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Tokyo, Interview with Mark Karpeles, CEO of Mt Gox

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Mark Karpeles

Mark Karpeles, Tokyo 2014

Note: Certainly the bitcoin community continues to treat Karpeles as a pariah. When he began tweeting anew as @MagicalTux, writing about daily life, snacks, and Japanese sunsets, the response was vehemently hostile. There were even death threats: “I am planning to hire someone to murder you. Watch out your back because your life will be fucked up asap!”

death threat

death threat, source: Twitter














Q: Everybody in the bitcoin community talks about you in Tokyo. Who are you and where do you come from?

I’m a 29 year old geek, an entrepreneur, and mostly, I’m curious. In other words, when I see something, I like to know how it works. My main activities are coding and sending e-mails. I think coding is a bit of an art form. You code, the same way a writer writes his book and the painter paints his picture. When you are inspired, you can’t stop doing it. And sometimes, you force yourself as much as you can, it just won’t come.

I was born in Dijon, France. I did most of my school education in France. When I was 3, I started to do basic programing on a 5 lasers spectrum, a very easy computer that the general public was familiar with at the time. Between 3 and 7 years old, my mother got me game programs, and when I pushed the record button I could see the program itself and I could entertain myself by modifying them or doing other things with them. I did not get a completed school education. In fact I was not very good at school, because the teachers put me in a literature class because that was the only place where they found a place to put me. That was not necessarily the best environment for me. But in math classes I scored 19,5/20 in average, and the teacher always took 0.5 points from my tests because my writing was crappy, and he was maybe right to do so because I really have a crappy handwriting. I used to dismantle a calculator to understand how it works. My profile is not really “literature,” I’m purely a math and science guy. I can easily remember some numbers I typed on my computer few days earlier, but regularly, I do something and I forget about it. For example, if you ask me what I did yesterday, I really need to think hard. I have no memory of what I did or whom I met. I have a memory that is very much based on numbers and much less based on elements. If I want to create a password, I type it 2 or 3 times, and that’s it, it’s registered in my brain.
My mother didn’t have an easy situation to raise a child, so sometimes I lived with my grand mother, who had very old values, and it had some impact on me. At some point I was put in a private school that taught children in small groups and where the kids evaluate their own score by using different colors. When I was 10 years old I was suddenly put in a public school, and that also had a certain effect on me. I consider myself someone who is quite logic and I do have good understanding of computer engineering and I have a particular affinity with programing.

When I was about 17, I was homeless for about a week. I used to distribute flyers to advertise for a cyber cafe near Chatelet, in Paris. The money I made allowed me to buy the evening food.

My big life adventure started in 2009 in Japan. But way before that, I left France for Israel, where I lived 9 months. I had prepared a plan to get from France to Japan in four steps: France, Israel, Australia and from there, I wanted to get to Japan. But everything didn’t go as I planned. In Israel, the war in Gaza started. Somebody blew the power plant in a terrorist attack, and we had half a day of power shut down. For an IT company, that’s the worst thing that can happen. That day, it blew all my plans. What I was trying to create there did not happen, so I returned to France. Selling services in foreign countries is a good business in Israel. Israel is seen as a spotlight for technology, particularly for the US. But the problem of the hazard of terrorist attacks, power plants shut downs, unstable electricity, slow Internet connection, and so on, were things that I didn’t expect. And Australia is also a bad country for Internet connection. So I returned to France. I had nowhere to go, but a friend hosted me and told me that someone was looking for a PHP developer. I was interested. That’s how I got to work in this company in France during 4 or 5 years, prior to moving to Japan. That French company bought several branches, including some in Japan, so I did everything in order to be transferred here. I arrived in Japan in 2009 and I founded the company called Tibanne on October 29th of that same year. Tibanne does web hosting and development. I did web hosting and different services all by myself. Tibanne is the name of my grand mother’s cat by the way. When she died, I inherited that cat.

Q: What is your particular attraction for Japan?

Well, I like the standard of living that we have in Japan. First of all, you don’t find conbini (convenient stores) in Paris. Paying your bills in a convenient store, and that it actually works. Also, I used to forget my laptop on a park bench numerous times, and each time I got it back. In Paris, just forget it, people would mostly steal it. All the service sectors in Japan, such as the delivery system are very efficient I think. In France, it took me 2 hours to get a vital card whereas in Japan, it took me 20 min to get a kokumin hoken, or social insurance card at the town hall. Otherwise, I think you find a lot of Japanese culture in manga, animation. And the nature and politeness of the Japanese people makes it easy to integrate in their society. In the subway train in Japan, when people are not necessarily in a good mood, they will nevertheless be courteous, whereas in France, it’s a bit the opposite (laugh). Every morning I took the metro until Opera, in Paris and from there I took the RER A, every morning I had my hand on my bag to make sure no one was going to steel it from me. I’ve seen guys who enter the Metro and start barking at each passenger inside. People are so courteous here in Japan, so it inspires me to do the same. Once I was in Shibuya in a parking lot with some of my employees and we found a fat wallet on the floor, and we went to bring it to the closest koban or police box. The goal is not only to be in Japan, and to take advantage of the nice people, but it’s also about being part of the whole.

Q: How did you get into bicoins? Is it because you have a great understanding of finance and the banking systems? Do you follow a philosophy, if so, is it libertarian, anarchist, or futuristic?

