Visiting Osutaka Ridge
It’s July 2020 and I’m standing at Osutaka Ridge, the site of the world’s worst-ever single plane accident: the JAL123 crash of 1985.
I’d been meaning to come here for a while. In 2015, a British acquaintance of mine, Peter Mathews, told me about his son Kim, who was one of the 520 crash victims.
Kim had led an active life. He represented Britain at the World Scout Jamboree in Shizuoka, Japan, in 1971; played bass guitar brilliantly; and recorded a number of songs, including an excellent cover version of Jimi Hendrix’s “I Don’t Live Today” with Robbie McIntosh of The Pretenders.
Since hearing about Kim’s inspirational life, I had made it my intention to visit the ridge someday. The year 2020 — 35 years on from the accident — seemed like an appropriate time.
A friendly taxi driver drops me off at a car park at the ridge. I begin my ascent toward the main memorial area, which is a climb that takes about 40 minutes.
The first thing that strikes me is the powerful sound of the river that runs next to the mountain path. I think about the British bass player Kim and his fiancée Masako Nishiguchi, who were both on the JAL123 flight bound for Osaka.
A few other walkers are on the path. I politely say hello, but decide not to ask any questions. I assume they are bereaved relatives, though, because Osutaka Ridge is pretty difficult to get to.
I finally reach the main memorial area. I’d seen images of the memorial area before, but it’s more colorful than I expected. There are rainbow-colored origami cranes, color photographs of the victims in happier times, flowers, and yellow butterflies in the air, in addition to all the memorial stones.
Relatives Still Suffering
It’s been 35 years since the JAL123 plane took off from Haneda Airport at 6:12 P.M. on August 12, 1985, never to reach its destination in Osaka.
At 6:24 P.M., 12 minutes after takeoff, the pressure bulkhead at the rear of the plane ruptured. This ultimately led to the aircraft becoming uncontrollable. The plane later crashed into a mountain ridge in Gunma Prefecture at 6:56 P.M., killing 520 of the 524 people on board.
Thirty-five years. The deadline for paying off a mortgage. A typical gap between meeting your first child and meeting your first grandchild. A long time in some ways, the blink of an eye in another.
One of the latest developments in the 35-year period since the crash is the 2020 release of My Papa’s Persimmon Tree (August 2020, One Peace Books), an English translation of a picture book by one of the bereaved relatives, 72-year-old Machiko Taniguchi. The book centers around a family encouraged by fruit growing on a persimmon tree in the wake of their father’s death in the accident.
“Machiko, please take good care of our children.” These were the poignant words that her late husband Masakatsu, then 40, managed to jot down on a paper bag inside the plane minutes before the crash.
Of the bereaved relatives in Japan, Ms. Taniguchi comes across as the most willing to speak publicly about the accident. The English translation of her book is designed to make people across the world aware of the tragedy.
“I want to inform people in the U.S. through my book that there are still relatives suffering 35 years on,” Ms. Taniguchi reportedly said in a TV interview in July.
Commemorations in the Age of COVID-19
This year’s commemoration at Osutaka Ridge in August is different from those in previous years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the first one to involve physical distancing and face masks, and there will be no lantern floating on the river.
“Physically, we will have to keep our distance. But emotionally we will be close,” said Kuniko Miyajima, 73, in a recent TV interview about gathering this year. She lost her nine-year-old son Ken in the crash.
2020 will always be remembered for COVID-19, but the pandemic will not stop relatives from remembering their loved ones at Osutaka Ridge 35 years on.
Author: David Spurr