Dealing With Disaster in Japan

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.

This book 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, 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.

A review of the book in The Japan Times said ‘This is a haunting saga, brilliantly told’ and calls it an ‘excellent book’. A review of the book in Social Science Japan Journal said the book ‘will become one of the classics among disaster studies in Japan, as well as works of Japanese history and other works related to issues of social and collective memory; this is the book’s contribution.’ The Tokyo American Club’s publication iNTOUCH has an article about the book. A review at Japan Visitor describes the book: ‘This outstanding book on the JAL 123 crash… deserves a wider audience.’

List of Figures and Tables
Notes on Style
Preface & Acknowledgements
Map of Japan and JL123 route map


This chapter sets out the structure of the book itself, the reasons why I chose to study the JL123 crash and some of the issues and problems that I faced in conducting and presenting the research. This includes a discussion about the conventions traditionally used in Japanese studies and argues that it is time that some of these are altered in order to facilitate communication between researchers of different disciplinary backgrounds. The consequences of this discussion are that the book presents the material in a way which should be accessible to readers from outside Japanese studies and also non-academics.CHAPTER TWO – PUTTING JL123 INTO CONTEXT
To appreciate the events relating to JL123, it is important that the context is understood. This chapter covers areas which enable the reader to understand the discussion in subsequent chapters. This includes an overview of some of the significant events of 1985, the transportation market in Japan, and the history of JAL up to 12 August 1985. It also includes discussion about airline disasters in general and what is meant by the term ‘disaster’, particularly in the Japanese context of ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’ disasters, highlighting that by definition it is the human response, or lack thereof, that creates the disaster.


Whilst the focus of the book is primarily on the various responses to the JL123 crash, the need for such a study would be absent if it were not for the crash itself. This chapter provides a detailed account of the flight itself. Using information from the official accident report, detailed comments by one of the survivors, and photographs from both inside and outside the plane during its final flight, the chapter allows the reader to better appreciate the horrific conditions aboard the plane. The cause of the crash, about which debate continues, is discussed in subsequent chapters.CHAPTER FOUR – RESPONSE AND RESPONSIBILITY
This chapter focuses upon the responses to the crash by the state. It begins with an analysis of the Search and Rescue activities following the crash, highlighting the problems and possible reasons for this. The chapter then discusses the official investigation and the way in which the ‘probable cause’ was determined, pointing out the problems with both the investigation and why some are not satisfied with its conclusions. The chapter concludes by discussing the meaning of ‘responsibility’, the degree to which those responsible should be held to account, and what the role of the prime minister and government should be.


This chapter looks at the way in which the dead were retrieved from the crash site and what subsequently happened. This includes discussion of the identification process which went on for several weeks. The chapter highlights the support the bereaved families received from both JAL and also from volunteers, noting that such activities clearly happened in Japan before 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake which is often regarded as the starting point. The chapter also discusses the contents of the notes written by some of those on JL123 during its final 32 minutes. The chapter concludes by discussing issues relating to compensation.CHAPTER SIX – REMEMBRANCE AND THE OSUTAKA PILGRIMAGE
This chapter discusses the way in which the victims of the JL123 crash are remembered and memorialized and discusses Japanese attitudes to death. The chapter particularly focuses upon the anniversary memorialisation in what I term the ‘Osutaka Pilgrimage’, which includes the floating of lanterns down the river in Ueno-mura on the night before the anniversary, visits to the crash site where there a variety of the memorials, and the official memorial events at the memorial in central Ueno-mura. The chapter highlights that whilst certain common responses can be seen, there are also many aspects of JL123 which are special.


This chapter looks the media coverage of the JL123 crash in both 1985 and subsequent years. Through an analysis of the contents of the papers in August 1985, it highlights that whilst there were certain common responses, there are also differences amongst the national newspapers and between national and local newspapers. The chapter also discusses the publication of the passenger list in the newspapers and the reasons for its inclusion in this book. The chapter concludes that whilst the reporting of JL123 is generally done well, there is perhaps more that the media could be and should be doing.CHAPTER EIGHT – JAPAN’S TITANIC
This chapter looks at a variety of reasons why the JL123 crash remains of such interest to so many, both in Japan and around the world, after so many years and argues that it is both Japan’s and the aviation world’s equivalent of the Titanic. This includes discussion of ‘conspiracy theories’ and coincidences, for example, as well as the variety of books, films and documentaries which have been made. It also discusses other ways in which the crash is remembered and discusses the apparent increase of ‘dark tourists’, whilst highlighting problems with this term, going to the crash site.


The concluding chapter brings together a number of the key points raised throughout the book. It discusses the questions surrounding the cause of the crash and concludes that both a reinvestigation of the JL123 crash and a reform of the investigation system in Japan are needed. The chapter further considers the way in which JL123 is remembered today and how it may be remembered in the future and argues that those most connected to the crash need to be taking steps now to ensure that the crash is remembered in the most appropriate ways by future generations.Appendix One: Boeing 747-SR46 Technical Information
Appendix Two: Visiting Osutaka-no-One, Ueno-mura and the Safety Promotion Center
Glossary and Abbreviations

Crew and Passenger List Although the book considers the cause of the crash, this study is much more concerned with the human side of the tragedy and what can be learnt about Japanese society from looking at the responses to it. It is for that reason that the names of the crew and passengers are listed in the footer of pages of the book. Further details about how and why the list is provided are detailed in the book.

Colour photographs taken by me that are used in the book are available at t