For me, basically I am more a geek. I’m a computer guy, more than a politician or a finance person, so I was not very well informed about those sides of bitcoin. It all started in 2010, when a French friend of mine in Peru, who was one of our clients, asked me, “Could I pay in bitcoin?” I said, “sure.” And started to look into it, how it works etc. What interested me in bitcoin was the technology part. In other words, the fact of maintaining a global data base in a secured way, the way it works, the fact that each client has a secured private wallet, the possibility to exchange values with other clients without any security problem, to have an entirely decentralized system, capable of exchanging data between two people. Also, bitcoin allows to have a database that is public. A database where everyone knows which keys has what, but without knowing who is which key. So there is a whole concept that was invented behind bitcoin, that is extremely well done, in fact. That was basically what interested me in the very beginning. The anonymity of the bitcoin was not my main interest. Bitcoin requires an extremely rapid communication between all the parties concerned. And the joint database, or the account book of bitcoin, is made in a way that everybody can look into it and at any time. Everybody can update it anytime they want and globally track a new transaction. There are a lot of technical problems that are very interesting challenges to meet as an engineer in the network or as a programmer. The beauty of the technical challenge itself is a sufficient motivation for many people like me. And that is really what motivated me in the start. To have a database that is updateable by several million of people, at the same time, and instantly is an incredible challenge, especially to do this on the Internet.

Q: What are the 5 things you like the most and the 5 things that you hate the most?

I like computers, courtesy, Japan, apple pies and cooking, and also driving around in a car, or travelling. I can’t really take an airplane at the moment. I am more secure in Japan, and if I want to travel abroad I have to get a permit from the Japanese court that put Mt Gox into bankruptcy. And unless there is a strong reason for me to travel, it is very unlikely that they would say yes. Otherwise, I love dismantling old computers or electronic devices and try to make them work. I also love cooking my grand mother’s apple pie, a family recipe from Burgundy.

It’s more complicated to find the 5 things I hate the most. I hate mushrooms, most fish, except tuna and salmon when I have sushi. I never lived near the sea, so I think that’s why. That’s for the food I hate. Otherwise, I hate press conferences. I had only one experience in giving a press conference, if it was possible, I would like to avoid doing another one ever.

Q: Is there anything that people do that you don’t appreciate?

I don’t like egoism. It’s so pleasant to share, so I don’t see why we wouldn’t do it.

Q: Do you think you are generous?

I think I am. But then it’s a question of doing what I can do and that it doable.

Q: Who is your hero? Who is the person, real or fictive, that you admire the most, whom you want to be?

It’s complicated, each people have different interesting aspects and skills. Putting all the good things in one person is something difficult. I admire Neil de Grasse Tyson, the astrophysicist and author of “Space Chronicles and Inexplicable Universe.” My hero is Iron Man. (Laugh.) He’s a good example, because he does a lot of things. Again, I like the action of inventing and innovating.

Q: What do you think life gave you? And what did people give you?

Until now, I think I was really lucky, because not many people can have the same things that I do. And at the same time, I think I am unlucky when I look at how it all ended, it’s actually quite horrible. And I really hope we are going to find out what really happened. What we are seeing now, maybe in the near future we will be able to say that we were part of an economic revolution. Bitcoiners are making history. When I landed in Japan the first time, I didn’t possibly think all this would happen. But among bitcoiners, there are some who are quite extremists, I would say, but somehow that is something important, because in general when you try to achieve something, suppose that you can only achieve half of it. Let’s suppose you are trying to do something and you get only half way through, it means you achieved half of the impossible. Now, if you try to achieve the impossible and suppose you can achieve half of it, that means you can do the entire possible things. That’s why you always have to aim for the moon. Because even you can’t reach the moon, you will still reach the stars. Never hesitate. When you wake up in the morning, you have two types of people, those who will go back to bed because it’s the morning and those who will put their dream in action.

Q: Who are the people you saw the most, these last years?

The last 5 years, and especially when I had Mt Gox, it was house/work, work/house. Mt Gox used my entire energy. I didn’t really have the choice. As of 2012, we started to encounter the governments, and then I had no time to go out and take some relaxing time. I feel somehow better now than then, because I spend less time at work and because I didn’t really know how I could improve the situation anyways. That said, I still have a lot of things to sort out, and most of all, it leaves a bad aftertaste to be pirated and to have been stolen so much bitcoins.

Q: Is there something that you have now, that you didn’t have when you were running Mt Gox?

I now have time. It’s something positive. I feel liberated. It makes a big difference on that level. With Mt Gox, I sometimes had 8 meetings in a day. Evening meetings with the lawyers in Europe, and night meetings with the lawyers in the US. I was indeed put under huge pressure and stress. I gained 30 kg. And nothing improved with time. When we managed to solve one problem, others appeared one after the other. For example, at some point the French government seized one million Euros from us, and that was very stressful. A year ago we managed to get that money back. And we were relieved for a moment, but then the problems came along with the Americans.
Before, when I woke up in the morning, my day looked gray in perspective. But now, whenI don’t have any meetings, which happens more often than before, I think to myself, “Gosh, today I can work on this or that.” And I feel excited about my day. Nowadays, sometimes I wake up and I arrive to the source code, and it happens to me to think, “Well I am going change that entire code.” And I end up spending my entire morning re-writing an entire system. And it pisses off every one at the office because suddenly I change the entire thing, (laugh.)

Q: Were all these problems related to bitcoin? Some believe that bitcoin is the future. Some say that governments will always find ways to enforce new laws to frame bitcoin because bitcoin is not a concept that goes along with central banks and the very existence of governments. Tell us about your views.

At the moment, the best enemy of bitcoin are the people who love bitcoin. Particularly the pirates and all these sorts of people, who spend their entire time trying to attack the services that are trying to make bitcoin user friendly, like Mt Gox for example. As I am speaking to you, I do not think that it is possible to have a bitcoin exchange service unless you have a team that works 24 hours to detect attacks and that kind of things. It requires a budget that not many people have access to. I think we will see another Mt Gox next year, and the next year. And my opinion is that each time we will see that, the losses will increase. In 2013, you had the collapse of Bitcoinica, the first collapse of an important bitcoin exchange company, because of hackers. After that you had Mt Gox. And there will be another one soon. It might be BTC-E, it might be Coinbase. But it will strike harder next time. However if bitcoin works, it can be extremely interesting. Those who are enthusiastic about bitcoin should be more careful about the harm.

