Visualisation of Death in Japan: The Case of the Flight JL123 Crash


We are surrounded by death. But most of the time death is out of sight. For many it is a source of fear. Even though most, at least in technologically and medically advanced nations, will die relatively peacefully, the questions over death and what happens after death cause uneasiness. The possibility of dying in a more traumatic event only heightens the fear of death. The possibility of perishing in an aviation accident is a common fear of many in the modern world. Such deaths are rare, but when they happen, the story is often the focus of much public attention, with this fascination and voyeurism into the abyss of tragedy being fuelled by the media. But the way in which such events are covered by the media initially, as well as by books, documentaries and films and such like can vary greatly from culture to culture. The degree to which death itself will actually be visualised can similarly vary significantly. This chapter will consider the way in which deaths in the world’s single largest plane crash were portrayed in the country where the disaster happened; Japan.

The crash of Japan Air Lines flight JL123 on 12 August 1985 shook both the Japanese nation and the whole world. 524 crew and passengers were on board the Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet. When rescue teams finally reached the crash site, all but four people were dead. It remains the world’s largest single plane crash in terms of human fatalities. Amongst the first on the scene were the media. For several weeks after the crash the media covered the aftermath in detail, including information about how many bodies had been identified and how they had been identified. There were also many images to go with these stories.[1] A number of them have become iconic and well known images in Japan, as will be discussed below. In many respects, I believe that this disaster is Japan’s and the aviation world’s equivalent to the Titanic.

This chapter discusses how the deaths were visualized both in 1985 in the media and in subsequent years in various narratives and dramatizations about the crash. It includes a study of various outputs in relation to the visualization of deaths from the crash, including two novels which have also been turned into films. The chapter also considers the numerous other books connected to JL123. Although the majority of these books do not contain pictures, a reader often creates their own visuals in their head as they read, as if directing their own film. Narrative descriptions can further enhance our understanding of the visualization of the original event, and so it is appropriate to consider them in this chapter also.

‘Visualisation of Death in Japan: The Case of the Flight JL123 Crash’ in Aaron, M. (ed.), Envisaging Death: Visual Culture and Dying, Cambridge Scholars Publishing (2013), pp120-139. ISBN 144384926X.
Information from publishers

For further details about Envisaging Death: Visual Culture and Dying, see the Amazon page.

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