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Farmers wage turf battle with Japan air force

Antiwar farmers near an air base northeast of Tokyo have infiltrated the base by working plots of land and have surrounded it with 'peace parks.' The government seeks to buy them out, but in vain.

September 10, 2009|John M. Glionna

HYAKURI, JAPAN — Crouched in his lush green rice fields on this agricultural plain northeast of Tokyo, Masaru Umezawa works the land as his father and grandfather did before him.

On a humid late-summer afternoon, the only sound is the buzzing of the cicadas from a nearby thicket of trees. Then it starts -- slowly at first and building in intensity until it reaches a deafening pitch: the roar of a shiny supersonic jet lifting off the runway at the Japanese military's Hyakuri Airfield.

Nearly 100 times a day, the jets take off and land, performing training maneuvers overhead and creating a racket that makes it impossible for the stocky farmer and his family to watch television or talk on the telephone, let alone hear themselves think.

"It's probably why my wife and I have stayed married so long," he said. "When we fight, we can't hear what the other is yelling."

Umezawa doesn't just live near the air base. He lives inside it -- only a few feet from where the planes take off.

The 60-year-old farmer is one of several local antiwar activists who over the last half a century have waged an often-tense turf battle with the Self-Defense Forces, as Japan's military is known.

Residents here say the military co-opted much of the area's farmland to build the air base in the 1950s, casually pushing aside hardworking farmers like so many pawns on a chessboard. Many argue that the base itself is illegal. Controversial Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution prohibits the nation from maintaining armed forces with war potential, they insist.

And so in a bold defensive maneuver, they have surrounded the base and inhabit its confines. While Umezawa's family and another hold on to land within the base, other families operate farms around its borders.

In the face of stiff resistance from the landowners, the government has followed a less-controversial policy of trying to buy land rather than seizing it by eminent domain. But the activists have refused to sell -- even when offered double the market value.

The farmers who continue to till the soil on the outskirts of the airfield block official plans for expansion. Umezawa's family and the other one working small plots inside the base's barbed-wire fences gain access to their land via court-protected farm roads settlers have used for generations.

Still others have used their property to create "peace parks" within the air base, a patchwork of well-manicured oases from which they watch the young jet jockeys in the cockpits of their multimillion-dollar military hardware.

"We're a small army of people," Umezawa said, "but we've much more willpower than they do."

Umezawa believes he has to make a stand. "Armed forces just aren't good for the human race," he said.

Hyakuri Airfield officials declined to discuss the standoff.

The Imperial Japanese Navy first developed the airfield in 1937, the emperor ordering many farmers in the area to sacrifice their land for the nation. After the war, locals used sledgehammers to break up the single runway and feeder roads. They repossessed the land and began farming again.

In 1956, the Self-Defense Forces reopened the air base, to the disgust of farmers. "We'd all had enough of war," Umezawa said of the activists.

Many farmers were again pushed aside, their land taken a second time. Others were allowed to continue farming.

About 130 farmers held protests that often turned into violent battles with police. Over the years, some farmers sold out, reasoning that the land was too arid to be profitable.

Then, in 1966, locals tapped into a well system to better irrigate the land for a wider variety of crops. The farms suddenly flourished, to the dismay of base officials.

The owners of the peace parks had their own survival plan: They sold tiny, 6-foot-by-6-foot swaths of land to other anti-military activists -- further complicating the government's effort to buy the land.

Over the years, the Hyakuri activists have repeatedly embarrassed the military, especially the outspoken Toshio Tamogami, former chief of staff of Japan's Air Self-Defense Force, one of the branches of the military established after World War II to defend the nation.

"He said it was shameful that the Air Self-Defense Force couldn't even prevail over a group of farmers," said Goemon Date, spokesman for an antiwar group supporting Hyakuri residents.

Base officers once used binoculars to keep tabs on their neighbors. But the passing years led to an uneasy truce. "It's not exactly friendly," Date said. "We see officers and recognize each other's faces. We might smile, but we never say hello."

One by one, many original stalwarts have died, leaving only the two families to continue farming within the base. Activists running the peace parks are also getting older.

Until he suffered a stroke, 73-year-old Koki Kawai served as a loyal groundskeeper, allowing visitors into his peace park for a small fee. Now his body is partially paralyzed.

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