A Shinto priest waved sacred boughs and blessed construction of a new runway at Tokyo's Narita airport today, as bulldozers waited to begin work that has prompted bitter demonstrations for more than three decades.
The construction workers moved onto the site two days after a 70-year-old farmer agreed to vacate his land, finally clearing the path for a new but shortened runway for the overtaxed facility.
"This is a big turning point," said Yoshihito Shinbori, an official of the New Tokyo International Airport Authority. "We feel a heavy relief that we have reached this point."
For 33 years, the construction and expansion of Tokyo's only international airport have prompted pitched battles spanning anti-Vietnam, anti-American, anti-government, leftist, pro-farm and pro-environment themes.
The demonstrations left four policemen and two protesters dead as the world's seventh-busiest airport remained a hobbled facility with one runway. Most busy metropolitan airports have multiple runways.
The vehemence of the demonstrations took officials by surprise in 1966 when they grandly announced the selection of the site for Tokyo's international airport--40 miles from center city--without consulting the residents.
So, too, did the stubbornness of some farmers there, who refused to relinquish their land and were protected by the demonstrations and Japan's weak public-use seizure laws.
Shohei Horikoshi was one of seven farmers who held out in the face of intense pressure. He agreed to sell his land Wednesday after a visit to his home by the Chiba prefecture governor and a public letter of apology from the government.
"I did not want my grandchildren to inherit this suffering," the farmer said.
Three other farmers remain on land that blocks the airport's original plan to build an 8,250-foot runway. After their refusals stopped construction in 1993, the airport authority settled on a shorter, relocated runway that can accommodate only medium-size jets.
Shoji Shimamura, 52, is one of the farmers. Even the shorter runway will send jets about 130 feet over his home, he said today. "I can't imagine what it will be like to have the airplanes go over my head every day, day after day, time after time," he said.
But Shimamura, who has 5,000 chickens on four acres, said, "I have no intention of compromising. I can't believe the government is so inhumane."
Government officials say they were chastened by the opposition.
"From the beginning we admitted we took the wrong approach," said Shinbori. "We have become more self-reflective. We have concluded progress ought to be made by talking, not force."
But Shinbori said it is "absurd" to have a single runway taking all the passengers and freight for a bustling business center and metropolitan area of 33 million people.
The single runway, and nighttime closure to reduce noise, limits Narita's usefulness.
Thirty-three countries have asked for landing rights and were put on a waiting list. The landing fees are among the highest in the world.
Narita airport's inefficiencies have made it widely despised in Tokyo.
The trip to the airport is costly and long, typically involving three means of public transportation, and Tokyo travelers must leave home almost four hours before their flight. Even in the terminal, passengers must walk for what seems like miles to reach the right desk or gate.
"It's stupid to have to spend two hours to get to the airport for a 90-minute flight to Seoul," said Junichi Yasui, director of the Civil Aviation Policy Office for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.