The Sanrizuka Struggle: Narita Airport's Dark History

This is my first time back on the community after almost a year, and I’ve decided to mark my return with a new series covering some of the most-interesting and least-known stories in aviation history. With AP exams coming up in a few months and college in the not-so-distant future, I can’t guarantee that this series will last–I can guarantee even less that my posts will be consistent, so sorry in advance if the next installment doesn’t come for a while.

                                      TOKYO, JAPAN, 1960s

The 1960s marked a turning point in commercial aviation. Companies such as Pan American World Airways and Trans World Airlines became household-names, and pioneering aircraft such as the Boeing 707 that offered cheaper and far faster air travel than ever before. The so-called “Jet Age” spawned a major increase in both supply and demand for the airline industry worldwide.

Increasing air traffic at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, then the only international airport in the Japanese capital, led Japan’s transport ministry to begin drawing up plans for a new airport that would alleviate traffic and redirect noise pollution from jet engines. After a study of multiple locations for the airport, the ministry chose an area close to Sanziruka, a small farming village on the far outskirts of greater Tokyo.

Much of Sanziruka’s farmers lived and worked on land owned by the Japanese government, and after multiple other towns rejected housing the new airport, the government announced their plans to use the farmland as a site for the new airport without consulting the locals. The town’s residents only learned that their land would be seized after officials announced the plans over the news.

Outside of Japanese aviation, the late 1960s saw a heavily confrontational political climate. Frustrated with issues ranging from ongoing segregation in the U.S. to the Soviet Union’s occupation of Czechoslovakia, students around the world took to the streets in massive protests. Tapping into the vibrantly outspoken youth culture of the time, left-leaning Japanese students began meeting with Sanziruka’s residents to voice their concerns over the new airport.

Strong in numbers, the students formed a formidable opposition against Narita’s developers. From the project’s beginning, land surveyors had to work under the watchful protection of Japanese riot police. Throughout virtually every given day of construction, hordes of protesters violently rushed construction sites, putting meticulous planning into their attacks. Students built towering makeshift forts out of wood and created bunkers by digging into the earth.The police successfully held off the demonstrators, only to face a new mob not too long after. By the time all of the farmers’ land had been seized, three policemen had been killed in clashes with protesters.

In spite of the Sanrizuka protesters’ organization and anger, the project went on. With most of Narita’s infrastructure finished by the late 1970s, its developers planned its opening in 1978. Tensions had only slightly settled years after the initial land seizures, and within the first year protesters had managed to ransack the new airport’s control tower, destroying thousands of dollars in equipment.

Over half a century has passed since Sanrizuka’s farmers and the students supporting them took to action. Despite the violence of the clashes and multiple deaths surrounding the construction of Narita Airport, the Sanrizuka Struggle has faded into history. The bloody struggles seeking to stop the airport’s construction have effectively been drowned out by a flow of 707s, DC-10s, 747s, and A350s that started over fifty years ago and could never be stopped. Comparing the Struggle to other global protests occurring at the same time, one would expect that such a destructive, attention-grabbing movement would at least achieve a partial victory for the farmers. However, since construction began, the airport’s developers have refused to back down an inch from expanding the airport; Narita’s most recent expansion, a terminal for low-cost carriers such as Vanilla Air and JetStar Japan, was added in 2015.

Narita International Airport still stands today. Many of its most fervent opponents are in their sixties, their voices silenced by the harsh price of living in an increasingly interconnected world. But that doesn’t mean Narita’s developers have effectively won. The airport remains controversial to this day, mostly because of Tokyo residents complaining how far Narita itself is from the city, and its original purpose of directing traffic from the older Haneda airport has diminished in efficiency, with more flights moving back to the latter.


Spazzed out and accidentally posted too early. Don’t mind the edits!


Nice story

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