Q: What is your landmark, what keeps you going, what makes you feel secure?

When I’m home with my cats, I feel much more quiet and peaceful. But I also have my company and all my employees. We know each other well, and we have been together for quite few years now. And we do what we can.

Q: What are the first things you do when you wake up in the morning, and what are the things you think about most of the time?

The first thing I do, is I go the room next to my bedroom and I switch on the screen, (my computer is always on,) I check what happened. I take a shower, put my clothes on and go to my office or I continue working from home. Depending on my inspiration, I go to bed very late when I do coding. I am now dealing with a case in the US with CoinLab who is trying to sue us. This week, our lawyers made an announcement, where we stated that CoinLab is a joke. Five million dollars was stolen from Mt Gox, and we’re being sued by CoinLab, who manages the Bitcoin Foundation in the US. I can see no other words but “cheeky” to qualify CoinLab. Otherwise, most of my time, I think about a code, a network, a piece of apple pie, going out on a little trip. I also find myself inevitably thinking about who could have pirated Mt Gox.
Initially, the contract that we had with CoinLab was to subcontract CoinLab for all the financial parts in the US, so that we wouldn’t need to have a license in the US, because it was impossible to get it. Four different financial services experts found 4 different answers to whether a license was needed or not. Some had said that bitcoin is not regulated. Another said that a LTB license was required. We thought, “It’s too complicated in the US. We will let some local companies handle this, because they are there and they will make it.” There are regulations that exist, and we were not sure whether they applied to bitcoin. We tried to be on track, but the problem was that different parties told us a different story. For example the MTB license cost almost 50 million dollars, and we didn’t have 50 million dollars to inject right away. So we decided not to do all this by ourselves. That’s why we contacted CoinLab. And CoinLab, based in the US and they told us, “No problem, we can deal with your license.”

Q: Against what does a startup have to fight most of its time in order to exist?

A good question to ask yourself is, “What is the average age of a politician?” Politicians are usually not so young, and instead of thinking about innovating, their goal is to maintain things stable at the least during their term. So if there are any problems, they will want to leave to the next generation. For example, in order to get the most expensive license, which is the NTB license, you have to have a physical office in each State. And what we do is we provide online services. So the license says you have to have a physical office in each State, and each state has a slightly different system. Bienvenue in the USA! One thing I love doing is also giving lectures on bitcoin. I’m quite good at doing that. I gave some lectures at Chuo University in Tokyo and you had bankers coming along with the students. I could have had a career as a university Professor I think, I would have been excited doing that job anyways. I’m capable to explaining what “mining” is in a way that anyone can undertsand. (Laugh.) One thing I wish I had done in my life is I wish I went to university. I actually never had a university education.

Q: You said you felt liberated that everything is over with Mt Gox, do you still think about it?

Maybe it’s too strong to use that word, but being pirated, in other words, to have someone who enters your server and you don’t know about it, it’s close to be a rape. You have your space, where you do your things, and while you are not watching, someone enters inside it, does what he wants. It might not be the appropriate word, but that’s how I feel. I think I spent too much of my time dealing with the governments and the banks. All the precious time I should have spent coding and maintaining the system, I was spending it at meetings with lawyers, bankers, and lobbies. That is finally a lot of time wasted in dealing with regulations and stuff that oppose what we do, whereas my time could have been more efficiently spent. When Mt Gox was still in my agenda, I had only meetings with bankers and lawyers who were worried because they didn’t understand bitcoin, and I was practically doing nothing that dealt with technical parts. With 8 intensive meetings per day, I would go home at night and I was exhausted. And the next day I had to start it all over again with new meetings. I spent months and months without really having a decent life. I think there are many things that go against innovation. When you want to do innovation without borders, you will see many people who have their little comfort and who don’t want you coming out and destroying their comfort. Banks are typically the first to be worried about bitcoin, because their international banking system is currently functioning. Despite some problems like high risk loans, where they end up, and all the stories we hear with the mafia passing their money through the normal banking system, you see banks that have to pay impressive amounts because of that. But globally, their system works. So they don’t welcome someone like Satoshi Nakamoto who forces them to re-learn what they are doing. With bitcoin, they suddenly have their banking system that’s not up to date. It represents a huge change and a lot of cost if all the banks in the world have to learn how to do their job from scratch.

Q: What is your favorite song?
I have a billion of favorite songs but those that show up the most are Rhamstein, and for example, “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes.

Q: What are the thing that you desire the most today?

I would like to be less lonely. That could mean different things, but a big problem I have is that I don’t have many people who understand me, and it isn’t always easy. I am not a very social person, I used to be worse, but now I learned how to detect the flaws I have and I am more capable of interacting with people.

Q: Are you a “white hat” or a “black hat,” Mark?

You are talking about hackers. The fundamental difference between a white hat and a black hat is as follows. Imagine two kids who are playing and they are trying to open a lock with a little hairpin. The white hat will test his knowledge, opens the lock and demonstrate that the lock is vulnerable and report it to you and tell you to change your lock. The black hat will come at night, open your lock, empty your house and disappear. It applies to the security breech in computer engineering. The white hats are those who want to publish a maximum of reports in order to improve the situations, whereas the black hats are those who is use their knowledge to reach a more lucrative business, I would say. You have those two mentalities, those who don’t understand or did not take the time to assimilate the entire environment around and to conform to the rules. And often, in certain cases, the rules that are defined don’t necessarily make sense.

After the bankruptcy of Mt Gox, the Japanese police opened an investigation on this case. Foreign creditors including Japanese reporters who cover the cyber crime beat believe that the Japanese police haven’t got the skills to solve this issue. A team of 4, lead by @wiz aka Jason Maurice from Wiz Technologies launched an independent probe on their own, and Roger Ver, aka “Bitcoin Jesus” launched a bounty to find the culprits. What do you think of this initiative?

