National

Father of Nasu avalanche victim conflicted about media naming victims

by Haruna Togi

Kyodo

Masaru Oku, father of one of the seven high school students killed in a March 2017 avalanche in Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture, says he is torn over identifying crime and accident victims by name: He wants to stay anonymous so he can grieve silently without having to deal with the media, but he also feels the story will be more powerful if the victims are named.

“Our son’s name, Masaki was publicized regardless of my wishes,” Oku said, in a recent interview. “If I had been given a choice, I would have refused to agree to release his name. Losing a child is the biggest sorrow for parents. Immediately after the accident, I felt like the grief was so great that I would literally bleed when I heard even a few words mentioned about him.”

The avalanche struck on a ski slope during a mountaineering workshop for more than 40 people, mostly high school students, on the morning of March 27. Seven students and a teacher from Otawara High School were killed and many others were injured. Masaki was in his first year and a member of the school’s mountaineering club.

Three teachers leading the workshop were suspended after the accident. In March, police handed their papers to prosecutors, accusing them of professional negligence causing death and injuries.

“I had a preconception of the media as the enemy, fearing they would disrupt our lives and write half-truths about our son. It pained me to hear people who didn’t even know him say he was an unhappy and unfortunate boy,” Oku said.

But he also admitted feeling envious after reading accounts about the other families involved. He accepted what he assumed would be the first and last interview request, on Masaki’s birthday in June 2017.

“I wanted to leave something behind to prove our son had lived, just like the other students,” he said. It was the first time he had offered to disclose his son’s name.

The mountaineering club resumed activities three months after the avalanche.

Oku, who co-leads an association formed by the families of the seven dead students, agreed to be interviewed by Kyodo because he distrusts the prefectural board of education, which allowed the club to resume its activities without finding effective measures against such accidents.

“I was afraid our son’s death would be in vain. To give power to words of appeal, the names should be released,” he said.

After the accident, news reports about the character of the victims and their grief-stricken families were criticized “probably because the purpose of the news coverage wasn’t clear,” Oku said.

“I can understand how reporting aimed at asking whether mountaineering as an extracurricular activity should be permitted or if examining the accident itself could be meaningful. But it’s hard to understand the reasoning behind the need to report on the victim’s character, which won’t be that meaningful for people other than their families.”

Asked about the arson attack on the Kyoto Animation Co. studio in July, Oku felt that media outlets were focusing on how harshly they died by repeatedly showing the charred ruins on TV.

“Given the shock the families were going through, I can understand why they would refuse to let the victims’ names to go public.”

Elaborating on his perspective, Oku explained that if the majority of the media reports were critical of him or his son, he would be highly reluctant to having his son’s name used in news coverage.

“But since speaking with reporters, I have come to trust the media.”

Publishing the names of victims is necessary as long as it is accurate, he stressed.

“But since it’s difficult for families to trust the media immediately after a tragedy, the media should make certain considerations. I think the stance of the media is being tested,” he said.