JAL: Memory of 1985 crash keeps it focused on safety

Victims' kin keep close vigilance during rehab

by May Masangkay

Kyodo News

Twenty-five years after a Japan Airlines jumbo jet crashed into the mountains of Gunma Prefecture, the world’s worst single-aircraft accident continues to keep the airline focused on safety as it struggles with reconstruction, and the relatives of those who died alert to see that JAL lives up to its commitment.

While hundreds of people every year climb Osutaka Ridge to the site of the Aug. 12, 1985, crash to attend a memorial, JAL’s Safety Promotion Center has become a perennial reminder of the tragedy.

Located near Tokyo’s Haneda airport, the center displays debris from the plane, including the damaged rear pressure bulkhead, which was identified by the aircraft investigation commission as the probable cause of the crash. The plane was flying from Tokyo to Osaka when it went down.

“I had heard about the accident before joining JAL, but having an actual look at the plane’s wreckage, it really hits home — that this is reality, and that an accident of this kind can happen,” said Mimei Miyagawa, 20, a cabin attendant who toured the center with a group of other JAL staff prior to the accident’s 25th anniversary.

The group, some of whose members hadn’t been born at the time of the crash, also had a classroom discussion about their roles in ensuring safety on flights and climbed Osutaka Ridge as part of a two-day training exercise.

“Safety is not something we can see visibly, and what is on display at the center is the opposite of safety, which means that when things become unsafe, this is how grim things will be,” said Yuji Akasaka, vice chief of JAL’s corporate safety and security division, which oversees the center.

“To educate our staff, we believe the most effective thing is to show them an image of what is the opposite of safety,” he said. “When we talk about safety, everyone pictures Mount Osutaka in their mind, and that says it all.”

Despite having to struggle with financial woes as it undergoes rehabilitation, Japan’s former flag carrier is trying to reinvent itself as a leaner, more efficient company that will restore profitability without compromising safety, according to JAL officials.

President Masaru Onishi said at a recent news conference he “can’t forget the shock” he felt over the crash. Following the accident, he helped medical teams identify victims’ body parts at a school gymnasium.

“The most important thing is simply to remember the lessons learned, that is, to stick to the importance of ensuring safety and pass this down to the next generation,” Onishi said.

Since the center was launched April 24, 2006, about 80 percent of JAL’s current workers have visited it at least once. An average of about 80 members of the public also come daily, and the total now stands at more than 81,000, including relatives of the 520 people who died in the crash and aviation experts.

Only four passengers, all female, survived the crash.

Toward the end of the hourlong visit, Miyagawa’s tour guide paused to give more time for the group to look at the remains of the passengers’ personal effects, including crushed eyeglasses, watches and keys, and to read four panels showing the farewell notes some of the passengers wrote as the plane struggled for 32 minutes to stay in the air before the crash.

A message written by Hirotsugu Kawaguchi, 52, says, “To think that our meal together yesterday was my last . . . I have had a happy life until now, and I am thankful for it.”

Kuniko Miyajima, who heads a liaison group for victims’ relatives known as 8.12 Renrakukai, said that while it is still painful to look at the wreckage and personal effects even after 25 years, it would be worse if people “forget” about the accident, which took the life of her 9-year-old son, Ken, who was on his first plane trip.

“The center is not only a place to show some details of the accident, but also a place to learn the value of safety that isn’t found in the company manual,” she said.

Miyajima has shared her story with JAL employees in lectures at the center.

Nonfiction writer Kunio Yanagida, who heads a safety advisory panel for JAL, stresses the importance of story-telling by victims’ families.

Selected highlights of JAL’s history

Kyodo News

Aug. 1, 1951 — Japan Air Lines Co. is established.
Feb. 2, 1954 — JAL inaugurates international services, flies to San Francisco.
Aug. 12, 1985 — A JAL Boeing 747 airliner crashes into Osutaka Ridge in Gunma Prefecture, killing 520 people.
Dec. 7, 1985 — Crash victims’ kin launch a liaison group.
June 19, 1987 — Government panel concludes that improper repair of a rear pressure bulkhead caused the 1985 crash.
Oct. 2, 2002 — JAL and Japan Air System integrate operations under a new holding company.
April 24, 2006 — JAL opens the Safety Promotion Center to hand down lessons of the jumbo jet crash.
Oct. 29, 2009 — JAL applies for support from the Enterprise Turnaround Initiative Corp. of Japan.
Jan. 19, 2010 — JAL files for bankruptcy protection.
Feb. 19 — Trading of JAL shares on the Tokyo Stock Exchange ends, with the final price standing at ¥1.

“The employees not only visit the center but climb up the mountain and listen regularly to stories of the bereaved relatives . . . these measures are definitely crucial to creating a culture of safety,” he said.

“Not to forget the accident is the best way of preventing a recurrence,” Miyajima said. “Through personal effects and the different stories, we want to share it with others. . . . If JAL hadn’t saved the debris and personal effects, it wouldn’t have been a place where we could work together with the company.”

Now 63 years old, Miyajima published the book “Osutakayama to Ikiru” (“To Live with Mount Osutaka”) to describe her personal battle with pain over the past 25 years. Her account is interspersed with a progress report on safety measures implemented by JAL and the government.

With JAL set to reveal the details of its rehabilitation plan by the end of this month, Yanagida said, “Our primary role as an advisory group is to urge JAL not to stop or downsize measures to ensure safety even as it undergoes streamlining.”

“The future of JAL is now in the young employees’ hands. . . . As they rebuild their company, they must not forget this accident and not think only about making profits,” Miyajima said. “JAL, as it goes through restructuring, faces the test of whether it can protect its commitment to safety.”