ESSAYS PORTRAY LOSS, RENEWED SAFETY FEARS

’85 JAL crash still painful for the families

by Miya Tanaka

Relatives of the victims of the 1985 Japan Airlines jumbo jet crash have published a collection of essays as part of efforts to keep alive the tragedy — which killed 520 people — ahead of its 20th anniversary on Aug. 12.

The collection is the latest installment of the annual booklet by the relatives’ association. Titled “Akanegumo” (“Red Clouds”), it takes its name from the clouds those aboard JAL Flight 123 may have seen before the 747 crashed into a mountain in Gunma Prefecture near sunset at 6:56 p.m. that summer day.

It remains the worst single-aircraft accident in aviation history.

“If we, the bereaved families, don’t speak out, everyone will forget about the accident. That would be painful,” said Kuniko Miyajima, 58, who has headed the 8.12 Renrakukai relatives’ association for two decades after losing her 9-year-old son, Ken, in the crash.

Among the 113 essays in “Akanegumo,” 73 are from the 19 booklets issued between 1986 and 2004, while the remaining 40 were written this year, with a relative of one of the four survivors of the crash also contributing.

Some essays express love for those who died, while others show the relatives’ lingering pain and portray their struggles to deal with the sorrow.

Kimi Ozawa, who was pregnant when her 29-year-old husband died, wrote in her essay this year, “Sometimes I cry because I feel more lonely, I miss him more, and feel more miserable now (than the past).”

Ozawa, who wrote in an essay a year after the crash she was hoping every day to wake up from the nightmare, now writes, “I believe it is my role to keep on remembering him.”

“Reflecting these heavy, heavy 20 years . . . we wanted to record the truth, and make a fresh start,” Miyajima said. “I encouraged the bereaved families to hand in their writings, saying we may be able to tell other victims of natural disasters and accidents who are in deep sorrow of some way to live. And I think quite a few had the same views.”

This year’s deadly train crash in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, which occurred while they were editing the book, added weight to the publication, Miyajima said.

They plan to send the essay collection to the association of families of the victims of the West Japan Railway Co. crash to help them deal with their pain.

Twenty years ago, Miyajima was among 401 grief-stricken households, and kept blaming herself for letting her son travel on his own by air from Tokyo to Osaka for the first time to watch a national high school baseball tournament.

Only part of his small right hand and foot were found at the crash site, later named the Ridge of Osutaka, she wrote in the essay in 1986.

It took five years for Miyajima to fully realize that her son was no longer alive, and it was only this year that she was able to open for the first time a picture diary about the growth of a sponge cucumber he made as a school activity during the summer vacation.

It concluded a day before the crash.

The last sentence of the diary, dated Aug. 11, is written in a rather clumsy hand. It reads, “There are about 15 tendrils. . . . Near the leaf, I saw a small bud.”

She added the episode to her own essay for this year.

“I broke into tears when I read it, thinking that the small bud was Ken himself,” she said. There are still belongings and videos of her son that she and her husband cannot bear to face.

The essays are not only about the emotional scars the families have borne since the accident. They also show how the pain increases amid the recent deterioration in transport safety. Some voice anger and pain in the wake of recent safety blunders by airlines.

JAL has experienced a series of problems, especially since the beginning of this year, which led the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry to issue an operation improvement order on March 17.

“If the (1985) accident did not prompt JAL to drastically re-establish its safety measures, what were the lives lost for?” Mariko Kawaguchi, who lost her 52-year-old father, asked in her essay.

Shigeyo Hasegawa, who lost her 30-year-old son, wrote that every time she hears about more cases of JAL misconduct, she recalls the 1985 tragedy as if it happened yesterday.

The association closes its booklet with a vow to continue demanding aviation safety, hoping the writings will encourage readers to call for greater safety in the skies.

“At the time of the crash, we needed the association. If we were not together to support each other, we couldn’t survive,” Miyajima said. “We hope from now to expand our network.”

Many in the group, however, are aging.

But Miyajima does not regard the situation as desperate, because she sees children who lost parents in the crash contributing essays this year and expects young people to visit the crash site to offer prayers.

“Those who were in schools at the time of the accident are starting to ask why their dearest had to die,” she said. “We wanted to make something that can be passed on to the next generation, and I can already see such signs.”