'Sunagawa Struggle' ignited anti-U.S. base resistance across Japan

by Dustin Wright

On May 4, 1955, a black car rolled into the Tokyo suburb of Sunagawa and sparked one of the biggest anti-U.S. base protests in history. The car parked in front of the home of the town mayor, who was inside with members of the community celebrating his recent mayoral election.

When an official from the Tachikawa branch of the Tokyo Procurement Office entered the house, partygoers assumed he was there to offer his own congratulations. He was not.

“The truth is,” the official said, “Tachikawa Base is going to expand again and we would really appreciate your cooperation in any way.”

He returned to his car and drove away. Within weeks, hundreds of protesters were gathering at the base’s barbed-wire fence, calling their movement the “Sunagawa Struggle.” By 1959, it seemed as though the days of U.S. bases in Japan could be numbered.

Sunagawa is a small town north of the city of Tachikawa, only 30 minutes from Shinjuku along the Chuo Line. The main runway of the U.S. Air Force base in Tachikawa was, like many other runways in Japan, too short for the Cold War generation of warplanes. The military wanted to extend the runway north, through the heart of Sunagawa.

The Japanese government had received directives from base officials to evict 140 families in Sunagawa from their homes and farmland to make way for the runway. For the farmers, it was not simply a problem of negotiating fair payment from the Procurement Office for the land they were going to lose. The loss of land would be an abrupt loss of livelihood and history. Many locals traced their family ties in Sunagawa to the early Edo Period.

Postwar Sunagawa was, like many Tokyo suburbs, still trying to find its feet after years of war and occupation. Once a major airfield of the Imperial Japanese Army, the base in Tachikawa and the surrounding communities were heavily bombed by the U.S. military. After the war, the U.S. repurposed Tachikawa Air Base into a major hub for their air force and the home of Far East Asia Command.

The base dominated the landscape and reminded locals that the Occupation had not ended — not really. Exiting the north side of Tachikawa Station in the 1950s, you would have been greeted by the main entrance of the base, surrounded by bars and cabarets, with American soldiers and Japanese workers flowing in and out of the base. You could not have escaped the deafening blasts of warplanes that haunted the skies over Tachikawa.

Like the base’s industrial pollution, the deep anti-base sentiment behind the Sunagawa Struggle had been seeping into the town’s pores for years. Tachikawa was once one of the most infamous base towns in East Asia, known to many as the “city of black markets and drugs.” In the early 1950s there were reportedly 5,000 sex workers in Tachikawa, scrambling to earn a livelihood in a dangerous and unforgiving suburban landscape.

Water wells in Tachikawa were polluted so badly with gasoline and oil that many simply combusted. People became nauseous when they visited the local public baths. Tofu stores, laundromats and other shops dependent on clean water went out of business. In the neighborhoods around the main entrance of the base, over 80 percent of the wells were contaminated and potable water had to be trucked in. Much of the lived space around the base had become uninhabitable.

Then there were the accidents. In the early evening of June 18, 1953, a U.S. Air Force C-124 Globemaster crashed into a watermelon field shortly after taking off from Tachikawa, killing all of the 129 Korea-bound passengers. On Sept. 20, 1955, as the Sunagawa Struggle was quickly escalating, another plane fell out of the sky in western Tokyo, this time in Hachioji. The jet crashed into a farming neighborhood and killed four people.

For the people who lived in Sunagawa, there appeared to be no end to the base expansions, which were particularly hard to bear at a time of increasing urbanization. Between 1945 and 1955, the population of Sunagawa increased by 42 percent to over 12,000, while the number of households increased by 35 percent. Over the same period, the U.S. military expanded the size of Tachikawa Air Base no less than four times.

The base was, like Tokyo itself, an organism that appeared committed to an ideology of unrestrained growth. When the black car from the Procurement Office rolled into Sunagawa and demanded that locals once again hand over their land and livelihoods, most of the townspeople felt no choice but to reject outright the expansion or any potential compensation.

In the early days of the Struggle, local farming families — including grandparents and children— chanted “You can stake our land but you can’t stake our spirits” as they blocked government land surveyors who attempted to set up “No entry” signs on the expansion land. When surveyors arrived in trucks, protesters sat in front of their path and prevented them from leaving their vehicles.

Locals quickly formed the Sunagawa Anti-Base Expansion Alliance (Sunagawa Hantai Kichi Kakucho Domei). In the summer of 1955, the alliance rapidly expanded to include regional and national labor unions and student groups, as well as Socialist Diet lawmakers.

Many union supporters objected broadly to the way that the central government demanded land from a politically powerless community. A hospital workers’ union at the Murayama National Hospital, only 2 km north of Sunagawa and directly under the flight path of U.S. warplanes, called on their supporters to join the Struggle. Doctors at the hospital noticed that their patients were losing sleep, unable to rest, and showing increasing signs of stress, such as higher blood pressure and trouble breathing. It was the blasts of the jet engines flying over the rooftops, they said.

The government sent in more police to evict the protesters. The protest movements grew larger. University students from Tokyo went to Sunagawa, manning barricades during the day, sleeping on the floor of the local junior high school at night.

By the fall of 1956, scores of people were fighting pitch battles in the muddy farm plots of Sunagawa. In October, 2,000 police officers were ordered to evict the farmers from the land that they continued to occupy, only to be met with 6,000 protesters, resulting in a clash that left roughly 1,000 people injured, many seriously.

In 1957, during another massive round of protests, a scrum of demonstrators surged over the barbed wire fences and onto the base. Seven protesters were eventually arrested and charged with trespassing. Their case was adjudicated in the Tokyo District Court where, to the shock of many, it was the U.S. bases themselves that were found guilty. The presiding judge, Akio Date, argued, “It cannot be said that the stationing of the United States armed forces in our country is permitted under the Constitution.”

The verdict that the bases violated Article 9 was a nightmare for the U.S. military and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, both of which pressured the Supreme Court to overrule the verdict, which it promptly did. But the damage was done. The Sunagawa Struggle and the Date judgment delivered a powerful blow to America’s militarization of Japan’s geography, which was and continues to be the central component of the U.S.-Japan security treaty.

The historian Shoji Arakawa wrote that “As a result of the intense anti-base movement of the Sunagawa Struggle —synergized with the political conflict and public division over the revision of the security treaty — the security treaty itself became a point of contention in the courts, through which the role, significance and interpretation of Article 9 had to be probed.” Without the farmers of Sunagawa, the Anpo (Japan-U.S. security treaty) protests of 1960 would have been something else entirely.

It was not until the winter of 1968 that the U.S. military quietly announced it had given up on the planned runway extension. In 1977 the U.S. Air Force handed the base back to Japanese sovereignty.

What does the Sunagawa Struggle mean for those who resist American military bases in Japan today? Many readers will recognize the parallels between the Sunagawa Struggle and the continued protests against militarism and land dispossession throughout Japan in places like Henoko, Takae, Iwakuni, Kyotango, Yokosuka and so forth. What does victory mean for these anti-base struggles?

Today, the space of Tachikawa Air Base, wrenched from the U.S. military by a core group of small-town farmers and their supporters, is occupied by the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force’s Camp Tachikawa and the National Showa Memorial Park. Perhaps victory is subjective.

Dustin Wright is completing his doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he will be teaching Japanese history next year. His project is centered on the history of the Sunagawa Struggle and protests against U.S. bases in the Kanto region. Comments: