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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Remembering JAL Flight 123

Oct. 19, 2015

(First of a two-part special report)

Families across Japan are still struggling with the pain and sorrow caused by one of the world’s worst plane crashes. When a Japan Airlines jumbo jet crashed into a mountain ridge northwest of Tokyo in 1985, 520 people lost their lives. Thirty years on, some of the victims’ loved ones are only just starting to talk publicly.

The disaster is recorded as the deadliest single-aircraft accident in history and it triggered an intense air safety review worldwide. Osaka-bound JAL Flight 123 had taken off from Tokyo when its rear pressure bulkhead ripped apart and part of the tail tore away.

The pilots lost control of the plane and tried to return to Tokyo, but the aircraft started rocking and swerving in what is known as a Dutch Roll. It slammed into Ostaka Ridge in Gunma Prefecture, 44 minutes after takeoff. There were just four survivors.

As the plane shook violently, some passengers who knew they were going to die wrote notes. “My son, Tetsuya, I believe in you,” reads one of the hastily scrawled messages. “Live happy and healthy lives everyone. Goodbye,” says another.

The crash left many children who grew up without fathers. Thirty years later, some of those children are reaching the same age their fathers were when they died. It is an emotional journey for those left behind.

The Taniguchi family has a farewell message penned by husband and father Masakatsu, 40, who was on his way home from a business trip to Tokyo. “Machiko, look after the children,” he wrote to his wife on a paper bag from a seat pocket.

The couple’s son Makoto was just nine years old at the time, and the sorrow of the sudden loss of his father became etched in his heart. Now aged 39, Makoto is a teacher at a cram school and to this day, he carries sadness.

"It’s a commonplace phrase, but he was a kind father,” remembers Makoto. “I don’t have a single memory of him getting angry. He would do things like make us laugh, have fun with us." Makoto says he uses his father’s final words as encouragement to live a full and satisfying life.

His mother Machiko began working after her husband died and Makoto says he did his best to support her. Ten years after the accident, Makoto entered a university near Tokyo and began living on his own. But when his mother came to visit, she realized her son was gripped by an overwhelming sorrow.

“He said, ‘Don’t come by plane. If you and Atsushi (Makoto’s brother) ended up like Dad, I’d die too’,” recalls Machiko. “Even in university, he said such things. My husband’s sudden death was a huge shock, and it traumatized him,” she says.

Makoto’s grief has cast a long shadow over his life. He began dating a woman he met at work, but even though Makoto wanted to get married, he found it difficult to take that step. “I thought I might die the day after the wedding. Or, it could happen once we had kids,” he explains. “And if that happened, I know just how difficult and painful it would be for my family. I just couldn’t move forward."

The person who gave Makoto courage was his mother, Machiko, who said her husband must have wished that someday, his sons would marry. With his mother’s encouragement, Makoto married Hisako and they now have a five-year-old daughter, Yuna.

He still worries that his life could abruptly end, leaving his family in sorrow. Makoto lost his father when he was nine years old and he worries he might die unexpectedly die when his daughter reaches that age. He wonders what would become of his family.

“She’s five now, but sometimes I think I might be with her for only four more years, and then she’d go through what I did,” says a tearful Makoto. “At those times, I start wondering how long she would remember me. I doubt other people have such thoughts."

This year, Makoto and his family made a pilgrimage to the crash site to pay their respects. "My father probably knew he wouldn’t be able to see us again, and that’s why he left that message. I finally realize just how he must have felt. I must live life fully on my father’s behalf. I want to continue living happily from here on, for the sake of my family,” he says.

Other victims’ loved ones also make the journey to Osutaka Ridge in a bid to connect with those they lost. Hideaki Ozawa, 29, who visits on August 12th every year, was in his mother’s womb when the plane crashed.

Ozawa never met his father, an engineer at a paper manufacturer. When he died, he was the same age that Ozawa is now. Osutaka Ridge has become a spiritual place where he can speak with the father he never knew.

Ozawa’s mother first brought him to the ridge as a one-year-old. He has come back every year since, to tell his father how he has grown. “Whenever I speak in front of my father’s grave marker, it feels as if I’m talking directly to him,” he says. “I can always speak to him with a fresh spirit. I feel like I’m really communicating with my dad."

Ozawa became an engineer like his father, and he works at a tire manufacturer. He has a position of responsibility and as he travels around the country, he finds himself thinking about what his father would have done if he were there.

Those thoughts filled his mind as this year’s climb drew near, and one day before the hike, Ozawa took part in a memorial service for the victims of the crash. He had been feeling a sense of joy at reaching 29, the same age that his father was, but he found himself overcome with emotion as he wrote a message.

"I thought, ‘What if my life ended today, at the age of 29?’ I felt as though my existence and my father’s became overlapped, and I experienced a searing pain. What if I was told suddenly, today, that my life would end right now and I would leave everything behind? It would be impossible for me to be my normal self,” says Ozawa.

When he climbed the ridge and stood before his father’s grave marker, Ozawa spoke of a resolution he has made at age 29. “I’m now the same age as you were then. I’m determined to live the life that you weren’t able to live. So, please watch over me,” he said. “When I’m 30 or 35, my father will probably be happily watching me and thinking, ‘So this is how your life is going.’ I want to be able to say to him, ‘Yes, this is my life’."


NHK World reporter Neil Kato joined NEWSROOM TOKYO anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio to discuss the painful legacy of JAL Flight 123.

Beppu: How many families lost their fathers in the accident?

Kato: More than 190 families lost their fathers. This air route is connecting Tokyo and Osaka, two major cities in Japan. That's why many businessmen were on board and there were many middle aged men who became victims.

Beppu: It was deeply moving to see how children have dealt with their fathers’ deaths.

Kato: We started out by reading through documents about the crash. We realized that some of the children are now nearly the same age as their fathers were when they died.

Shibuya: What was it like when you approached them?

Kato: Hideaki Ozawa has spoken up a number of times before, when his mother was being interviewed about the crash. He also participates in events for the victims’ families, and wants to do what he can to tell future generations about the disaster. The situation is different for Makoto Taniguchi, who was so emotionally troubled by the accident. He has hardly given any interviews up to now. Speaking about what happened is very difficult for him. But three decades have passed, and people’s memories of the accident are fading. He doesn’t want people to forget. That’s why he agreed to open up to us.

Beppu: I can see how important it is for people to keep talking about this accident.

Shibuya: Japan Airlines has taken steps to make sure this kind of disaster never happens again. For instance, it has set up a safety promotion center to help educate employees. Wreckage of the plane and some of the victims’ farewell messages are displayed there.

Beppu: Thirty years is a long time, but the sorrow and pain of the victims’ families seems to be eternal.

Kato: I was very impressed to see children trying, more than ever before, to come to grips with their fathers’ deaths. In their hearts, they continue to have conversations with their fathers. It made me realize just how deep the bonds are that connect parent and child.