Narratives on the World’s Worst Plane Crash: Flight JL123 in Print and on Screen

This paper discusses various narratives relating to the Japan Airlines flight JL123 which crashed on 12 August 1985. Part of my study, Dealing with Disaster in Japan: Japanese and Global Responses to the Flight JL123 Crash (Routledge, 2011), which primarily looks at what can be learnt about Japanese, and to some extent global, society by studying the aftermath of the crash.

Christopher P. Hood is a Reader at and Director of the Cardiff Japanese Studies Centre, Cardiff University. He is the author of Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan (Routledge, 2006) and Japanese Education Reform: Nakasone’s Legacy (Routledge, 2001).

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Hood, C.P. (2009) ‘Narratives on the World’s Worst Plane Crash: Flight JL123 in Print and on Screen’, Research seminar paper, ref no. 7, Cardiff Crime Narratives Network, Cardiff University –


The crash of Japan Airlines flight JL123 on 12 August 1985 shook the Japanese nation. In many respects JL123 is Japan’s and the aviation world’s equivalent of the Titanic.

This paper will consider how the crash has been written about – in the media, in books and on web pages – the television documentaries and films about the crash still being made over 20 years on, and to what degree do these programmes and images on web pages shape the understanding of the events.

Keywords: plane, crash, narratives, documentaries, Japan


I would like to thank the following; Cardiff Business School, Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, Japan Foundation (London Office) for providing funds so that I could conduct this research. I would also like to thank Peter Mathews for allowing me to use pictures he took in the days following the crash. His son, Kimble, together with Kimble’s fiancée, Masako Nishiguchi, died in the crash. Finally I would like to thank all those who have provided information to aid with my research, including Japan Airlines, Fuji-Sankei Communications International and the numerous izoku and others who lost loved ones on JL123, as well as those who helped them.


This paper discusses various narratives relating to the Japan Airlines flight JL123 which crashed on 12 August 1985. It forms a part of my study, Dealing with Disaster in Japan: Japanese and Global Responses to the Flight JL123 Crash (Routledge, 2011), which primarily looks at what can be learnt about Japanese, and to some extent global, society by studying the aftermath of the crash. This paper begins by putting the crash into context, before going on to look at various different narratives about the crash: media interest in 1985 and subsequently, books, films, documentaries, websites, and museums and monuments


The crash took place on 12 August 1985. There were a mixture of passengers – many people returning to their ancestral home as part of the Obon religious festival, businessmen, families returning from Tokyo Disneyland. It is also included the singer Kyū Sakamoto, the President of the Hanshin Tigers baseball team and one of the men involved in the Glico-Morinaga scandal which had been gripping the nation for the previous 17 months. In total there were 524 crew and passengers were on board the Boeing 747.

After taking off at 18:12, an explosion was heard 12 minutes into its flight. A large part of the tail fin had broken off and all four hydraulic lines had been severed, leading to the loss of all hydraulics. A number on board began writing final messages. The pilot tried to return to Haneda and was also offered the use of the US military airbase at Yokota, but announced that the plane was uncontrollable.

The plane finally crashed at 18:56:26, 32 minutes after the initial explosion, in mountains on edge of Gunma and Nagano prefectures. When rescue teams reached the site over 15 hours later, all but four people were dead. It is the world’s largest single plane crash in terms of human fatalities. Question marks still surround the reason for the crash with the official cause being a faulty repair done by Boeing following an accident in 1978. In many respects I believe that JL123 is Japan’s and the aviation world’s equivalent to the Titanic.

The crash site 10 days after the crash. Photography courtesy of Peter Mathews.

What is a Crime?

Given that this paper falls within the Crime Narratives in Context series, it is pertinent to address the issue of criminality in relation to the crash. Officially nobody has been found criminally guilty in the case of JL123. But ‘crime’ is a complicated issue in the aviation world. A system exists whereby those who have information can come forward without fear of prosecution, even if their actions have directly caused loss of life.

I would argue, however, that many aspects of what happened in relation to JL123 were criminal and were arguably crimes. Examples of this are the poor search and rescue (SAR) operation, the apparent refusal to use foreign assistance as part of the SAR, the poor quality of the official investigation system (including seemingly allowing Boeing to lead the direction of the investigation) and its report, that the report did not make strong enough recommendations regarding improvements needed to aircraft design (including seat belts, for example. One author has even claimed that the plane was shot down and that it was the ‘perfect crime’ committed by the Japanese state.

