My Research about the Flight JL123 Crash

I am conducting research about the Japan Air Lines flight JL123 (also known as JAL123) crash on 12 August 1985 in Ueno-mura. The research not only covers the crash itself (you can find a summary here), but also the aftermath of the disaster and the way in which it impacted the lives of so many people around the world. A book on the subject, Dealing with Disaster in Japan: Responses to the Flight JL123 Crash, was published by Routledge in English in 2011. A second book, Osutaka: A Chronicle of Loss in the World’s Largest Single Plane Crash, related to the crash details the experiences of the father of the sole British victim and includes the diary and his photographs during his time in Japan as he went to identify his son’s remains.

I decided to start this research in January 2007. At that time I was preparing for a seminar to held at Cardiff University which I was hosting. The main speakers were Peter Mathews (his son died on JL123) and Keith Haines (he had just retired from JAL and had gone to Fujioka with Peter Mathews in 1985). They were to speak on their personal experiences relating to the crash. Having realized that the audience would need this to be put into context, and as I already briefly mention the crash in one of my lectures to my students, it was agreed I should do an introduction of about 20 to 30 minutes about the crash itself. So the research started for this reason.

In doing this research, two things became clear to me. First, there is very little written in English about the crash. Second, there is a lot of interest in the crash worldwide today. I found many webpages – including videos on YouTube. These two facts stimulated my interest a bit more. These two factors by themselves would not have been enough to motivate me to write a book, however. It was these factors, together with other details, coincidences and that the topic fits in with the broad theme of my research, that led me to conclude that doing a book was not only the right thing to do, but a necessary thing to do. This feeling became even stronger once I started and gained an awareness of what is being written in Japanese about JL123 and how different some of this is to the little that exists in English.

This research also fits into my research interests. In the broadest sense I am interested in understanding Japanese identity and issues related to that – such as nationalism and symbolism. To understand my JL123 research, it is perhaps useful to draw a parallel with my previous book about the shinkansen. Although it contained some technical information about the train, primarily it covered the history, the politics, the economics, and symbolism of the shinkansen. In other words, the way in which the shinkansen reflects different aspects of Japanese society and what that tells us about Japanese society (it also considered the way in which the shinkansen has impacted and potentially altered aspects of Japan also). My JL123 book has a similar approach, although the areas it is looking at are quite different.

Just as the sinking of the Titanic is embedded in the public consciousness in the English-speaking world, so the crash of JAL flight JL123 is part of the Japanese collective memory. The 1985 crash involved the largest loss of life for any single air crash in the world. 520 people, many of whom had been returning to their ancestral home for the Obon religious festival, were killed; there were only four survivors.

Dealing with Disaster in Japan: Responses to the Flight JL123 Crash tells the story of the crash, discusses the many controversial issues surrounding it, and considers why it has come to have such importance for many Japanese. It shows how the Japanese responded to the disaster: trying to comprehend how a faulty repair may have caused the crash (for further discussion about the cause of the crash – read What Caused the JL123 Crash?), and the fact that rescue services took such a long time to reach the remote crash site; how the bereaved dealt with their loss; how the media in Japan and in the wider world reported the disaster; and how the disaster is remembered and commemorated. The book highlights the media coverage of anniversary events and the Japanese books and films about the crash; the very particular memorialization process in Japan, alongside Japanese attitudes to death and religion; it points out in what ways this crash both reflects typical Japanese behaviour and in what ways the crash is unique.

Following the publication of Dealing with Disaster in Japan: Responses to the Flight JL123 Crash, I began work on a second book. Whilst I had used a diary kept by Peter Mathews as the basis for aspects of the first book, the unique nature of their contents, as well as his photographs, warranted a book of their own. This book Osutaka: A Chronicle of Loss in the World’s Largest Single Plane Crash was originally published in 2014 with a second edition published in 2018. I have also written an article about the updates to the memorials for the JL123 crash – see Developing a Model to Explain Modifications to Public Transportation Accident Memorials and some articles about disaster narratives, which includes discussion about the novels and dramatizations related to the crash (see Truth and Limitations: Japanese Media and Disasters, Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different? and Japanese Disaster Narratives of the Early Twenty-First Century: Continuity and Change). The following posts are also related to my research on JL123.

As a consequence of my research I appeared in Episode 5 (‘Poor Maintenance’) of Series 2 of Aircrash Confidential. This was first shown on Discovery HD on 15 March 2012. Although the dramatization of the crash itself focusses upon the standard account of the crash as presented in English and has some deviation from the likely facts, the programme did a good job in balancing the details with the impact it had on those who lost loved ones in the disaster. Never forget, plane crashes are about human lives rather than machinery.

My appearance on the documentary Aircrash Confidential

I also appeared in the series Plane Crash Recreated – first broadcast in 2022. You can find out more about that particular episode in the following post: Plane Crash Recreated: JAL123/Japan.

My appearance on the documentary Plane Crash Recreated: JAL123/Japan

See also some other posts related to JL123

See also my video about Remembering the JL123 Crash

UPDATE (6 October 2020): I am currently conducting a survey about people’s interest in and impressions of the isho. Please could you help with my research by going to https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/ZVPLJB3. All of the data will be collected anonymously and according to the appropriate research ethics.

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