I think that those who think that the Japanese police is “incapable” slightly underestimate them if they think that they are not advancing. I don’t have all the details, but I have more details than usual people. So I have seen things that others won’t ever see. And based on that, I think the Japanese police are quite efficient. But I totally support the idea that several people start their own investigations. It is generally a good idea to have different people having different way of seeing the same problem. The police does not report into details on what they are doing, that’s why it might seem like they are not doing anything but they are actually working on this. As for understanding the situation, I think I gave them enough training so that they can now go on. It is a recurrent fact that the Japanese police arrest innocents and make them confess that they did the thing. So, I simply hope that they won’t do anything insane. That is something that is not guaranteed though.

( See previous coverage on this topic in Daily Beast, “cat collar crime” )

Personally, I support the fact of finding the culprit or the culprits. The method used is less important for me than the result.

Q: Have you read the book of Satoshi?

No. I haven’t read “the” book. These days I read more books like, “What If ? : Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions,” by Randall Munroe. And I try to imagine all possibilities to frame a problem.

Q: Who is your favorite Japanese comedian and your favorite French comedian?

Mr. Downtown, aka Hitoshi Matsumoto, who does the show called “Waraccha ikenai 24 jikan,” (“the forbidden to laugh 24 hours.”) And my favorite French comic is Fernand Raynaud.

Q: We say that bitcoin can obstruct governments to finance wars, is it true?

Well, it’s not credible. Nowadays, governments finance wars with taxes. If we didn’t have taxes, which is improbable, I would see how bitcoin could obstruct financing wars, maybe. But as I am talking, people who are using bitcoin are ready to pay taxes. If we stop paying taxes, we won’t have the firefighters, the ambulances, many of the things that we need in the end. What we could do is to experiment a society where we put all these people who don’t want to pay taxes together, they create their “bitcoin nation,” and if it works, that’s good. I totally support experimentation. However, taking in account the information we have available at this point in time, I do not believe it is a realistic thing to do.

Q: What’s good about bitcoin?

It allows a financial system that is entirely independent and it has the advantage of not being under the control of a country or an entity. Therefore, it is a much more robust system. I explained earlier that I had the intention to do replace one of our systems for Swift. Well, as I am taking to you, the entire international banking system that uses Swift depends on Swift, which has its headquarters in Belgium. If someday for some reason, the company decided to cut everything, although they cannot really do it because all their shareholders are all the banks in the world, but suppose that there is a problem with an entity or that the Belgian government decides to do something. Well, suddenly you can have all the world’s banking system cut. Bitcoin does not have that kind of problems or risks. And we could technically do a system that is similar to bitcoin that would allow banks to exchange messages in a decentralized way. It would reduce costs, because currently, each time a bank sends something to another bank, it has to pay a little fee to Swift. It will not only reduce the costs but it will also create a robust system.

Q: Will the world be a better place then?

Maybe not, but at least it will be slighty better than how it is now. What is fascinating with technology is that we improve systems little by little, and although perfection does not exist, what we can do is to improve things along our way.

Q: New York just just launched its bitcoin license, what do you think about it?

I think it’s constraining, on one hand you have the requirements that have been defined and that are a bit absurd, like the fact that you have to collect names and addresses each time, whereas for normal payments you only need the names and the countries. However in other cases, I think the text needs to be much tougher. Particularly regarding safety requirements. Because storing bitcoins for your users, is the same as storing gold. So, you have someone who gives you gold and tells you, “I would like that gold to still be there when I come back in a week.” In Order to do that, you will use guards 24/7, you will put surveillance in front of your strong room, that’s usual business. However the bitcoin businesses say, “It’s fine, we are hackers, we won’t be pirated.” And the next day you have someone who actually hacks you. Or for example someone who physically enters your offices, install keys on the computers. Like someone who gets hired as a cleaning agent, and takes advantage of a moment when the offices are empty and do the things I just mentioned. You see that in movies, but it exists also in reality. I think it’s not very complicated to get hired as a cleaning agent in a building where you have a bitcoin business. So, when you get that job and you clean the offices, you have access to the building at hours when it’s generally empty, because you usually clean places when no one is working. It’s a way like any other way to access an office that manages billions of dollars in bitcoin, when the office is empty. That is something that should not be possible. But it is, for many companies it is. You can ask your employer to vacuum his own space to counter that issue. But sometimes you can have an employee who gets hired and whose real intention is just to get access to what you have. This is not a fact, it’s just my opinion. We are dealing on a level where our little hackers who are protected behind their screens, are not anymore on a par to face all the possible cases. If you want to do a bitcoin business nowadays that is secure and safe, you need a security team 24/7 on a computer science level and a 24/7 security team on a physical level, in other words, guards who are in your office 24 hours per day and who keep a close watch on the movements of everybody who gets in and out of the office. To have a security system that you can control and that is efficient, with access cards, badges etc, you have to have audits, in other words, if possible, to have someone who verifies in real time, all the in and outs, like identifying whether this or that person is supposed to be here or there at this particular moment of the day. For example, if the cleaning lady who usually cleans the office in 30 minutes, suddenly takes 2 hours to clean, that’s weird. I say the cleaning agent, because it’s the most usual case. It’s easy to bribe them, for example, at night after work you tell someone, “I have a problem with that woman, I think she cheats on me, could you bring me her garbage so I can verify that? And in exchange I will pay you 100 $. The guy will do it 2 or 3 times, and after several times, you tell him, “If you don’t want me to report you to the police, you will give me the garbage of everyone in it, and then you will plug this on each of their computers.” You ask for a little favor and then you turn it into a blackmail, that’s how theses guys proceed. Those small cleaning people usually don’t have bodyguards and they can sometimes be put in a situation where they don’t have the choice. They are helpful and then they don’t want to loose their job and then above all, they don’t want to be reported to the cops, these people would do anything. Suddenly, the tone of the exchange is not asking for a favor but it becomes an order. It’s easy to do, and then usually no one thinks about that. Someone who cleans the offices in your building is someone you see every day.

