Relatives pray for the victims of the 1985 Japan Airlines crash at the site on Osutaka Ridge in Ueno village, Gunma Prefecture, on July 25. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Monday August 12, 1985, in Tokyo was sweltering. The temperature was about 30 Celcius and the humidity high. At 6.35pm, I was just about to leave the Japan Airlines head office for a cold beer at the Tokyo Station bar when a colleague asked me to wait.

He was taking a telephone call and making notes. The call came from the Haneda Airport operations center.

We were told there was a serious problem with flight JL123 en route from Tokyo to Osaka and there was an emergency. A short while later we heard the flight had disappeared from the radar.

Crippled by total hydraulic loss following the rupture of the main pressure bulkhead, the aircraft – a domestic version of the 747 with 540 seats – had crashed on a mountain ridge in a remote, uninhabited area in the village of Ueno, 100 kilometers northwest of Tokyo.

It remains the world’s biggest single airplane crash with 520 people losing their lives. There were only four survivors.

The site of the crash of the Japan Airlines Boeing 747 that hit near Mt Osutaka in Japan. Photo: AFP

At the time my usual job was to handle English language news. In the emergency procedure in place at that time, my assignment was to remain in the PR department in the head office to deal with non-Japanese media – and to send out bulletins to overseas offices to keep them up to date with developments.

In those days there was no internet – no email, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Zoom. We used teletype to send messages. We did have a fax – but many media companies did not, which made communications cumbersome. 

Hardly a day goes by without my recalling the accident and the huge scale of the tragedy. It remains one of the most dramatic experiences in my life. 

This year sees the 35th anniversary of the crash, which has now become part of local commemorations of the traditional Buddhist summer festival of Obon. Dates vary somewhat, but in the part of the country concerned, this festival spans three days, August 13 to 16. 

Sometimes called the “Feast of the Dead,” Obon is essentially a happy occasion when families venerate their ancestors – with dances, lanterns and other displays. Many people take a few days off to return to their hometowns for family reunions, as the crash victims were doing 35 years ago. 

This year in Japan the traditional home-coming has been disrupted because of the Covid-19 scare and government travel advisories suggest staying at home.

Borrowing from the ancient festival, on August 11, the eve of the crash and the eve of Obon, it has become the custom for children from Ueno village to float candle-lit lanterns on the local river Kanna in memory of those who died. For the children lighting the lanterns, this is a colorful reminder of a remote happening.

On August 12, the anniversary day, it’s been the custom for next of kin and friends of the victims – and media – to climb a steep hiking trail to the 1,565-meter-high ridge on Mt Osutaka where the aircraft came down. 

A formal ceremony is usually held in the early evening at a more accessible memorial garden in Ueno village. A special prayer is always called at 18:56, the time the aircraft disappeared from radar.

Senior airline executives attend, led by the company’s president. The current JAL president, 58-year old Yuji Akasaka, joined the airline as a management trainee the year after the accident. 

The event receives national media attention in the form of news coverage of the memorial services and also stories based on the lives of those affected by the crash, such as next of kin – some of whom were not even born when the crash happened.

This year, many of the mourners have agreed to spread out their visits during the months of July and August in view of the danger of coronavirus transmission plus extra difficulties imposed during the hike up and down the mountain by hurricane damage to the path last year.

JAL is committed to supporting the memorial indefinitely and maintains contacts with next of kin of the victims through a special liaison office. 

Upkeep of the memorial garden and the crash site is maintained by an independent organization supervised by the village administration.

This makes me wonder about something. In the vale of Chichibu, about an hour from the accident site as the crow flies, there’s a small village where every summer children light lanterns in memory of those who died in the siege of a local castle some 400 years ago. 

In Ueno village 400 years from now, will they still be lighting lanterns for the passengers and crew of JL123?

A principal analyst for the Tokyo think tank Japan Aviation Management Research, Geoffrey Tudor also writes for Orient Aviation magazine.