Continued Interest in JL123

An amateur photographer took a video of JL123 taking off. Source:

There still appear to be much interest in this crash. Why is this? There would appear to be numerous reasons which contribute; the timing of the crash at a time when many Japanese people are thinking about death due to the Obon religious festival. This was particularly the case in 1985, when Japan was in mid-August, remembering the fortieth anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the end of the war itself. Other factors which appear to be significant are the length that the flight continued after the initial explosion, the number of fatalities, that there were actually survivors, that some on board wrote messages (isho), that there were famous people on board, that the plane crashed in mountains (where spirits are thought to reside), that there were photographs taken of the plane during its final flight, that many people remember where they were at the time of the crash, and that there are still question marks about the cause of the crash.

Reporting JL123

Let us now begin to concentrate on the narratives on JL123. First, the media coverage of the crash. The media were amongst the first on the scene. The behaviour of some of these journalists was not questionable. There are stories of expensive TV equipment being left around whilst the journalists went off to get supplies, many were not dressed appropriately for coping with the walking in the densely forested mountains, of camera film cases littering the crash site, and the Self Defence Forces (SDF) having to go in search of lost journalists.

Many TV stations broke off their normal broadcasts from about 19:30 on 12 August to report the crash and follow events. Newspaper companies agreed to work later than usual on the first night so that they could get the latest information included. This did not happen on the second night after one company refused to co-operate as it was to take advantage of the better pictures it had than its competitors. Within hours of the passenger list being passed to the press they were able to print details of the passengers, including their name in kanji (Chinese characters), their age, why they were on the flight and even their home address.

The symbolism of the ‘JAL’ name (albeit most of the ‘J’ was missing) and its logo (from old photos) made a clear link to a national symbol, and the media did not miss this. When, in 1995, the Nikkei Shimbun did an article about the biggest stories of the 50 years of the post-war period, an image of the JL123 wing was one of only seven images used in the article. The media coverage included the winching of the survivors to safety, the gathering of remains, and the image of two parents climbing to the crash site to search for their 9-year-old son, Ken Miyajima. Over the coming days the media continued to report the number of bodies which had been identified, who had been identified and how they had been identified. Members of the press also pretended to be doctors so that they could get in to the buildings where bodies were being identified and in to the hospital rooms where the survivors were being treated. Photographers even climbed the outside of the hospitals to try to get photos of the survivors. There was also speculation about the cause of the crash and much reporting about the apparent faults of JAL, including much false information. Questions about the poor response of the state were much more restrained.

The media trying to get pictures of izoku. Picture courtesy of Peter Mathews.

Media interest in the crash continues to this day with coverage of all the events in Ueno-mura each August. Is this coverage  a necessary evil to further the aims of the izoku, who are wanting to ensure that the crash is not forgotten so that it can be a symbol for improving airline safety. But there are few signs that this is what the press actually report and that that the activities have any real impact? Alternatively is the media’s interviewing of izoku a positive thing as an aid the healing process? Each year the media appear to be looking for a new angle to the story.

Figure 1 shows the coverage of the crash by two of Japan’s leading newspapers.

To help put Figure 1 into context, let us compare the coverage of JL123 with that of  the China Airlines flight 140 crash in Nagoya in 1994 (264 fatalities, 7 survivors), the Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 (6,434 dead) and the Amagasaki derailment in 2005 (107 dead, 555 injured). Figure 2 does this by looking at the coverage by year after the event took place.

Books on JL123

Let us now turn our attention to books. Books on JL123 have been coming out since only a few months after the crash (not including one which came out not specifically about JL123 but had images of the JL123 crash on its cover only a few weeks after the crash). As shown in Figure 3, there appears to be a trend for the number of books to be increasing again. In addition to the books, there  have also been some manga which included the crash in some way. As shown in Figure 4, to date, there have been 65 books, which fall into 9 categories (not mutually exclusive).

Climber’s High

I would like to now look in more detail at one of the novels related to JL123, Climber’s High. It was written by Hideo Yokoyama and is the story of a reporter, Yuuki, at the fictional Kita-Kantō Shimbun, who has to decide what stories to run in relation to the crash. The story uses the climbing of a mountain, Tanigawa, as a reference point. The title itself comes from the experience climbers have sometimes… 興奮状態が極限にまで達しちゃってさ、恐怖感とかがマヒしちゃうんだ… When the feeling of excitement reaches its limit, and feelings of fear make you go numb.

