Kizuna: Examining the bonds of risk, tragedy, disaster and recovery in Japan
Christopher P. Hood
Cardiff Japanese Studies Centre, Cardiff University
11 March 2011 is a day which has gone down in infamy, or at least world history, as the original version of Roosevelt’s famous speech was written. For a day the world turned its attention to events as they were beamed live to screens. Social media such as Twitter and Facebook went into overdrive as all seemed to have something to say about what they were seeing. The conclusion of many, including the news networks which themselves seemed to be sucked to new low levels of reporting quality, was that it was ‘Like a scene out of a Hollywood movie’. This of course totally missed the point. What we were watching was reality. It is the Hollywood movies which have over time managed to find a means to reproduce the true horror of these devastating events.
As one event, the earthquake, was over, so others, the tsunami, came. When that seemed to be over, so the problems shifted to events at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant. Seemingly never before had a tragedy had so many different elements. Never before had it been so well filmed. But did all understand what they were seeing? Did the Japanese respond appropriately?
When dealing with tragedies and other significant news events, perhaps more so today than in the past, it is too easy to allow the images to tell a story and to titillate, pandering to our voyeuristic, almost pornographic, desire to see these events unfold. If we could empty a town or city of people and animals and let it be hit by an earthquake or tsunami, or crash an empty airplane flown by remote control into a mountain, I reckon Sky TV could get many to watch on a pay-per-view channel.
But disasters do involve real people – albeit often reduced to a statistic with a few stories used to illustrate what happened. But where is the context? Where is the analysis? What are we achieving through viewing the images in the media? Consoling ourselves with the thought that at least it is not happening to us is not enough. A deep-seated concern about a country and people which we study and many love is not enough. Emotion has to be put to one side and the events studied with a clinical, objective mind. Only then can we aid in ensuring that lessons are learnt. This is not necessarily a pleasant or painless process. But it is necessary for it to be done and for it to be done right.
Mileti has referred to disasters being ‘designed’. He says that disasters are ‘the consequences of narrow and short-sighted development patterns, cultural premises, and attitudes toward both the natural environment and even science and technology’. Although he was referring to the USA, the points may be applied more generally.
In this paper, I will primarily concentrate on the Japan Air Lines flight JL123 crash in 1985, the subject of my book Dealing With Disaster in Japan: Responses to the Flight JL123 Crash, whilst also discussing the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. In looking at the JAL crash I will highlight how the kizuna, bonds, between the living and the dead are maintained through memorial acts. But the kizuna between the living and living are also significant, and this relates also to the care which survivors and those who lose loved ones are cared for. However, I am not concerned only with the post event responses. This paper will also consider the way in which the Japanese system itself may be responsible for turning a tragedy into a disaster through the relatively poor working bonds between risk assessment and disaster response.
Country of Disasters
Japan is a country which is frequently hit by forces of nature. Although it is the large events such as earthquakes, typhoons, and tsunami which grab the headlines and has accounted for the greatest loss of life from single incidents, it needs to be remembered that Japan faces a range of natural challenges such as snow and landslides.
It is perhaps normal to speak of ‘natural disasters’, but there is a problem with the terminology. For the event itself is not a disaster per se, but whether the society was able to cope with the natural event. A recent Chatham House report uses the term High Impact Low Probability events and suggests that they be increasing in number. With more and more people on the planet, and with more living in urban areas, this seems inevitable.
But what is a disaster? In fact, ‘There is no clear and universally accepted definition of when an accident becomes a disaster’. Disaster is in the eye of the beholder. But this does not really matter, for as Cutter says, sometimes too much energy is spent by trying to define disasters, ‘rather than researching more important and fundamental concerns’ such as how we respond to the events themselves.
As a modern society, it should be of no surprise that Japan has suffered a number of large ‘man-made’ disasters. As with the so-called ‘natural’ disasters, it is not these events themselves which is the disaster, but rather society’s response to them which results in them potentially being a disaster. It is perhaps logical to suggest that a country which is has to face a large number of high impact events should be best suited to cope with them. If this is the case, then such a country should not have so many disasters. Japan is a country which has always had to deal with many hazards. Consequently, ‘disasters’ should be less likely.
However, I would argue that Japan historically has not responded well to either natural events or man-made events. The study of JL123 will demonstrate why this is the case and why it is appropriate to use the term ‘disaster’ in this context.
Flight to disaster
524 people were on board the Boeing 747 jumbo jet, registration JA8119. Passengers included those travelling due to Obon, the festival of the dead, businessmen, families returning from Tokyo Disneyland, and the singer Kyū Sakamoto. By chance an amateur photographer videoed the take off.
12 minutes into its flight, there was an explosion, and unknown to those on board, a large part of the tail fin had broken off. Soon all hydraulics were also lost. The pilot declared the plane as being ‘uncontrollable’ to Air Traffic Control.