Q: Do you trust your little cleaning lady now?

Now we don’t have any important things in our offices, we don’t have bicoins anymore. So it’s simple.

Q: What is a question that you wished a reporter would have asked you and that no one ever asked you?

That’s a good question. Well, I wished that someone had asked me how I’m doing. I think everyone sees me as “Mr. Mt Gox,” and not enough like a human being, or just a person. Although I don’t always agree with what human beings think, or the way they react, it’s sometimes disappointing, everyone needs human interaction.


Written by Nathalie Stucky

September 18, 2014 at 11:52

La lutte sociale des fermiers de Narita dure depuis plus de quarante huit ans

with one comment

Japon, 2012, Nathalie Stucky

« Vous parlez de stresse, mais c’est pire que cela. Voyez par vous même les conditions de vie de ces fermiers. Voyez-vous les barrières qui encerclent leurs terres ? Est-ce un acte humain ? Notre combat s’étend sur le droit fondamental de l’homme. »

Koji Kitahara (92), secrétaire général et leader de la ligue contre la construction de l’aéroport de Narita.

Koji Kitahara (photo Antonio Pagnotta)

Koji Kitahara (91) 

Les avions commencent à décoller aux environ de six heure le matin, sans arrêt jusqu’à vingt trois heure, le soir. Le bruit des avions qui volent au dessus des têtes attire l’attention des visiteurs occasionnels. La majorité des habitations de la région de Narita sont équipées d’un système d’insonorisation. Lorsqu’un avion passe par dessus les maisons, le son de la télévision ou de la radio augmente automatiquement. Les murs des maisons ont été épaissis et insonorisés. Le système de chauffage et de l’air conditionné est aussi installé par la compagnie de Narita et les coûts de l’électricité sont aussi pris en charge. Telles sont les conditions qui se sont imposées pour vivre avec le bruit et la pollution.

Pour décourager et harceler les fermiers qui luttent contre l’achat des terres, la ville de Narita et la préfecture de Chiba ont barré les routes des fermiers en projetant des sites de construction en plein dessus, forçant les fermiers à faire des détours insensés pour se rendre à leurs champs. Une autre forme de harcèlement consiste à encercler les maisons avec des barrières en fer.

L’une des plus grandes luttes des classes qui ait eu lieu au Japon est celle menée contre la construction de l’aéroport de Narita. Cette lutte a aujourd’hui plus de quarante sept ans. Eclatant peu après la deuxième Guerre mondiale, elle représente au Japon, la fusion entre les luttes internes contre le capitalisme et la lutte contre l’impérialisme américain.

Avec la montée en puissance des agressions américaines contre l’Indochine, l’aéroport principale de Tokyo, située sur l’île de Haneda, avait été surchargée par un tiers, voire la moitié du trafique aérien qui provenait des charters et autres appareils militaires américains directement liés à la guerre en l’Indochine. En 1966, le gouvernement du premier ministre Eisaku Sato avait alors décidé de s’emparer d’un village à Sanrizuka, situé à une soixantaine de kilomètres au Nord de Tokyo.

Le terrain sur lequel l’aéroport se trouve actuellement avait longtemps été géré comme propriété de l’Etat sous la juridiction du premier ministre en fonction. Une fois évacuées en avril 1969, le gouvernement remettait les terres à son ministère de la finance. Se débarrasser du ranch impérial de Shimosa Goryo, qui occupait alors la plupart des terres, rendait la tâche plus facile aux autorités qui s’appropriait ainsi comme base de sécurité les 500 hectares de terre pour entamer la besogne. Certaines sources historiques indiquent que lors de la première tentative de saisissement des terres, les forces policières avaient terrorisé la population locale et battu le chef le plus âgé des fermiers, ce qui avaient attiré l’attention et le soutien de milliers de travailleurs et d’étudiants venus des quatre coins du pays pour se joindre à leur lutte.

pancarte anti aéroport en ruine

pancarte anti aéroport datant des années 70s

La décroissance des plaines vertes

Plus de quatre décennies se sont écoulées depuis que le début de la lutte sanglante contre la construction de l’aéroport de Narita. A Narita, dont le caractère chinois signifie «croissance des champs, » des pleines vertes, des vastes champs de légumes et de riz s’étendaient à grandes distances. M. Koji Kitahara avait décidé de s’installer en ces lieux à son retour de fonction dans la marine japonaise. Les terrains étaient ouverts. Il avait 21 ans. Koji Kitahara en a aujourd’hui 91, il est devenu le secrétaire général et leader de la ligue contre la construction de l’aéroport de Narita. Du haut de ses petites jambes frêles et fatiguées, il représente encore et toujours le symbole d’une lutte historique. Peu après la défaite du Japon et des explosions des bombes atomiques de Hiroshima et Nagasaki, il s’en était fallu que d’une courte période de transition avant qu’un changement radical ne s’impose dans la gouvernance japonaise. « Durant ma jeunesse, la défaite militaire du Japon avait ouvert pour les jeunes de ma génération, une nouvelle perspective et nous avait donné une liberté infinie pour un avenir nouveau.» Se rappelle M. Kitahara.


comment voir l’avenir

« Le soleil ne s’est pas encore levé sur les idéaux développés durant ma jeunesse » Koji Kitahara, (91)

