Narita airport, one of Tokyo’s main international gateways, projects an image of efficiency and service characteristic of Japan’s economic prominence. But beneath the surface, there is a long and troubled history of farmland being seized and lives being lost over the airport’s construction and continued presence.
Takao Shito, 73, personifies the struggle over the area. Across generations, his family has cultivated farmland that planes now fly over, signifying both resilience and protest.
His family has leased the land for generations. And since it sits smack in the middle of the airport, one of Narita’s two runways had to be built around it.
Even though the farm is now subjected to engine noise and air choked with jet fuel exhaust, Shito hasn’t been swayed into moving.
“It’s my life,” he said of the land. “I have no intention of ever leaving.”
Originating in the 1960s as a symbol of Japan’s progress, Narita airport was placed in the rural expanse of Tenjinmine, about 40 miles from overcrowded Tokyo. Development, however, was met by opposition from local farmers who resented being pushed off their land. Their cause attracted thousands of radical leftists, and decades of violent and occasionally deadly protests ensued.
Today, the anti-Narita airport protest is the longest-running social movement in Japanese history, according to author William Andrews.
The struggle is “not just about an airport,” Andrews said.
“This case of Mr. Shito has come to encapsulate the final gasps of the movement … the very last concrete struggle,” he said.
The Shito family’s ties to the land span nearly a century, but the issue of ownership is complicated. He said his family would have purchased the property after World War II, if not for circumstances preventing them due to military service. Most of the property Shito lives and farms on has been declared government property, although he and his supporters purchased a small portion of the land the airport is seeking.
At least a dozen policemen and protesters have died over the conflict. In February, riot police again clashed with Shito and his band of supporters, and installed high fences that divide Shito’s house and shed from his fields.
Shito’s commitment to his cause has created a division in his community, straining relationships. His stance remains unchanged, even though the airport is here to stay.
“The best outcome would be for the airport to shut down,” he said. “But what’s important is to keep farming my ancestral land.”