In the summer of 1985, 9-year-old Ken Miyajima boarded an airplane from Tokyo to Osaka by himself. He had a backpack packed with snacks and juice and was excited about meeting his cousins and visiting Japan’s high school baseball mecca, Koshien Stadium.
Ken’s life ended that day when the Japan Airlines jumbo jet crashed into mountains northwest of Tokyo in what remains the world’s deadliest single aircraft disaster. But today his story still resonates with children and adults, who see it as a way to teach the value of life.
Kuniko Miyajima, 71, began speaking at elementary and junior high schools in 2016 about her son and how she got over the deep sorrow of losing him, as part of her latest effort to pass down the lessons of the accident.
Leading an association of relatives of the 520 victims of the crash, Miyajima has also held lectures on safety and victim assistance issues for government and company officials in the transportation business.
But for a long time, it was too painful for her to share her story with others, especially with children around his age.
“Speaking about the memories of Ken would just have made me cry,” Miyajima, who had instead used essays and other writings to express her emotions, said on the eve of the 33rd anniversary of the crash. “It was only after about 30 years that I thought I might talk about Ken to children.”
Her feelings about her second son, who was in the third grade in elementary school, have been a mixture of love, sorrow and regret.
On Aug. 12, 1985, the day that Flight 123 crashed, Miyajima saw Ken off at Haneda airport in Tokyo.
He was fascinated with trains and planes, and the trip was a reward from his parents for swimming 25 meters in a pool for the first time.
Less than an hour after takeoff, the Boeing 747 crashed into the side of a mountain at Osutaka Ridge in Gunma Prefecture, killing all but four of the 524 passengers and crew members.
Despite a desperate search, only Ken’s right hand and fragments of his body were returned to the family.
Miyajima blamed herself every day for letting Ken fly alone. She shed tears of grief at mealtimes and thought that living on without him was more painful than dying itself.
But she began picking up the pieces of her broken heart, gradually coming to believe that her son was not alone in death.
A phone call from the mother of a 22-year-old woman who was seated next to Ken eased her pain.
About two months after the accident, she told Miyajima that the pair must have formed a bond during the flight.
“My daughter was a sweet girl. She loved children. She must have been holding Ken’s hand tight.”
During classes for children, Miyajima speaks about how meaningful their lives are to family and friends.
Although the grief of losing a loved one never goes away, it can be turned into “energy” to help prevent future tragedies.
Miyajima says taking up issues like “death” and “accidents” in a straightforward manner is usually not carried out in the Japanese education system, but children seem to get the message.
Miyajima said one student wrote, “I want to live as long as I can, for the sake of Ken.”
Although Miyajima has spoken about Ken in a program for children, her powerful message has also touched parents who got a chance to listen to the same lecture repeated for adults.
Among them is Mikiko Ishihara, 41, who first heard Miyajima speak in June last year at her son’s elementary school in Tokyo, though her own past is linked to Ken’s from her school days.
Ishihara was Ken’s classmate in the third grade, although she never imagined she would play a role in keeping the memories of the disaster alive.
She often thought of Ken when she frequently went to Koshien Stadium as a young girl and when media covered the subject on each anniversary, yet it was no more than that.
But listening to Miyajima’s lecture changed her way of thinking. “I now think I should do something for my friend Ken, who must have wanted to live more,” Ishihara said.
Ishihara is now helping Miyajima with her activities, including tours to Osutaka Ridge for children and parents. In July, her son, Shugo, joined the tour while Ishihara was involved as a staff member.
It might have been a bit too early for her 7-year-old to understand the significance of climbing the 1,565-meter mountain studded with hundreds of grave markers.
Still, Ishihara hoped that the act of visiting the site and praying together for a boy who was around the same age as Shugo was a memorable experience for her son.
While Miyajima is emboldened every year to reach out to the younger generation, she is also aware of a “gift” she is receiving from children who decide to ascend the steep trail with her.
“Children who go to the mountain talk to me about Ken as if he is their friend, alive in front of them. … That moment makes me so happy,” she said.
Making notes about episodes from Ken’s life to convey in classes still brings tears to her eyes.
But she does not want to be framed simply as “a mother who is shedding tears due to the sorrow of losing her child,” she said.
“I tell myself not to sob in front of children. What is more important for me is that they feel something from my talks … and see what comes out from that,” she said.
Miyajima believes that speaking about Ken and delivering his messages are the homework he left her to finish throughout her life.
“Some people say I might have been living a different life if the accident did not happen. But to me, there is no other life than this and I will walk through it, together with Ken.”