En 1966 cependant, l’Etat décide de construire un aéroport international à Narita, une province qui se situe à environ 64 kilomètres du centre de Tokyo. En bafouant la loi japonaise sur le droit à la terre, le gouvernement se met à acheter des terrains aux propriétaires légaux sans acquérir la faveur des habitants. Au moment des faits, le Japon possède une loi extraordinaire sur l’expropriation qui protège les habitants des lieux. «La colère du peuple avait éclaté au moment-même où le gouvernement avait commencé à enfreindre ses propres lois au nom du développement technologique et économique. » Explique M. Kitahara. Les fermiers de la région s’étaient présentés chez lui afin de lui demander de l’aide et de devenir le représentant de leur lutte contre le projet de construction. « J’étais devenu une sorte de « maire » pour cette cité qui allait être effacée de la carte du Japon. » Pour Koji Kitahara, si le gouvernement lui-même a quoi que ce soit à se reprocher, c’est qu’il était naturel de devoir se battre afin de protéger les droits-même que le gouvernement lui avait précédemment attribués. « Bien sûr, ajoute-il, personne ne savait si cela allait être possible, mais il fallait tenter la bataille. C’est ainsi que j’ai accepté d’entreprendre la mission que les fermiers m’avaient confiée, et jamais durant ces 47 dernières années je n’ai failli à mon poste. »

Selon M. Kitahara, cinq milles personnes ayant commis des « infractions contre le pouvoir de l’Etat » ont été arrêtées durant la lutte, et une vingtaine de personnes sont décédées du côté des protestataires, galvanisés et soutenus par les membres de l’extrême gauche japonaise, connue pour sa violence inouïe. Les chiffres historiques varient selon les différentes sources opposées. La police nationale a refusé tout entretien avec la journaliste concernant le nombre de morts ou les causes de ces décès sous prétexte que leur media ne faisait pas partie du cercle du Kisha Club ou « clubs de presse, » dont la liberté a commencé à poser problème au Japon depuis l’accident nucléaire de Fukushima, le plus important mondialement après celui de Tchernobyl. (Cf le rapport de Reporter Sans Frontière sur le sujet.)

atterissage au dessus de la tour protestataire

atterissage au dessus de la tour contrôlant les manifestants

La compagnie de l’Aéroport International de Narita dénombre à trois les morts du côté de la police, et n’a pas indiqué les chiffres du côté des opposants. Les portes paroles du Parti Communiste japonais actuel nient également connaître le nombre de morts durant ces luttes historiques, affirmant n’avoir « aucun lien avec les luttes actuelles des fermiers de Narita, ni les précédentes. »

Koji Kitahara conclut d’un air désespéré que ses partisans ont payé leurs efforts de « sacrifices sans précédents. Ce qui s’est passé ici ne peut pas avoir lieu en France. » Affirme-t-il.

Barrière en fer séparant la piste A en construction et la terre de M. Takao Shito (62)

Barrière en fer séparant la piste A en construction et la terre de M. Takao Shito (62)

La demeure de Koji Kitahara se situe dans la ligne qui forme la continuité de la piste A, qui mesure 4000 mètres. Veuf, il habite aujourd’hui avec son fils aîné et sa belle fille. Des portraits peints dans le style maoiste du temps de sa jeunesse, sont suspendus dans la salle principale de la maison. Des vieux souvenirs de la lutte. Koji Kitahara a été arrêté à quatre reprises. Selon lui, il ne faisait qu’exercer son droit le plus légitime. Il attendait de son gouvernement la protection de ces droits fondamentaux. Cependant, la construction de l’aéroport de Narita n’est toujours pas achevée, dû au fait de l’entêtement des agriculteurs qui ne vendent pas leur terre.

Aucun regret

« Le gouvernement offre autant d’argent que les habitants le souhaitent, à condition que qu’ils acceptent l’achèvement de l’aéroport de Narita. » Ce genre de proposition, Koji Kitahara en a reçu plus d’une fois, explique-t-il fatigué. « Mais je n’ai jamais cédé, » ajoute-t-il en reprenant de la force, « dans ces moments, le pouvoir me jetait en prison pour violation de l’ordre publique, je suppose. » Pour Koji Kitahara et ses camarades de lutte, le message est passé dans le monde entier, car des ouvriers Américains, Coréens, et même Chinois, viennent lui rendre un tribut. Sans compter les journalistes venus d’Europe qui couvrent des histoires similaires dans leur pays. Pour Koji Kitahara, la classe ouvrière et les agriculteurs ont besoin d’un syndicat et d’une bonne gestion de leur force pour garder la force de l’union sociale.

choux arroses de kerosene

les choux du dernier champs sont arrosés de kerosene

Certains champs de légumes se situent à l’intérieur-même des pistes d’atterrissage

La terre que M. Takao Shito (62), et son père avant lui louaient à leur propriétaire avait été vendue à la compagnie Narita qui formulait en 2006 une plainte pénale et une demande d’expulsion. Soudés, les fermiers s’entraident en participant aux procès à titre de témoins.

A Tenjin Mine, le champ et la serre de M. Shito se situent actuellement à la frontière de la piste B de l’aéroport de Narita. « Il y avait un chemin à cet endroit, » Explique M. Shito en montrant une barrière en fer haute de 3 mètres coupant ce qui reste du chemin en travers. « C’est la ville de Narita qui a vendu les terres de l’autre côté de cette barrière aux gens de la compagnie de l’aéroport. » Le terrain sur lequel M. Shito cultive ses légumes avait été choisi par les militants communistes et les fermiers pour en faire le quartier général de la lutte, du fait de sa situation géographique. A une centaine de mètres de la serre où il cultive des patates douces mauves, en passant par la broussaille d’herbe trop haute, une tour en acier qui avait jadis mesuré une soixantaine de mètres avait servi de symbole de la lutte contre la modernité. La tour avait été érigée en plein dans la face de la piste B, ayant pour but de rendre la tâche plus difficiles aux avions en phases d’atterrissage. La tour, jadis haute et fière, est aujourd’hui détruite à moitié. Des plantes lui ont poussé le long des barres métalliques, fatiguée mais solide, comme Koji Kitahara qui marche à petits pas prudents sur le sol dont l’herbe lui arrive aux genoux.

