Jumbo jets defer to green onions


Japan: A handful of landowners hold "progress" at bay, preventing expansion of the busy Narita International Airport.

June 17, 1999|By Michael Zielenziger | Michael Zielenziger,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NARITA, Japan -- As the hot sun begins its retreat above Narita International Airport, a pastoral scene unfolds on Runway No. 2.

Hatsue Shimamura, 78, her head covered by a floppy gray hat, bends over the rich brown dirt with her grandson Tsutomu, 23. Together, they gather thick clumps of ripe green onions amid the roars and piercing whines of jumbo jets.

Meanwhile, an armed security guard with binoculars keeps watch from a nearby tower, and sentries behind barbed-wire fences guard the perimeter.

This is how the Shimamura family farms inside one of the world's busiest airports -- smack in the middle of what should be Narita's desperately needed second runway.

A second runway could make travel more comfortable, increase flight choices for an estimated 24 million people who crowd Narita each year and give Japan an economic boost it sorely needs.

But the Shimamura family, organic farmers, says it will not relinquish its prized farmland.

While Japan's government holds the power of eminent domain and can seize private property for a higher public good, officials say it would cause too much unrest to force this issue.

The long and complex battle over Narita began in 1966, when the government decided to seize the land needed for the new international gateway before asking for local input. That single political blunder galvanized protest.

In the sometimes violent confrontations that followed, airport opponents have included activists protesting the government's pre-emptive action, Marxists who claimed the airport was being built to secretly assist U.S. war efforts in Vietnam, students looking for a cause and farmers who just claimed affection for their soil.

"If that history hadn't taken place," says Shoji Shimamura, 52, "things wouldn't be so complicated now."

Shimamura, whose gentle bearing does not mask his defiance, claims the government has never actually offered to buy him out and says he would never accept.

"If the government really wants to improve this compromised, middle-sized, mediocre airport, they can just go someplace else," he says. "I'm really against the attitude of the government."

Adds his wife, Fujiko, as they sit at their kitchen table: "If they can take our land by force in the future, then I don't want to live in Japan anymore."

"Unless the government pays respect to the little people, this fight will go on," says Koji Kitahara, the gritty 72-year-old leader of one radical faction. "Students, farmers and laborers, we will all fight to oppose it."

Kitahara's supporters have built a giant concrete fortress on his land at the edge of the single operating runway, where they attached giant banners protesting the airport.

The standoff has sharply limited the flow of passengers and freight landing at Japan's key international gateway. It has kept at bay 33 airlines that want to initiate or expand service into the country. The battle also has demonstrated how the slow pace of change in Japan reduces the nation's attractiveness to foreign business -- and its international influence.

"In a few more years, other dynamics will make Narita increasingly less important to foreign carriers," says James Brennan, regional vice president for United Airlines. "With new and more powerful airplanes that can fly nonstop from New York to Hong Kong, or from San Francisco to Singapore, airlines won't fly to Japan anymore."

The central government recently was forced to abandon its public commitment to complete a second, 1.6-mile runway capable of handling jumbo jets in time for the World Cup soccer championship, to be shared by Japan and South Korea in summer 2002. It seemed the holdouts had won.

But the Ministry of Transportation unveiled a revised plan to build a shorter, 1.3-mile runway that stops just 400 yards north of Shimamura's chicken coops and vegetable fields.

"They want to go ahead and build this new runway next to my farm without one word of explanation to my family," Shimamura says. "I had to learn the details in the newspaper. When the jets will be flying 100 feet above my kitchen every three minutes, how can you stand the racket? It's beyond my comprehension."

The new plan does not satisfy the airlines, which complain that the approach will be too short to handle the jumbo jets that are the majority of Narita's traffic.

"It won't be capable of handling any plane larger than a Boeing 767," says United's Brennan, "so it will only be used by the real short-haul traffic flying to Seoul or Guam. It will have very limited effect on what can fly in and out."

Motoo Hayashi, vice minister of transportation, says the government's inability to resolve the Narita issue "is so regrettable, I want to cry."

But he says the ministry has done everything in its power to persuade the landowners to bow to popular will.

"We're still eager to negotiate," Hayashi says, "but at this point most of the farmers just refuse to see us."

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