The recent increase in international flights in and out of Haneda Airport has clearly pleased Tokyo residents, who, since the late 1970s, have had to trek out to Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture when they wanted to go overseas.

This inconvenience is exacerbated by tight security related to the airport’s contentious beginnings, which young people probably know nothing about, though they surely must wonder why the global gateway to one of the busiest cities in the world was built so far away from it.

A new documentary called “The Wages of Resistance” doesn’t answer that question, but it does explain, albeit indirectly, the process by which Narita became the airport it is today.

In a post on “Throw Out Your Books,” a blog about “Japanese radicalism and counterculture,” William Andrews describes the “unspectacular mediocrity” of the airport. Narita was, at the time it was planned in the ’60s, one of the biggest public-works projects ever attempted in Japan, but it ended up only a third as large as originally envisioned. That’s because the farmers whose land was seized for the airport resisted. The government chose the site, which is actually not in Narita proper but just outside the city in an area called Sanrizuka, after other municipalities closer to the city had rejected the proposed airport. Much of the land around Sanrizuka was controlled by the Imperial Household Agency, and the remaining plots were owned or maintained by farmers, many of them poor. The authorities didn’t see them as a problem, and the farmers resented their underhanded tactics and patronizing attitude. They refused to move.

When police showed up to force the matter, the farmers’ recalcitrance inspired the radical left, including students. Like young people all over the world at the time, they objected to what they deemed to be imperialistic and capitalistic motives on the part of the older generation, and saw the Sanrizuka struggle as a means of striking back. The result was some of the most violent protests in the history of Japanese activism: six people dead and hundreds injured or arrested. The airport’s opening was delayed for years, its size and functionality (only one runway until 2002) seriously reduced, all because a handful of farmers wouldn’t budge.

“The Wages of Resistance” revisits the area and several principals 40 years after the fact. It does not interrogate the authorities’ side in the struggle, which sounds like lazy journalism, but what the directors, Koshiro Otsu and Haruhiko Daishima, are after is a reckoning of what the surviving protesters think they accomplished.

When the struggle started, the Japanese media portrayed the farmers as anti-progressive hicks whose selfish impulses were obstacles to Japan’s march toward industrial greatness. Besides puncturing the myth of the movement’s monolithic radical nature — some farmers participated not because they were dedicated to the struggle, but because they were afraid of being ostracized — the documentary lays out the emotional dimension of the protesters’ dilemma. Many were unpropertied laborers who found themselves adrift following World War II, and they accepted government offers of land in the area for cultivation. However, the land was undeveloped and took them years to clear — through backbreaking labor — as they worked elsewhere to make ends meet.

Even after their farms were up and running they made little money, since the tracts were small and only good for growing peanuts and wheat. Then, without warning, as one farmer put it, “the government said they wanted the land back.” Afraid of losing their livelihood — no matter how marginal that livelihood was — they refused to cooperate.

Their radicalization by the left was a media construct, which isn’t to say the farmers didn’t appreciate the help, only that the outward idealism of fighting for “rights” was not something they considered until the students wrote it on their placards. Though it was an emotional issue fueled by class resentments, the struggle was really about a practical outcome: The farmers didn’t want to move. They threatened their oppressors with martyrdom, but were genuinely shocked and distraught when the protests turned violent. After three policemen were killed during the second forced expropriation of land in 1971, the 22-year-old leader of the farmers’ Youth Corps hanged himself in remorse and to force contrition on the authorities, a gesture that backfired by weakening the farmers’ united front.

Though the struggle continued, protesters started dropping out and selling their land, sometimes for huge settlements. The opposition splintered into feuding factions, some who saw negotiation as the only solution and others who on principle declined to compromise. One farmer who advocated accommodation came to realize “how easy it is to die” and that “they’ll build the airport anyway.” In typically fickle fashion, the media, which had castigated the movement initially, lamented its loss of faith.

A few farmers continue to defy the airport to this day, and there are enough radical elements at large to justify the continued security arrangement, but the authorities won in the end and the movie’s melancholy tone betrays the filmmakers’ loyalty to the original movement, a bias that in no way diminishes the documentary’s power, mainly because the film’s historical footage was shot by Otsu for Shinsuke Ogawa‘s monumental series about the protest movement, certainly one of the greatest activist documentary projects ever undertaken.

Otsu, who died at the end of November, provides as much of a link to those events as the former activists who appear on screen in both their youthful and elderly forms. Though no one remarks on it, they could derive some satisfaction from the notion that most Tokyoites have always hated Narita airport. It’s little comfort, but nevertheless a fitting legacy for an endeavor that prioritized government expedience over public welfare.

“The Wages of Resistance” is screening at Euro Space in Tokyo through Dec. 19. It will open in Nagoya and Yokohama in January and other theaters nationwide thereafter. For more information, visit sanrizukaniikiru.com.

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