Book Review: “Ken-chan no Momi-no-Ki (The Fir Tree)” by Kuniko Miyajima

There are certain things that are well known about the JAL flight JL123 crash – that it is the world’s largest single plane crash (520 fatalities), that amazingly there were 4 survivors, that the Search and Rescue took a long time, that final notes (isho) were written by some passengers and crew, that question marks remain about the actual cause, that there have been movies (Climber’s High, Shizumanu Taiyo, and One-no-Kanata-ni) about the crash, and so on. All of these things, and others, I have written about in both blogs posts and also my academic writing – such as Dealing with Disaster in Japan: Responses to the Flight JL123 Crash.

Perhaps less well known, at least outside of Japan, in relation to the crash may be the name of Kuniko Miyajima. Mrs Miyajima’s son, Ken, was on JL123. It was the first time he had flown by himself and he was only 9 years old. Following the crash Mr and Mrs Miyajima travelled to the crash site, desperately searching for Ken. They were filmed at the crash site by the assembled media and the scene became one of the iconic images associated with the crash (a photograph of this appears in Dealing with Disaster in Japan).

When an association, the 8/12 Renrakukai, was set up by the families as a support mechanism in December 1985, Kuniko Miyajima became its head – a role she continues to perform.

In addition to her work for the association, Kuniko Miyajima has written a number of books, edits the association’s newsletter (Osutaka) and other publications, and had also become active in ensuring that more support is provided to the bereaved (izoku) in the wake of other accidents – an area that was in need of significant improvement.

Through my research on the JL123 crash, it has been an honour to get to know Kuniko Miyajima. Recently, she sent me a copy of her latest book – Ken-chan no Momi-no-Ki (けんちゃんのもみの木) (Official English title, ‘The Fir Tree’). As with another of her books, Itsumo Issho Dayo (いつもいっしょだよ) (‘Always together’), this book is largely an illustrated book with a few lines of text on each page. The images by Hideko Ise are amazing and it’s possible to enjoy the book for the pictures alone. The text – mostly written in hiragana (with furigana above kanji which a 9 year old may not be expected to know) is so engaging and emotional. In brief, the book is about the tree that the Miyajima’s planted at the spot on Osutaka-no-One (the crash site) where Ken’s bohyo (marker post) is placed – in the area where his remains were found.

Ken Miyajima’s bohyo. The fir tree – with some Christmas decorations on it – is visible behind the marker post.

This picture above was taken in 2010 and you can get an impression for how much the fir tree has grown. And it continues to grow. That is a central theme of the main part of book itself.

The book ends with a page of text by Kuniko Miyajima talking more about the crash, the book, and the lessons that can be learnt.

Hopefully one day there will be an English version of the book, but in the meantime, I would recommend all those learning Japanese to get a copy.

(Click here to get more information about the book on Amazon Japan.

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