NARITA'S TURBULENT SAGA

Runway now in land holdouts’ backyard

by

NARITA, Chiba Pref. — Crops rustling in the wind appear to be trembling because of the jetliner taxiing nearby, its fin visible above the walls surrounding the farm.

Then there’s the scream of jetliners flying over the farm, which lies just 400 meters off the south end of the new runway at Narita airport.

Farmers in the 1.7-hectare field, located in the Toho district, glance quickly at the silver belly of planes or cover their ears with muddy hands, then soon resume their work.

Farmer Hidemasa Koizumi, 53, says the government and the airport authority apologized for past forced evictions and said they would promote dialogue. “This is what they did,” he adds, staring at a plane flying overhead.

The Koizumi family is one of two farming households in the district, located within the bounds of the originally planned 2,500-meter second runway at Narita.

Five other people, including the owner of a pickle factory in the district, own portions of Toho land. Another farmer lives and works in the Tenjinmine district abutting a nearby taxiway.

“This is typical of what they have done to us in the past, betraying and harassing us, in order to kick us out,” says Koizumi, who grows vegetables organically.

On April 18, a 2,180-meter “tentative” runway was opened to augment the existing 4,000-meter runway — in time for the May 31 opening of the FIFA World Cup cohosted by Japan and South Korea. Originally intended to be 2,500 meters, it was shortened by 320 meters because the farmers and other landowners refused to move out.

Since the opening, around 90 planes a day fly over their district — often at an altitude as low as 40 meters as they take off or approach for landing.

The Toho district meanwhile looks like a concentration camp. It is surrounded on all sides by high walls erected by the airport authority, and residents must enter the district via a tunnel that runs beneath the taxiway.

Aside from the constant noise from planes, the area is endlessly patrolled by police, airport workers and security guards.

The noise from above often exceeds 100 decibels — a level equivalent to what one hears under an elevated railway — according to research carried out by the city since the opening of the new runway.

“I have been trying to ignore the noise, since it would drive me nuts if I cared about it,” says one of the Toho farmers in the field. “But I recently found myself becoming quite insensitive to not just the noise but other things happening around me, by keeping such an attitude.”

It was the farmers’ strong disinclination to leave that kept “Japan’s main gateway” limited until a few weeks ago to just one runway since the airport opened in 1978, even though the original plans called for two.

In 2000, 53.6 percent of the passengers using Japan’s international airports used Narita and 61.6 percent of international air freight went through the airport.

The second runway, to be used by midsize jets, is expected to bring the airport’s departures and arrivals to 200,000 a year, compared with 135,000 at present.

Government and airport officials, however, are far from satisfied with the new runway, because it can’t handle jumbo jets. The short strip also limits the amount of fuel planes can carry, permitting only short-haul flights, mostly to Asian destinations.

Officials fear that Japan may lag behind its Asian rivals, including South Korea, Singapore and China, which have all pushed projects to build international air hubs with more capacity and lower landing fees than Narita’s.

“Without having a second runway at its full length, Narita’s capacity will soon reach its limit, given the current increase in passenger demand in Asia,” a Narita Airport Authority spokesman said.

“We need to hurry up, considering other Asian countries’ efforts (to build large airports), and we must further promote dialogue with the remaining landowners (to buy the plots necessary for a 2,500-meter runway),” he said.

But the farmers say the government’s argument is based on a selfish premise that the airport must be built strictly in line with the plan devised more than 30 years ago.

“We never demanded that the entire airport plan be scrapped, and there was a possibility that the airport and farmers could have gotten along together at Narita,” Koizumi says.

“But they were the ones who stubbornly adhered to the initial plan to build an airport with two runways in the middle of farmland.”

The farmers are often criticized for holding out even though this runs counter to the public interest, but Koizumi says the government is to blame for refusing to budge from its initial plan and expanding the airport, often by force.

The government’s tactic has been to expand the airport little by little, often forcibly, to build a public consensus that the project must move forward, he says.

“I don’t believe that we have done anything wrong and that we must always be the ones who have to compromise,” he says.

While pressing farmers to give up land they inherited from ancestors, the only compromise the government has ever made is to raise the amount of financial compensation for those willing to move out, he adds.

The national government unveiled the airport plan in September 1966. It called for the purchase of 1,065 hectares of farm and other land from some 1,200 landowners in Narita.

The announcement took the residents by surprise, because the government had initially considered another town nearby as the candidate site, but when residents there protested, the government abruptly changed the location.

This led some 1,500 Narita farmers and residents to protest the project, one of the largest in postwar history in terms of the number of people facing eminent domain.

The protest movement also drew student activists, including violent radicals, to Narita, at one time turning the city into a symbolic site of the leftwing struggle against the government.

Efforts to force out the farmers and their supporters led to violent clashes, resulting in 10 deaths, including three riot police officers who were killed in 1971.

The single-runway airport opened in 1978, but expansion efforts continued.

The 1990s witnessed signs of detente.

Beginning in the late 1980s, farmers began distancing themselves from their radical supporters to take their own initiative in talks with the government.

Following a series of round-table conferences that started in 1991, all but a handful of local farmers, including Koizumi, agreed to sell their land, while the government officially apologized to them for its past forceful acts.

While the image of Narita opponents is often stereotyped as helmeted radicals confronting riot police, the farmers in the Toho district, despite their unusual environment, grow vegetables and raise hens just like any other farmers.

The 27-year-old son of the largest landowner in the district, who declined to be named, decided to farm the land after failing to find a job after graduating from college five years ago.

“The mass media write as if we are all radicals, but I never really thought about Narita issues seriously until I joined my family’s business,” he says.

But as he came to take part in the talks with government and airport officials, he realized why his father deeply distrusts them, he says.

“They speak about sincerity, but they talk only one-sidedly and merely on the amount of money they can offer. They never sounded fair to me, because it is their premise that we are the ones who must move out,” he says.

“My distrust reached its peak when jets started flying over our heads. Now I feel that I must protect my family’s land.”