Live With The Soil

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The farm where we are staying is hedged closely in by the two main runways of Narita Airport. Runway B begins some 100 metres to the south. A taxi-ing route, noisily active from dawn until well past dusk, snakes around the eastern perimeter and then winds around the northern limit of the farm’s land before heading back east towards the terminal complex. Runway A also lies over to the east, perhaps 400 metres away. The farm effectively forms part of a small island surrounded on all sides by the airport’s expanded territory, with a small road leading like a causeway in and out. This island is also home to a modest peanut factory – with DIY gym equipment constructed from breeze-blocks and scaffolding poles and a blue punch-bag swaying from a tree – another house and some strips of cultivated land worked by farmers who live elsewhere.

If you could subtract the farm and its land from the airport, this would be an idyllic spot. The soil here is rich in hue, dark chocolate when damp and drying to the colour of cocoa powder under the sun. Out on the earth near where Rupert set up the camera on the first day’s filming are the dried husks of this year’s maize crop and elsewhere are cucumbers, potatoes (regular and sweet), onions (a sharp green in the fields and a papery brown in indoor racks), aubergines, peppers, tomatoes, chard, oriental melon and courgettes. Most of these grow out in the open but there are also poly-tunnels, mainly close to the ground but in one place also hooped higher on steel curves. 

Mature trees play host to flittering finches and a pair of crows who flap percussively from their roost to the power lines and then over to the roof of the long, open-sided shed where the cream-coloured pigs are housed. Running in parallel to the pig shed are four out-buildings, three of which contain the long ranks of chicken cages, where the orange-brown birds shit, drink, feed and lay eggs. Immediately to the south of the chicken coups and just below the floor where we are sleeping and eating is an area where produce is brought from the reaches of the farm to be weighed and packaged before being delivered to their customers. Behind this, and closest to Runway B is the farm’s main residence, with its sloping roofs protected by overlapping red tiles. There are other out-buildings, too, and all the vehicles, implements and supplies that a farm needs to meet each season’s demands.

But, of course, the farm can’t easily be subtracted from the airport nor can the airport be easily subtracted from it. This is the uneasy equation is what has brought us here. With Professor Matsui and Hayashi-San, we visited the Museum of the Imperial Household Ranch in the nearby village of Sanrizuka, where it becomes clear that agriculture in the broadest sense is something that has a very long history here, especially for livestock and horse-breeding. The clay “haniwa” horses that were excavated nearby and which date back to the Kofun Era that lasted from 400 BC to 300 AD can be read as an early rehearsal of the area’s connection to innovation in the relationships between human settlers and their animals. Much more recently, it was here, too, that the modern versions of Japanese veterinary medicine were developed under the auspices of the Meiji administration, a process that the museum’s interpretative texts identify as drawing on American experts and endorsed by visits from the Emperor. The museum also displays two board-mounted reproductions of photographs from the 1930s, faded but also probably over-exposed in their original prints. These images suggest another approach to the land, one that is less to do with narratives of archaeology or the advances of technicity or the patronage of the Imperial Household. Taken at a time that still persists in living memory, the sepia tones bring out the forms of dwellings, one little more than a lean-to, the other a less rude thatched structure with walls, doors and a supported roof. Around each of these shelters are assembled small families in sagyogi workclothes, kimonos, and felt, straw and woollen hats.

How differently would these people caught in front of a wooden and brass tripod-mounted plate camera have dressed from those farmers who, displaced from their original patches by Allied bombing in WWII, came here in the mid-40s? And how much further would those farmers’ clothes have changed by 1966 when the 360 farming families found themselves at the centre of a protracted protest, marked by severe violence on both sides, in response to the Japanese government’s intention to requisition this very land that they had made fertile to build a new international airport?

The Shimamura family are one of the last two farmers to grow food and raise animals while continuing to live here. The Shimamuras have written a book about their long experiences here, “Live With The Soil in Sanrizuka: The History of the Shimamura Family in Toho”. Their farm – their home – finds itself as a contested site: contested through the long histories of state and commercial power and popular protest, neither of which has by any means abated; and contested through the domineering sounds from the aircraft that drop so close to their roof that you feel you could reach up and touch them.

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