The Narita airport project 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.