Some on board wrote final messages, isho. Inside the plane one of the passengers took a photograph of the scene. The camera survived, but he did not. As the plane passed north-west of Tōkyō a man took a picture of the plane as it passed overhead. Then, at 18:56, 32 minutes after the initial explosion, the plane crashed. The media were amongst the first to the crash site and began reporting on the disaster. By the time rescue teams arrived at the site – about 15 hours after the crash – there were only 4 survivors, 520 had perished. The media continued to follow the story for many weeks and papers included iconic shots of the crash site, survivors being winched away from the scene, and of a few desperate families who travelled to the crash site. The official investigation which followed the crash concluded that the probable cause was due to a faulty repair of some rivets in the rear bulkhead following a previous accident in 1978. The bulkhead was thought to have ruptured and the escaping air caused the fatal damage to the plane. This is the version which is presented, almost without question, by non-Japanese sources.
To this day the crash remains the world’s biggest single plane crash and I believe that it is, in many respects, Japan’s and the aviation world’s equivalent to the Titanic.
Trying to Find JL123
The Air Self-Defence Force had been tracking JL123’s progress since its emergency transponder had been activated, but did nothing. Living in a post 9/11 world it seems incredible that no planes were scrambled before JL123 disappeared from the radar since the Captain had declared the plane as uncontrollable three times. An SDF plane should have been shadowing JL123 ready to shoot it down before it reached a point where it could endanger a large number of lives on the ground. This would require political involvement in the decision making process also.
As it was, two jets were scrambled and set off towards the probable crash area without waiting to get permission. The SDF were not the only ones trying to find the location of the crash. The media were also aware of the unfolding tragedy and began their hunt for information. JL123’s progress had also been monitored by an American Air-Force Hercules which diverted to the crash site. In addition to searches from the air, there were also land-based searches going on and other information coming in.
By dawn on 13th there was still uncertainty about the location. An SDF helicopter appears to have confirmed the correct location at 4:55, but 15 minutes later, the Defence Agency made a further announcement, giving a different, incorrect location. Finally at 5:37 the correct location was confirmed by Nagano Police helicopter ‘Yamabiko’. It should be noted that Gunma Police was the only prefecture at this time not to have a helicopter, despite being a mountainous prefecture. After the crash site was located, it still took about five hours for the rescue teams to reach the site, by which time some from the media were already on site.
In the end 18 different locations were suggested. Why so many? It seems that there was an apparent need to pin-point the crash site according to the name of the mountain. Although the crash site is frequently just referred to as ‘Osutaka’, it is more correctly known as Osutaka-no-One, ‘The ridge on Osutaka’, despite being on another mountain, Mt. Takamagahara. Seemingly the adoption of ‘Osutaka’ owes much to the power of the media.
Osutaka-no-One is within Ueno-mura, albeit 20km from its centre, a village in Gunma prefecture. Ueno-mura is hard to access and there are tall mountains everywhere. It is referred to as Gunma’s, Kantō’s or even Japan’s Tibet. In 1985 Ueno-mura had a population of 2,083, yet its area is some 181km2. This is about 40km2 bigger than Kawasaki which has a population of nearly 1.4 million or about the same size as the unitary authority area of Warrington in England, which has a population of around 200,000. The village just could not cope with responding to this event. Even Gunma was not properly equipped to investigate what had happened. What was needed was a more national response.
But central leadership was lacking. This is particularly ironic given that the Prime Minister at the time was Yasuhiro Nakasone, noted for his desire for decisive top-down leadership. Nakasone had been on holiday in Karuizawa, Nagano, and was travelling back to Tōkyō by train around the time of the crash and apparently could not be contacted. His involvement in dealing with JL123 appears pitiful. He did not go to the crash site or to see the izoku, but merely sent flowers to the temporary morgues. Indeed Nakasone did not go to Ueno-mura or the crash site until 4 November. All of this is surprising given his leadership style and that he is from Gunma.
It is also in marked contrast to Margaret Thatcher who interrupted her holiday in Australia to go to the scene of the British Airtours fire at Manchester Airport only 10 days after JL123. The photographs of this featured in all the national newspapers in Japan. Although there may be times where such an intervention can be disruptive to the recovery process, a Prime Minister surely should be seen to be trying to do something positive.
Nakasone accepted the resignation of JAL President Takagi, whom he ‘severely admonished for the allowing the crash to occur’. As Nakasone confirmed who the new President would be, he called the top executives of JAL ‘irresponsible, arrogant men’, adding that it was time to end the belief that ‘the government will support us’ (‘oyakata Hinomaru’). Surely Nakasone should have been doing more than this. Van Wolferen argues more did not happen as ‘To do so would have created the unwanted impression that the government had taken symbolic responsibility for the event’. Is that not what a government is supposed to do?
