UENO, Gunma - Wednesday marked the 30th anniversary of the crash of a Japan Airlines plane at Mt. Osutaka in Ueno, Gunma Prefecture, in which 520 passengers and crew died. Bereaved family members of the victims ascended the mountain in the early morning and gathered at the Osutaka ridge — the crash site — to mourn their loss.
Sachiko Kuronita, 67, from Aira, Kagoshima Prefecture, was among them. She is the younger sister of Kazuko Kawakami, who died in the accident at age 39. Kazuko was traveling with her husband Eiji, and their daughters Keiko and Sakiko. Their son Chiharu, now 44, was not aboard.
Of the family members on the flight, only Keiko miraculously survived. She is now 42.
Kuronita visited the ridge for the first time in 24 years. The previous time was to mark the seventh anniversary of the deaths of Kazuko, Eiji and Sakiko. Kuronita talked to gravestone-like memorials for her relatives, saying: “Chiharu and Keiko live in happiness. They have good partners and children, so you can rest easy.”
Eiji was 41 when he died, and Sakiko, the couple’s youngest, was 7.
Visibly shaken and sobbing, Kuronita stroked the surfaces of the wooden markers.
The slope of the ridge was where Keiko was rescued by members of the Self-Defense Forces, who arrived at the site by helicopter. Keiko was then airlifted to safety. “I’ve been wanting to come here for a long time. I feel as if a weight’s been lifted off my chest,” Kuronita said.
Among six siblings, Kazuko was the fourth and Sachiko the fifth. As little girls, the sisters played in the mountain fields of their hometown, Kajiki, which is now a part of Aira. “My elder sister was tomboyish. I always followed behind her.”
After their father died due to a long-term disease, Kazuko, who was then a middle school student, stayed behind in the hospital room where he had passed away.
“That made my sister wish to become a nurse,” Kuronita said. Upon graduating from high school, Kazuko obtained both hospital and public health nursing licenses.
Kazuko married Eiji and lived in his hometown, Taisha, which is now the city of Izumo, Shimane Prefecture. The couple had three children — Chiharu, Keiko and Sakiko. The plane crash tragically ended one of the happiest parts of their lives.
After the accident, Keiko asked her aunt, “What type of child was my mother?” Keiko listened fondly as Kuronita recalled her mother’s tomboyish episodes.
Later, Keiko also became a nurse and had three children, as if following in the footsteps of her mother. Chiharu, who was not on board the plane, also became a father.
Kuronita observed that her late sister’s two children have lived far apart for the past 30 years.
“If my sister were alive, I wish we could have traveled together and chatted about things, such as how old we have become,” she said.
Silent prayer offered
A service was held at 6 p.m. on Wednesday at the memorial park at the foot of the mountain. After that, 520 candles — representing the number of victims — were lit to observe a silent prayer at 6:56 p.m., the time the plane crashed 30 years ago.
Earlier in the day, the families of the victims arrived in buses chartered by JAL at the bottom of a trail that ascends Mt. Osutaka and began walking up it at around 6 a.m. According to the company, 302 people from 75 families took part by noon. Children and grandchildren were seen helping aging family members.
The families then blew soap bubbles in front of the crash site’s cenotaph. They also sounded the “bell of safety” at the site.
Chiho Wakamoto, 50, from Yamato, Kanagawa Prefecture, lost her father Shoji, who was 50 years old at the time of the accident. She came to the mountain to tell him that her eldest son got a job. “I was looking back at the past 30 years. I asked my late father if I could support my mother for him,” Wakamoto said.