tomura’s death signaled the end of an era for the Hantai Domei. He was an unmatched centrifugal force for the movement, who had insisted to the end that the fight continue – even after the airport successfully opened and was in operation. He died at age 70, while still the only president the Hantai Domei had ever known. After his death, infighting, betrayals, and splintering propagated amongst the resistance to an airport that already existed.
And still, the Hantai Domei has not ceased entirely to exist. Between 1978 and 2017, 511 separate guerilla actions were taken against the airport. The struggle for the rights of the few remaining farmers did not end so easily – nor did the community that came into existence around the struggle. Militants married into farmer families, becoming part of the lifeblood of the communities that surround Narita Airport to this day.
A Legacy of Opposition
Just what the battle for Narita Airport means in our modern world is difficult to parse. It was a confrontation that took decades, involved tens of thousands of militant protesters and riot police, cost human lives, and ruined human hopes and dreams; yet, in the end, it barely influenced governmental thinking in the least.
For the Japanese government, the aspects of Sanrizuka were considered too peculiar to the era of mass protest and to the unique reality of its locality to be of much consideration. Perhaps Sanrizuka’s biggest impact on future Japanese police was a modicum of thought being put towards how to deal with the creation of the New Osaka Airport. This time around, the government decided to abrogate a similar struggle – which resulted in the airport being built on reclaimed land in Osaka Bay, thus avoiding having to appropriate anyone’s homes. As for the radical sects which persisted in their opposition, they were seen as having removed themselves from the political system as it existed; as their popularity waned, what was the point of trying to appease them? Certainly changing the system entirely, as was the sects’ desire, was out of the question.
In the end, economics and expansion won out. It was the heyday of the Economic Miracle; it can seem difficult to imagine any other outcome. Nor was Japan alone in its full-on sprint towards “progress” in the era of Sanrizuka. Apter explains it well:
“The specific projects [Narita Airport was] linked with were a part of an even larger, indeed a worldwide, ideology of development. It was the age of freeway construction, of expanding new towns, of landfill and industrial zones, a time of intoxication with economic power. If there were costs – pollution, environmental damage, and so on – they would be handled in due course. First comes the construction, the government thought; then comes the tidying up and beautification.”Apter. 232
In the same era in the US, new highways were beginning to crisscross the nation, linking the vast country in ways previously unimaginable and exploding what was economically feasible. But these highways also destroyed old communities and neighborhoods in America’s great cities – and disproportionately communities of color. ‘Highway revolts‘ ensued, comparable in some ways to the actions of the Hantai Domei. Yet, like with Narita, we rarely consider those pitched battles when going about our daily commutes.
But the signs – sometimes literally – remain at Narita Airport. Five households, legacies of the final local holdouts, are still present within the airport grounds. Farming takes place amidst the roar of takeoff and the impacts of aircraft landings. Former student militants, now as old as the farmers they once came to Sanrizuka to support, assist with cultivating inside Narita Airport itself. The Hantai Domei still organizes protests; signs are propped up in the streets around Narita, and what little remains of the Sanrizuka district, with slogans like “we shall not forgive the confiscation of farmer’s lands.”
Nearly sixty years have passed since Sanrizuka was first designated as the spot for what would become Narita Airport. And still, not all is finished; not all is forgiven. For some, the struggle has never truly ended.
What to Read Next
Apter, David E.; Sawa, Nagayo (1984). Against the State: Politics and Social Protest in Japan. Harvard University Press.
Bowen, R. W. (1975). The Narita Conflict. Asian Survey, 15(7), 598–615. https://doi.org/10.2307/2643343
関実・三里塚. (2009). 大木よねばあさんの闘い.
近藤 正高. (2018). ご存知ですか？ 3月26日は成田空港建設の反対派が管制塔を占拠した日です. 文春オンライン.
Chelsea Szendi Schieder. (2021). Coed Revolution: The Female Student in the Japanese New Left. Duke University Press.