In 1995, a further twist to the JL123 story was added when former American servicemen, Michael Antonucci, claimed that an American Air Force helicopter was directed to the crash site by the Hercules which he had been the navigator on. With the helicopter above the crash site, preparations were made for men to winch down to the site and look for survivors. However, the helicopter was apparently ordered to withdraw and return to base, as the Japanese rescue team was on its way. All were ordered not to speak of the incident again. It is questionable however whether these events ever took place, although they have seemingly been widely accepted by the English-speaking world.
‘They are so afraid the world will think the Japanese have not been able to handle the situation’. This quote seems apt. Not just for the JL123 situation, but many others. Yet this was written in relation to the Great Kantō Earthquake in 1923.
Building and Maintaining Kizuna
After the crash, families, many of whom first learnt of their losses by seeing loved ones’ names listed live on TV as there is no concept of next-of-kin being informed first, congregated in school gyms in the city of Fujioka, the closest city in Gunma to the crash site. They were put up in a variety of hotels and ryokan across the area. JAL assigned staff to look after each family. But with JAL being seen as a perpetrator in a possible crime, their access to information was sometimes limited and this was one cause of some problems between families and JAL. But there was little out-pouring of emotion. The outward appearance may have been that they were being ‘stoical’, a word which was much used by the international media in describing Japanese people’s responses after the Great East Japan Earthquake. But is the suppression of emotion a positive thing? There was no counselling for families or JAL employees afterwards.
Local volunteers came to the gyms to provide oshibori, tea and comforting words. The bonds built up at this time continue to today.
Today the anniversary of the crash is still remembered. One can see the bonds – kizuna – between the families and the ones they lost, between the different families and between the families and the volunteers. But it goes further than that. Osutaka-no-One has become a seichi, a religious place. It is a place where people can go to remember other disasters. Representatives of some of these, such as the China Airlines crash in 1994 and the Fukuchiyama Line Derailment in 2005 will also attend the JL123 Anniversary. In 2011 even the Great East Japan Earthquake was remembered there.
The 8/12 Renrakukai, the organization set up by some of the families who lost loved ones in the JAL crash, and its head, Kuniko Miyajima, have become instrumental in trying to improve care to such people following other tragedies.
The Media and JL123
Following the JAL crash the Japanese media covered the details of what happened in great detail. This included interviewing families, and also trying to interview the survivors. But what appeared to be lacking was sufficient questioning about how the crash happened, why the search and rescue was apparently so poor and whether the investigation in to the crash was handled appropriately. The media continues to follow the anniversary events and any other significant developments. This keeps the crash in the public eye – but there is still perhaps more they could do to make a link with its relevance to aviation safety, disaster response and care for families and victims today.
‘Major lives and minor lives. Important lives and lives which aren’t… For the people of the media, the people who died in the JAL crash were extremely important lives, weren’t they?’ These words are said by one of the characters in the fact-based-novel Kuraimāzu Hai by the novelist Hideo Yokoyama, who was himself a reporter covering the JL123 crash. These sentences cut to the core of what the novel, dramatized by NHK and also turned into a feature film, is about and questions what the role of the media, and perhaps by extension those who read their outputs, are doing and how they, and we, may put different values on different people.
Who Makes A Disaster?
Lessons have been learnt slowly and incrementally after each tragedy. Now, for example, following a major earthquake, the SDF can be dispatched by command of the Prime Minister without having to wait for a request from the local governor. Yet, there are still concerns. A study of a disaster prevention area in Kawasaki suggested than it may be unstable. Holes have been found in disaster readiness plans following the issuing of tsunami warnings after a major earthquake in Chile in 2010. In 2008 the SDF were slow to respond following a collision with a fishing boat. In that same year only 30% of residents actually recognized the alarm when it sounded for an earthquake in Tōhoku. Some local authorities were not even implementing a new warning system due to budgetary problems. Had this been done by March 2011?
Yet the Japanese can respond to tragedies, and Japanese teams have regularly been dispatched overseas to help with relief efforts, such as after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.
But some of the responses to the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in 2011 revealed that there is probably still much more the Japanese government could do to improve responses to disasters. Do the SDF even have the right equipment to respond? Information flow and who takes control remain issues. Indeed, only now are there plans to change the law so that disaster response can be handled centrally since there were so many cases where local governments could not respond to the tsunami as they had been washed away.