In fact Yokoyama was a reporter at the Jōmō Shimbun at the time of the crash. So, it is a fact-based fiction (moderu shosetu), which is a popular style of writing in Japan. The book was the Number 1 mystery book of 2003 and was runner-up of the first Honya Prize in 2004. Like many other books which have done well in the Honya Prize, Climber’s High has gone on to be dramatized. NHK did a two-part dramatization in 2005 (shown in December & repeated the following Autumn). A feature-film version of the film was released in 2008. The film grossed ¥1.19bn in cinema & nominated for 10 Japanese Academy Awards, although it did not win any in a year dominated by the film Okuribito (Departures) which also won the Oscar for best foreign film.

The three stories have subtle differences. The climbing of Tanigawa takes place in 2002 in the book, 2005 in the dramatization & 2007 in the film. The significance of Ken Miyajima is played up in the film version, being tied in with the climbing of the 486 stairs out of Doai railway station. Yuuki’s wife and daughter not in the film, while the son is sent off at airport (providing a further link with Ken Miyajima) with a reconciliation in New Zealand at the end of the film. The film’s reconstruction of the crash site has a ‘J’ on the wing. The book provides additional information, such as paper headlines each day, relating to the crash.

There are also subtle differences in use of isho and the use of the most significant article – written by a reporter, Sayama, rather than Yuuki – in the newspaper.

‘The young SDF soldier stood imposingly. He carried a small girl firmly in his arms. Red dragonfly hairclips. A light blue dress. Her light brown, thin right hand dangled down languidly. The SDF soldier looked up to the heavens. How could the sky be that blue? How could the clouds just float lightly by? How could the birds be chirping, and the wind calmly crossed the ridge? The SDF soldier’s eyes dropped towards hell. It should be there somewhere, he had to search for the girl’s left hand.’

Although a fact-based novel, this article did not appear in the Jōmō Shimbun.

The most well known of all the isho is the one written by Hirotsugu Kawaguchi:

Mariko,Tsuyoshi, Chiyoko, Be good to each other and work hard.

Help your mother. It’s a shame about Papa, I’m sure I won’t be saved.

I don’t know the cause. It’s been 5 minutes now.

I don’t want to fly anymore. Please kami-sama save me somehow.

To think that our dinner last night was our last time together

There was smoke that seemed to come from an explosion in the cabin

and we began making a descent.

Where are we going and what will happen?

Tsuyoshi I am counting on you

Mama, it’s a shame that something like this happened. Goodbye

It’s 6:30 now. The plane is turning and descending rapidly.

I am grateful for the truly happy life I have enjoyed until now.

Let us return to the differences between the three versions of Climber’s High. The original and NHK version includes a character called Mochizuki, a thread which reveals Yuuki’s concern with human life, who is not included in the film. The film makes less of an issue about Yuuki’s meeting with the single izoku from Gunma Prefecture. However, the film dramatically changes the gender and expands the role of reporter Tamaki, and kills off another reporter, Kanzawa (building on an image of the Ace of Spades taken from the book 4/524) who eventually became a top journalist according to the book version. The film version finishes with some text which surprised JL123 izoku, pointing out that there are question marks about the result of the official investigation with many people calling for a new investigation. The director says he felt it necessary to say this after the background research about the crash for the film – although the crash is not shown, there is discussion about the cause and whether to print this in the newspaper as a scoop is the main climax of the story.

Shizumanu Taiyō

The other novel relating to JL123 is Shizumanu Taiyō, written by Toyoko Yamasaki. The story centres around an employee at National Airlines (NAL) and his rise up the company, focusing on the unions. The book is in three volumes (5 parts in total). Some have criticized the book for its narrow focus in the way it deals with the subject matter and as such suggest it adds little in the way of true literature. Osutakayama is the volume that relates to flight 123. Most – but not all – names are changed. Most significantly Ken Miyajima’s name remains unchanged.

The book contains the same text as the actual Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR), details about the actual the SAR, contains the original ‘Ochiai Statement’ allegedly made by one of the survivors (and later shown to probably have been ficticious), details about the body identification process, discussion about possible SDF missile remnants at crash site, the Kawaguchi isho, and detailed accounts of the compensation process.