M. Takao Shito habitait à Ichikawa et travaillait dans la restauration avant de se rendre à Narita sur les terres que son père cultivait avant sa mort. Le procès de la compagnie Narita contre M. Shito a commencé en 2006. Depuis plus de dix ans, il a vu les constructions s’affairer dans toute la région et autour de son champ. « Je savais à quoi m’attendre en déménageant ici, je voyais déjà les problèmes de mon père avant qu’il ne me lègue sa ferme. » Explique-t-il d’un ton désolé. La société Narita veut s’emparer de 60% des champs de M. Shito en lui payant une compensation en monnaie. Celui-ci rétorque avec conviction que s’il lui manquait 60% de ses terres, il ne pourrait jamais vivre de son métier. « Les bruits des constructions et des avions sont insoutenables, je n’arrive pas à dormir la nuit. Le procès a commencé du temps de son père. Bien qu’il n’ait pas pris fin, les constructions battent leur plein tout autour de son lieu de travail.

Comme lui, il existe encore des agriculteurs qui vivent de leurs cultures. Il est difficile de déterminer le nombre des habitants s’opposant à la construction de l’aéroport. « S’opposer à la construction de l’aéroport c’est comme s’opposer à la politique nationale, c’est pourquoi les hommes comme mon père sont considérés comme des dissidents. Pour parler plus strictement, nous sommes considérés comme des forces antisociales, » Explique Kenji Kitahara.

Du côté des autorités et de leurs alliés

En 1966, le conseil des ministres ayant formalisé la décision de construire l’aéroport international de Narita, projette un aéroport comportant trois pistes. Aujourd’hui, seule l’une d’entre elle est complète dans son entier. Il s’agit de la piste A, mesurant 4000 mètres. La construction de la deuxième piste commence en 1999. Celle-ci devient opérationnelle en 2002, mais prend fin officiellement en octobre 2009, étendue à 2500 mètres au lieu de 2180 mètres en 2002.

En 2001, l’aéroport international permettait le décollage de d’environ 360 avions par jour. Avec la fonction partielle de la piste B en 2002, environ 450 appareils décollaient en direction de l’extérieur. Aujourd’hui, l’aéroport en est à environ 600 décollages par jour. Pour des raisons de sécurité, les portes paroles de l’aéroport de Narita ont refusé de donner les chiffres concernant les coûts des constructions. « La piste B est construite sur un terrain encore habité, c’est pourquoi la compagnie Narita ne peut pas encore étendre sa piste B. Nous ne sommes pas en mesure de savoir quand les terrains seront cédés à l’aéroport dans l’avenir. »

Après maintes négociations au téléphone avec la police locale, celle-ci a refusé de révéler le nombre de citoyens, du côté des opposants et du côté de la police, qui ont payé de leur vie la bataille contre la construction de l’aéroport.

Les portes parole de la compagnie de Narita rapportent à trois le nombre de morts du côté de la police et les chefs de la lutte sociale rapportent à vingt morts du côté des protestataires. Les mêmes sources rapportent que pendant les 47 années de bataille, 5000 citoyens protestataires auraient été arrêtés par la police pour trouble de l’ordre publique.

Chez M. Susumu Hagiwara (65), le chef de la ferme de Toho et directeur général adjoint de la ligue contre la construction de l’aéroport de Narita, des étudiants communistes viennent soutenir le travail des fermiers.

Susumu Hagiwara explique que, comparé aux agriculteurs d’autres régions du Japon, sa famille et lui endurent un stresse supplémentaire et indésirable, comme les procès qui ont lieu deux à trois fois par mois dans d’autres cités éloignées. Les dimanches sont souvent réservés aux manifestations. « Je suis fatigué dans le sens que je n’effectue pas uniquement mon métier qui est celui d’agriculteur. En dehors de cela, je dois m’occuper d’organiser les réunions, les discussions et les manifestations anti-aéroport de Narita. Je fais cela depuis les 47 dernières années. »

Interrogé sur sa santé, Susumu Hagiwara explique que la pollution provenant du kérosène rejeté dans l’air par les appareils ressemble au problème actuel de la radioactivité à Fukushima. « On ne peux pas savoir quels seront les effets qu’auront les gazes résiduaires sur notre santé, sans parler la perte de l’audition. Il est difficile de prouver l’impact qu’auraient, par exemple, les odeurs des pneus qui brûlent au moment de l’atterrissage, ou l’odeur du kérosène sur notre santé ou la santé de nos enfants. Pour nous, il est impossible de mener une enquête scientifique pour le démontrer. Le parti opposé nous répond que cela ne diffère pas de la pollution des villes, avec l’odeur des pots d’échappement des voitures. Notre pays, et même les autres pays ne prennent pas en compte ces problèmes environnementaux. »

Les légumes de M. Susumu Hagiwara sont revendus dans les supermarchés locaux. La société Narita ne conduit bien entendu pas de recherches sur les dangers de la culture organique de ces légumes sensés être « bio. »

Susumu Hagiwara habite à 300 mètres à l’est du site de l’aéroport de Narita, dans sa ferme de Toho.

La loi sur l’expropriation des terres, qui se limite à une quarantaine d’années, a été utilisée d’une manière inattendue en ce sens que les terres ont été acquises de leur propriétaire, avec la promesse d’un paiement sur les frais du bail. Bien que ces terres aient été acquises 15 années auparavant par leurs propriétaires, elles ont ensuite être expropriées afin d’expulser les habitants de ces terres.

« Si les autorités continuent à exproprier les terres des agriculteurs, alors l’agriculture japonaise, qui est déjà réduite à diminuer d’années en années, le Japon aura des problèmes dans le domaine alimentaire. La réponse du gouvernement est l’importation des denrées alimentaires. » S’exclame Susumu Hagiwara.

