An Ill-Starred Anniversary for Japan’s Narita Airport

The protest towers are long gone and so too are the gray riot police vans that used to be parked along the arrival and departure lanes, the policemen lolling around with their helmets and plastic shields close at hand, all of which had made Narita International Airport look like an armed camp.

But the scars of what has been called Japan’s Thirty Years War, the longest and deadliest post-war domestic conflict, one in which 13 people died – more than were killed in Japan’s international peacekeeping missions in Cambodia and Iraq - and hundreds were injured, are still evident in the deficiencies of Tokyo’s international airport.

At its heart, the dispute was a kind of modern-day peasant revolt, pitting local farmers and their allies in the once powerful left-wing student movement against the government of Japan. In the end the government prevailed, but at a considerable cost in both prestige and Japan’s position as a gateway to the rest of Asia.

It was 30 years ago this month that the present prime minister’s father, Takeo Fukuda, forced the opening of the airport in 1978, saying “Japan’s prestige is at stake.” The action resulted in a deadly confrontation with rioters who captured the control tower, forcing the controllers to seek the safety of the roof and to be evacuated by police helicopters.

Given that history, it is hardly surprising that the 30th anniversary celebration this month was somewhat lukewarm. Ever the bad luck airport, the crowning event of the day, the first landing of a Singapore Airlines Airbus A380, the world’s largest airliner, with SIA chief executive officer Chew Choon Seng aboard, was delayed as the aircraft was embarrassingly forced to divert to a competing airport in Nagoya because of heavy winds from an offshore typhoon.

In 1991 the then-minister of transport declared that the government would no longer force farmers to provide additional land for runway expansion. He also formally apologized to those who were displaced to build the first runway. This act of “sincerity” allowed the government to persuade landowners to sell enough land to build part of a second runway in time for the 2002 World Soccer Cup, which was jointly hosted by Japan and South Korea.

In 2005 the airport authority announced that it was finally giving up trying to persuade seven farming families holding small plots blocking the southern expansion of the second runway. “We did our best,” sighed airport authority president Masahiko Kurono at the time. Runway expansion is finally proceeding to the full 2,500 meter length from the less desirable northern end, where the government has succeeded in acquiring the necessary land. It won’t reach its full length of 2,500 meters, allowing jumbo jets to land on it, until 2010.

One stands in awe of the power of these individual landowners and the tenacity with which they cling to their ancestral lands against the full might of the Japanese state. Up to the point of the airport’s construction, the power of eminent domain had been used only rarely in Japan. A few of the holdouts still live at the southern end of the runway and have to contend with the constant noise of low-flying jetliners. Perversely, this only seems to harden their resolve.

Yet it is also simply absurd that a country like Japan should have as its principal international portal, the gateway for 60 percent of the country’s international travelers, one of the most important aviation hubs in Asia, an airport with essentially only one-and-a-half runways.

Three decades after the tumultuous opening, the deficiencies of Narita International Airport are obvious to everyone. It was originally supposed to have three runways, including a crosswinds runway, but only the main runway and a shorter parallel runway were built.

The airport is located far out in the boonies, an hour by train or two hours, traffic permitting, by bus. A taxi ride would bankrupt an Arab prince. The airport was to have a high-speed connecting railroad, but this was delayed for the same reasons that hampered runway expansion. For this reason just getting to, say, Hong Kong, a four-hour flight, can eat up a whole day.

Only now is a new high-speed train is being built that should whisk passengers to downtown Tokyo in a little more than 30 minutes or a little less than half of the time it takes to get to Tokyo Station under the best conditions. It will be completed in 2010.

Being in effect an airport with only one and a half runways severely limits the number of slots available, which creates shortages and justifies exorbitant landing fees, critics say. It also limits the number of international air agreements that Japan can make. Yet authorities are confident that when the second runway reaches its full length, they can increase number of landings/takeoffs from 200,000 to 300,000 annually.

The government began planning Narita in the 1960s, when it became evident, at least at the time, that the Tokyo’s traditional airport, Haneda, was close to its maximum capacity. It seemed logical to build a new, more modern airport in the countryside to handle international flights and to use Haneda for strictly domestic travel.

So one of the supreme ironies in this saga is the comeback of Haneda. The airport, only 20 minutes from downtown Tokyo by monorail, has three runways and is building a fourth. The airport is, like much of Tokyo itself, built on reclaimed land, and there are better technologies for building on such unstable land that did not exist in the 1960s.

Haneda already has about 30,000 annual international flights to nearby Asian cities. Yet the transport ministry still seeks to maintain the division of labor between domestic and international traffic even though changes over the past 30 years, such as the rapid expansion of ever faster bullet trains, has made the distinction between domestic and international flights somewhat irrelevant.

At the same time, Narita is experiencing increasing competition from newer international airports near Osaka and Nagoya not to mention expansion projects underway in Shanghai, Seoul and others that seek to dethrone Narita as the aviation hub for Asia.

So far the transport ministry still maintains the fiction that Haneda services only “domestic” flights through the legerdemain of allowing only those short-distance flights to cities such as Seoul and Shanghai where distances are roughly the same of shorter than the longest domestic flight – 1,947 km from Tokyo to Okinawa.

However, change is coming. Transport Minister Tetsuzo Fuyushiba has promised to re-examine this regulation in the anticipation of the increasing number of departure and arrival slots coming open at Haneda with the completion of the fourth runway. This could mean flights to more distant Asian cities such as Hong Kong or even Mumbai.

One could take that a step further and include flights to Europe during the hours from 11 pm to 6 am when Narita closes due to noise restrictions. This would create a 24-hour operation essentially integrating the services offered by the two airports and turning Haneda into a kind of Heathrow, the London airport that handles more international traffic than any other airport in the world.