A report published soon before the Great East Japan Earthquake suggested power stations such as Fukushima were vulnerable to a large tsunami. This report was apparently largely ignored at the time. But is it practical for Japan to build huge walls around its coast? Indeed in February 2012 a new estimate suggested the wave at Fukushima was 20m high. Should there be a 25m high wall? Haven’t people been condemning Japan for putting too much concrete and so many tetrapods around its coastline already? Could Japan really move its populated areas or power stations further away from the coast? Could Japan really cope without its nuclear power stations at present? Remember the context. The policy of setsuden has further distorted the debate. Reducing power wastage and reducing power usage is not the same thing. The power stations are turned off – but is this really a sustainable policy? Where is the debate about what should happen? Protesting about the nuclear power now is little more than tatemae unless realistic alternatives can be presented.
But referring back to Mileti, it would appear that there is something that is leading to some disasters being designed in Japan. Could it be that the poor responses are in part due to Japan being a more group-based, consensus-based society? Why is there consistently poor communication between bureaucratic bodies? Why cannot better bonds be built between them? Are the agencies and Japanese people too risk-averse? The system punishes failures but does not reward successes, so individuals are afraid to speak out and give ideas and ask people to support them. Perhaps disaster response needs individuals taking command? Does the rotation around posts, meaning that many are generalists rather than specialists in Japanese organizations, lead to an over-reliance on set procedures and prolonged discussions, whereas a specialist would be able to draw upon their own knowledge and skills to provide a more rapid response? I suspect that there may be elements of truth in each of these.
In the wake of 3/11, as the Great East Japan Earthquake is sometimes referred to, the national government has woken up to the need to better co-ordinate disaster responses and that reliance on the local is not appropriate. 3/11 could have been a lot worse, but had better lessons been learnt from previous disasters, it could have been better handled. But that disaster is not over. There are still many in temporary accommodation and mental care issues will go on for many years. Due to the area that the tsunami hit, around two-thirds of victims were over 60 years old. This was a modern version of Japan’s story Ubasuteyama. I have also heard that not many people with physical and mental disabilities were observed in shelters in the weeks after the disaster. How could Japan not look after these vulnerable members of society? Were the provisions at schools even sufficient? Why did nobody think ‘What if…’ and ‘What would we do if…’ to help ensure that the elderly and the disabled could be got to safety in time? Who is asking these questions now to ensure that the survival rates are higher next time?
A report this week by the Red Cross was critical of how slow the government has been to rebuilding. The pictures of the clean up have been impressive. But where is the new housing? Is there enough consideration being given to how the rebuilding of villages, towns and cities should be done? Are politicians and the media spending too much time discussing whether there should be a grand coalition and who the prime minister is rather than actually getting on with helping the recovery? If Japan is about kizuna, bonds, then the bonds between society and the state do not seem to be working well. The politicians, bureaucracy and the media have failed the people.
But the people need to help themselves too. How much easier would the rebuilding of lives, and indeed infrastructure, be if Japanese people kept their savings in banks rather than as cash in the home where it may be washed away and destroyed without any record of how much there was?
But as I have tried to stress already, there will still be times where even whatever steps are taken, it will not be enough. We cannot prepare for every eventuality. There are also times where luck may play a part. It was lucky that JL123 did not crash on an urbanised area. It was lucky that the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck before 6:00 in the morning – before many were travelling to work and before the shinkansen started operating. It was lucky that the Great East Japan Earthquake struck in the afternoon and not during the night when people would not have even seen the tsunami coming, let alone have needed more time to awake and respond.
And if you do not believe in luck? Well, perhaps then you should be considering the reaction to the comments made by Tōkyō Governor Ishihara who said that the Great East Japan Earthquake was divine punishment for Japan’s greed.
The scale of the Great East Japan Earthquake is very different to JL123. It impacted many different places. We are likely to see memorials in different places, in a way which may become comparable to the World War One memorials found in most British cities, towns and villages. And although thought is being given to how to keep a reminder of the tree that survived the tsunami in Rikuzentakata, I suspect in the end we will see a return to some form of normality in many towns and cities and what places looked like prior to the disaster. For some, they still have not found the remains of their loved one, so the anguish is particularly acute. Some will never forget the people who lost their lives. Some will never forget what happened that day. But many more will forget, unless a way is found to prevent this. But the greatest legacy is to learn the lessons so that future events do not become disasters.
But even after events such as the Great East Japan Earthquake, I believe that JL123 will continue to be a focal point for the media and many Japanese. It has become a symbol for remembering the importance of life, and so a means for some of us to observe Japanese attitudes to death and remembrance also. Part of this may be due to timing too. Going to Ueno-mura it is possible to see activities which demonstrate the kizuna, bonds, between the living and the dead, and between the living and the living. Kizuna became a buzz word following the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, but as can be seen from this paper, it is something that has been very evident in other places too.
Dr. Christopher P. Hood is a Reader in Japanese Studies at Cardiff University, UK. His publications include: Dealing With Disaster in Japan: Responses to the Flight JL123 Crash, Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan, Japanese Education Reform: Nakasone’s Legacy and (as editor) the four-volume Politics of Modern Japan (all published by Routledge).