The Wages of Resistance and
the Spiritual Problem of Sanrizuka
By Markus Nornes
We all know the desire to resist the state. Anytime we receive a parking ticket, we feel it stirringin our hearts. Every time we pay taxes on our hardearned wages, we experience the impulse to resist.Many of us have entertained these desires and taken up causes in a show of resistance to the power of the state. This defiance is never easy, as it is invariably met with a response designed to repel and tamp down the forces of change. Sometimes this response is mere indifference made possible by institutional inertia and the sheer size of government. However, at times, the state responds with its own force, an exertion of power backed up with both legal and martial instruments. When this happens the citizens choosing resistance face a decision: submit to power or fly in its face. The latter choice almost always means escalation.
This is precisely what happened in the fields of Sanrizuka in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It seems the government was unprepared for both the ferocity and scale of the resistance it met. The site was chosen for several reasons of expedience. It was an unusual tableland, which lent itself to airport construction. Much of the area was an Imperial horse pasture, which made for effortless expropriation. But it was also chosen because the farmers there had only pioneered the land in the last generation or two; these were not age-old hamlets, so the farmers’ ties to the earth were presumably weak (or easy to break) and they would be amenable to generous buy-outs.
In fact, many sold immediately and moved on to new lives. However, a core of very obstinate farmers chose resistance. The state elected an aggressive response. The resulting skirmish attracted the attention of the environmental movement, the anti-war movement, the anti-base movement, the student movement and more. They all found powerful affiliations with the farmers’ plight and moved to the construction site en masse to lend support.
The escalation was swift, its scale unprecedented. Within a matter of years, many thousands of protesters from across Japan faced off with many thousands of riot police from across Japan. The farmers built fortresses and burrowed under their fields. The students picked up weapons̶especially rocks, clubs, long spears and Molotov cocktails. Many farmers joined in, adding bags of excrement to the arsenal. The violence became increasingly intense. And then people started dying.
Before this bloody escalation, and not long after the first signs of resistance, Ogawa Shinsuke moved
his filmmaking collective from the streets of Tokyo and halls of academia to Sanrizuka. They sniffed out the most tenacious and committed farmers they could find and set up shop in the hamlet of Heta. Today this sits at the airport border, squarely under the roaring planes leaving the second runway. All of the houses are gone. However, when Ogawa arrived, the farmers were joined by activists from across the country and their protests transformed into an epic struggle, a new and modern episode in Japan’s long history of peasant uprisings.
Ogawa and his collective̶which initially included cameraman Otsu Koshiro̶carefully documented this process over nine years and seven films, which constitute an monument in the history of Japanese cinema. The archival footage in The Wages of Resistance comes from their rich collection of outtakes. No doubt the effort of Ogawa Productions culminated in their masterpiece Heta Village. They shot this film in 1973 in the emotional wake left by the murder of three policemen and the subsequent suicide of their young neighbor Sannomiya Fumio. Elsewhere in Japan, the resistance was reaching the extremes of arson, torture and murder. A weariness set in as the Vietnam War wound down, the older generation of activists started families, and Narita Airport began flying planes. Movement politics swiftly deteriorated, resistance all but died, and the cries of demonstrations in Sanrizuka were replaced by the roar of jet engines.
Ogawa’s Heta Village is notable for the manner in which it captures this moment. Their previous films were chockfull of violent spectacle, but here those clashes are pushed off-screen. The filmmakers focus on the spiritual and emotional dilemmas provoked in villagers by the recent deaths. Otsu’s and Daishima’s The Wages of Resistance is a fitting companion piece to Heta Village, for its heart and soul is this very same episode in the story of the struggle. Despite the passing of time, those deaths continue to weigh heavily on people’s souls. Yanagawa Hideo̶Sannomiya Fumio’s best friend̶eloquently explains this in what is The Wages of Resistance’s most important line. He is speaking shortly after yet another suicide of another friend, an activist that had married into a farmer’s family and ultimately sold the land. Yanagawa said,
In this, the Sanrizuka Struggle, no matter how much time passes, is still a heavy burden on people. Those who took part in it made a deep commitment. They put their lives on the line and they still carry that with them today. In this sense, the Sanrizuka Struggle has left many unresolved issues at the site. But even more important are the many people who were involved and the feelings they still carry with them. I think of this as the spiritual problem of Sanrizuka.
The Wages of Resistance introduces us to a collection of people who all feel this burden and deal with
it in their own individual ways. Indeed, this is precisely what the English title points us to. Those of us who have taken up causes know all too well the sacrifices demanded by political commitments. Anger and passion are powerful drivers, but ultimately not enough. There are those happy times when resistance results in success̶even revolution. But usually it does not. Usually the successes are modest, and perhaps failure is even more typical. What do people do when the wages of resistance fail to sustain the movement?
This film presents us with a set of fascinating people whose passions led to very different life paths. The most memorable are probably Yanagawa and Koizumi Hidemasa, who continue to resist by tilling the earth of Sanrizuka; Koizumi’s land is literally surrounded by tarmac, and the second runway cannot be extended for jumbo jets until Yanagawa gives in̶ which he won’t. The wages of their resistance are the redemptions of those friends who died for the cause so long ago. Other characters in the documentary finally submitted to state power at different times and in different ways. However, they all reached a point where the wages of defiance no longer sustained their passions, hopes and dreams.
The burden that Yanagawa spoke so eloquently about is also felt by those for whom the low wages of struggle were unattractive, those who took the government’s money from the get go, sold their land and left neighbors to fend for themselves. They are represented here by a single figure in an extraordinary scene. Directors Otsu and Daishima accompany one old mother to the grave of young Sannomiya Fumio. Incredibly, the Ryuzaki girl comes to pay her respects as well. Hers is the family described in the opening scene of Ogawa’s Heta Village, the family that sold out and whose ostricization was so complete they feared for their lives at the hands of their neighbors̶like the old mother before the grave. Four decades on, Ryuzaki continues to bear the spiritual problem of Sanrizuka, despite not having participated in the Struggle.
The Wages of Resistance invites us to consider the profits and losses of all attempts to resist state power, no matter where they are or when they happened. The film points us to look for the life choices thrown up to those to take up a cause. It also inspires its viewers to crane their necks upon landing at Narita Airport, searching for Koizumi’s pumpkin patch and contemplating the spiritual burden felt by all survivors of the Sanrizuka Struggle.