After many false starts (in part due to opposition from JAL apparently), in December 2008 it was announced that a film would be made (of all three volumes). The film is apparently going to cost in excess of ¥2bn (£15m), which will make it one of the most expensive Japanese films ever, and will run for over 3 hours. Ken Watanabe will play the lead role. JAL is apparently not involved in any way. The picture company is keen to stress that this is a film  of Shizumanu Taiyō and that it is not about JL123. I suspect that people’s perceptions are likely to be otherwise. How the film handles the crash (which will use computer graphics) – and its cause – is likely to become critical in relation to the long-term perception of the crash.

Other Films, TV & Plays

There has been one other film, Osutakayama (2005). This low-budget film, which has not been widely distributed, centres on the idea that JL123 was shot down. There have also been a number of TV dramatizations/ documentaries. 2005, the twentieth anniversary, was the main year. TBS’s version based on the crash-investigation book, Kakusareta Shōgen, and how the CVR came into the public domain. Fuji TV’s film particularly revolved around the Miyajima family. TBS & Fuji TV’s programmes did well in ratings in Kantō (and have been repeated). There have also been three plays which feature the crash.

JL123 and the Internet

There are a variety of different pages on the internet relating to JL123; Izoku pages, page by organizations such as JAL Unions, Irei Air Safety, personal pages (including blogs & discussion boards) written by people who have an interest in the crash or crash site, information pages such as Wikipedia, and other media sites such as YouTube.

There are some big differences about these pages compared to the other media that need to be considered. There is very little control over their content – so little way of knowing their reliability. There are few advertisements (or links) to direct people to these sites, so readers have to actively seek them out. Many sites are probably only ever viewed by a small number of people and most of those may have a deep interest in the subject. This can lead to sectionalism where certain sites only cover one common view. Certain sites, such as Wikipedia, have become popular starting points for many people, but are not necessarily more reliable as a predominant view may ensure that other views are swiftly edited out. A problem the web’s creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, recognized, leading to the creation of the WWW Foundation.

Museums and Monuments

Another way in which the crash is remembered in print, is the words that appear at museums and memorials sites. In relation to JL123, the sites are Irei-no-sono in Ueno-mura, the crash site at Osutaka-no-one, and JAL’s Safety Promotion Center. This aspect of remembering JL123 is an area which the izoku are particularly keen to improve and has become one of their main tasks in relation to the display of belongings from JL123. Recently some have visited the Hiroshima Peace Museum to learn about how artefacts are displayed there. But when it comes to museums there are many styles, the extremes being little or no text (e.g. Auschwitz and the Great Kantō Earthquake museum) and those with a lot of detail and information (e.g. Hanshin Earthquake memorials and Hiroshima Peace Museum).

Conclusions: Moving Mountains – the Influence of the Narratives

English sources (especially books and documentaries) are limited and tend to follow closely the information in the official accident report. Many Japanese sources tend to raise questions about the probable cause of the accident. There may even be cases, both English and Japanese, where the narrative is over exaggerated to try and make its case. For example, let us look at the final picture taken of JL123 during its flight. The first picture is how it appears in Japanese books and the official report. Look at the tail of the plane. An expert would be aware that about 50% is missing. I suspect to the non-expert, this fact may be less obvious. It may be due to this reason, that Flight Safety’s version of the picture appear to be slightly different.

The difference in focus of most English sources compared to most Japanese sources which discuss the crash may help to explain the following charts which show responses to the question as to whether there should be a new investigation into the JL123 crash (data from responses to survey at (Note the language refers to the language in which the survey was completed, not necessarily the nationality of the respondent).

But does number of outputs, their popularity, or their quality have any real impact on people’s perceptions of reality? There are many examples of films which have distorted people’s knowledge and understanding of history in relation to other events. Although a number of Japanese books and one of the films suggest that JL123 may have been shot down – this ‘conspiracy theory’ does not appear to have gained much support. A larger budget, as much as plausibility, may have given it a greater impact. Like shūkanshi (weekly magazines), their adverts (including comments by viewers) could have had an impact. It sometimes takes an extreme position to get the consensus position to move at all. Climber’s High and Shizumanu Taiyō – particularly the films – are likely to determine the longer term ‘memory’ of JL123, at least in Japan.

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