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A tragedy has clouded the history of the New Tokyo International Airport at Narita. The place names Narita and Sanrizuka have been associated with Japan’s longest and fiercest political struggle against the government, a struggle that has seen 13 deaths, five of them policemen, and thousands of arrests.

Thirty-nine years after the government’s fateful decision to build Tokyo’s new international airport in Narita, the airport authority and the government are expected to adopt a new policy by the end of this month that may ostensibly help end the conflict between the government/airport authority and local farmers who have opposed airport construction. Narita International Airport Corp. and the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry will start procedures to extend the airport’s provisional 2,180-meter second runway north to its planned full length of 2,500 meters, instead of south as originally planned. The extended second runway will be able to accommodate takeoffs and landings of long-haul jumbo jets.

The new move follows the airport authority’s failure to persuade seven owners of 3.8 hectares of land located south of the second runway to sell their land to allow for the original planned extension. The advantage of the northward extension is that there is no further need for land acquisition talks with land owners — a point that makes some people think that the 39-year-old conflict is about to end.

Northward expansion carries its own cost, though. The work will take six years and cost 33 billion, yen compared with three years and 19 billion yen for the original southward expansion.

Although northward expansion seems to help settle a major problem at Narita airport, government officials must take the lessons learned from the airport’s history to heart.

The origin of the Narita tragedy can be attributed to the government’s abrupt 1966 decision that chose Narita for the new airport over Tokyo Bay and Kasumigaura in Ibaraki Prefecture. The government miscalculated. It failed to understand the strong emotional attachment of Narita farmers to their land. This kind of mistake must not be repeated in any future government-sponsored, large-scale project. Narita’s history suggests that only when the government pursues sincere dialogue with affected local residents can such a project proceed with their blessing.

The first 25 years since the 1966 government decision was characterized by a forceful approach. In 1971, the government expropriated land for the airport by executing a compulsory subrogation twice, leading to clashes between farmers and policemen. Shortly before the airport opened in May 1978 with only the 4,000-meter main runway, ultraleftists occupied its control tower.

The government enacted the Narita special law to remove “unity huts,” structures set up by airport opponents. As the situation worsened, authorities had difficulty acquiring land for the second phase of construction. Only in May 1991 did the transport minister issue a written statement that the government would no longer adopt forceful measures to acquire land for second-phase construction.

A mediation group of five intellectuals led by the late Mikio Sumiya, former president of Tokyo Woman’s Christian University, helped set up meetings between local farmers and the government. The latter eventually apologized for how it forced airport construction and withdrew its plan for the second phase of construction.

Following this development, some land owners agreed to sell their land and the government opened the second runway, 320 meters shorter than originally planned, in April 2002 to cope with increased demand expected for the World Cup soccer tournament in Japan.

Narita airport now serves as the gateway to Japan, accommodating about 60 percent of the international flights to and from Japan. The extension of the second runway was prompted by requests for more flights to and from Narita airport and for new operations from foreign airlines.

The work to extend the second runway to its originally planned 2,500 meters will be completed in 2011 at the earliest. This will increase the number of takeoffs and landings that Narita airport can accommodate from 200,000 annually to 220,000. But this also means more noise pollution for local farmers and residents. The government and the airport authority must hold talks with them in good faith and take measures that alleviate their discomfort.

Even with the northward extension of the second runway, the legacy of the government’s original mistake will remain. Narita airport will continue to lack a crosswinds runway, which would have been 3,200 meters long under the original plan.

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