A half dozen protesters battled their way into the control tower of Tokyo's new international airport yesterday and smashed airplane guidance equipment as what appeared to be the climactic battle against the airport got underway.
The six were the vanguard of some 7,000 demonstrators who gathered to begin a last-ditch assault on the airprt which is scheduled to open Thursday - about seven years later than initially planned.
In the immediate wake of yesterday's attack it was not clear whether the equipment can be repaired in time to meet the deadline for opening.
The six helmeted men eluded hundreds of police guards en route to the control tower. They destroyed much of the expensive radio communications equipment before being arrested two hours later when police, preceded by a tear gas grenade attack, stormed in after them. Air controllers had fled to the tower's roof where they were rescued by helicopter.
Not far away, thousands of protesters swarmed into police lines, swinging clubs and hurling fire bombs. One demonstrator was set on fire when his bottle of gasoline ignited before he threw it. Japan's Kyodo news agency reported later that he was in critical condition.
From a nearby tower other protesters fired rocks from slingshots.
Police responded with clubs and water cannon.
The clashes were launched by opponents who have pledged to block the opening of the airport, located about 40 miles east of Tokyo. The Japanese Government has spent nearly a billion dollars to develop the airport since ground was first broken 11 years ago.
After years of delay, the national government has vowed to face down the opponents. To reenforce the government's determination, Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda has promised to attend the opening ceremony. For security reasons, he is scheduled to fly into the new airport near the town of Narita from Tokyo's present international terminal, Haneda.
Fukuda yesterday said he was "shocked" by the takeover and his cabinet secretary, Shintaro Abe, said that the cabinet will meet today to discuss the situation.
The new Tokyo international airport has been a center of riotous controversy since the mid-1960s and has become the target of a peculiarly Japanese assault on authority that involves more than just opposition to a landing place for airplanes.
Initially, it was farmers and suburbanities who objected to having their land taken away or who complained about the noise and environmental pollution the large new facility would inevitably bring to a pleasant countryside. They fought it with law suits and small demonstrations throughout the 1960s and early 1970s.
Over the years, however, they were joined by a more potent force - radical students seeking a symbol of government authority to attack. They are the remnants of the large and violent anti-establishment street armies which battled police in the 1960s, usually to protest Japan's defense alliance with the United States. Even Japan's Red Army, a terrorist group said to be aligned with Arab radicals, has been welcomed into the struggle against the airport.
By the latest official count, the protestors have engaged in a total of 56 large-scale operations to protest the taking of land, the eviction of tenants, or the construction of some new airport facility. Four policemen have been killed and about 3,100 injured. The protesters have suffered one death and an estimated 5,000 injuries. About 1,800 persons have been arrested.
It has all become a terrible embarrassment to the government, which has had to cope with considerable public ridicule on top of the dissidents' assaults. The airport's difficult accessibility is one of the problems. A superhighway and special rail line which were to carry passengers to and from Tokyo were never built. As a result, downtown-to-airport trips for passengers may take anywhere from two to four hours on congested highways or crowded regular trains.
Unexpected natural hazards have added to the airport debacle. It was recently discovered that the principal runway is subject to occasionally violent crosswinds, making landings difficult. It also turns out that the airport, located on a peninsula east of Tokyo, lies in a coastal plain subject to heavy fog.
Last week, the airlines weighed in with their own criticism, based on security. Airport authority plans call for most passengers to come out for their flights from a downtown terminal by bus after checking their bags.