« Je n’ai rien sacrifié, j’y ai gagné le monde tout entier. » Yoshiro Yagami (34)

Yoshiro Yagami (34) est un ancien étudiant communiste. Il a fait ses études à l’université de Kyushu, dans le sud du Japon. Il venait soutenir les fermiers de Narita, et il a aujourd’hui fini par rester auprès de M. Susumu Hagiwara en trouvant une raison de vivre dans sa lutte. Yoshiro n’est pas marié, mais il se sent heureux. « Si je n’avais jamais rencontré la lutte des gens de Sanrizuka, j’aurais été un homme incapable de vivre sans penser qu’à lui-même. C’est grâce à ma rencontre avec ces paysans démunis de leurs droits que j’ai pu rejoindre la lutte des personnes du monde entier, en dépassant les frontières des nations. Je n’ai rien sacrifié, j’ai gagné le monde en me joignant à cette lutte. » Yoshiro Yagami s’est installé il y a huit ans à plus de 2 kilomètres de l’aéroport de Narita. Avec la loi sur la sécurité de Narita, il n’a pas le droit de vivre à l’intérieur de la zone délimitée.

Une histoire injuste

« Le gouvernement s’était emparé des terres. Cela faisait partie d’un arrangement tordu de la part du Parti Libéral Démocratique (PLD). » Explique Robert Whiting, auteur de Tokyo Underworld, un best seller retraçant la vie d’un soldat Américain d’origine italienne installé dans le Japon de l’après guerre ayant développé des relations avec la mafia locale. Selon ses recherches, certaines personnes liées au premier ministre Kakuei Tanaka, premier ministre au pouvoir entre 1972 et 1974, avaient acheté des terres à Narita, et le gouvernement annonçait soudainement qu’un aéroport international allait se construire à cet endroit. Les prix au mètre carré avaient explosés. « Les personnes qui avaient acheté des terres à ces endroits ont gagné une fortune. Ça, c’est le côté tordu de l’histoire. Et puis, il y avait ces pauvres fermiers qui ne voulaient pas quitter leurs terres, mais ils y ont été forcés. Ça avait mis des années pour les déplacer, mais il y en a encore quelques uns qui subsistent. Kouji Kitahara est un héro, et il ne reste plus aucun héros dans le Japon moderne. » Commente Robert Whiting. « Aucun fermier ne souhaitait avoir un aéroport là-bas à Narita. Il n’y avait pas de raisons de construire un aéroport aussi loin de Tokyo, à une heure et demie du centre ville. (Actuellement 56 minutes avec le Narita Express). Ce que le gouvernement a fait avec ses fermiers avait été injuste. Il leur a enlevé leur terre. » Le Japon a des lois différentes de celles des Etats Unis en ce qui concerne l’expropriation du domaine privé. La loi sur l’expropriation au Japon protège le locataire, on ne peut pas délocaliser une personne de son lieu de d’habitation. » Explique Robert Whiting. Il est possible de déplacer des personnes ainsi dans certains autres pays, dont les Etats Unis, mais il est théoriquement interdit de le faire au Japon. « C’est dans ces moments-là que la mafia japonaise intervient avec efficacité. Mais le gouvernement n’avait aucun droit de délocaliser ces personnes de chez elles. C’est pour cela que M. Susumu Kitahara se trouve encore là. »

Tomio Hagiwara (44) un fermier de Narita

Tomio Hagiwara (44) un fermier de Narita


Les fermiers de Narita ont appris à reconnaître les avions, à force de vivre et travailler au milieu des pistes d’atterrissage et décollage. « Ça ressemble à la Palestine, » explique Tomio Hagiwara (44), en montrant du doigt les bâtiments du quartier de la police anti-émeute qui se trouve de l’autre côté des fils barbelés qui limitent le terrain de son beau-père. Tomio Hagiwara habite à Narita depuis une dizaine d’année, après avoir épousé la fille de M. Susumu Hagiwara, avec laquelle il a eu la petite Momoka, 8, qui participe aux réunions journalières des agriculteurs, sagement assise aux côtés de son grand-père, le vieux résistant. Son père, Tomio a commencé la lutte il y a 24 ans, lorsqu’il était étudiant. Le parti communiste soutenait ces paysans parce qu’il souhaitait gagner les voix de ces agriculteurs. Certaines sources rapportent que les communistes de l’armée rouge japonaise, ou les militants de l’extrême gauche avaient lutté férocement contre les forces de l’ordre. Aujourd’hui, les portes paroles du parti communiste japonais prétendent qu’il n’a jamais eu affaire avec « les incidents impliquant des fermiers de Narita, ni aujourd’hui, ni dans le passé. »

Tomio Hagiwara explique que le parti communiste s’était détaché des opposants sitôt qu’il y avait eu des morts et des blessés. Tomio Hagiwara ne vote plus ni pour le parti socialiste, ni pour le parti communiste japonais. « C’est vraiment fatigant de lutter en permanence. Chaque famille a ses raisons personnelles de se mettre à vendre leur terre. » Tomio Hagiwara est père. Il avoue redouter les accidents d’atterrissage. En avril 2009, un cargo Fedex Express s’écrase sur la piste A, en tentant un atterrissage dans des conditions de vent extrêmes, causant la mort du pilote et du copilote. « Nous avons peur des accidents qui peuvent avoir lieu. J’ai vu un avion dépasser la piste d’atterrissage. Si les avions s’écrasent, ils nous arrivent dessus. »

Tomio Hagiwara pense que sa fille Momoka qui a aujourd’hui huit ans, décidera elle-même si elle souhaite vivre sur les terres de ses ancêtres plus tard. Il explique que s’il était stressé, il ne pourrait pas être où il en est aujourd’hui. « Ce qui me tient bon, sans dévier de mon chemin, c’est l’aide des étudiants communistes, les autres luttes sociales comme les opposants à l’énergie nucléaire, les opposants au site militaire américains d’Okinawa. »


Written by Nathalie Stucky

February 22, 2014 at 23:53