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TODAY’S FOCUS: Japanese Customs Dictate Unique Response to Disasters

August 14, 1985

TOKYO (AP) _ Hours after a Japan Air Lines jetliner carrying 524 people crashed into a remote mountaintop, JAL President Yasumoto Takagi stood at the bottom of an airline ramp, bowing and apologizing to relatives boarding a JAL plane that would take them near the scene of the accident.

Later, when 1,700 relatives and friends arrived in central Japan to await news of the crash and the return of bodies, Takagi held a news conference to apologize publicly ″from the bottom of our hearts″ for the disaster.

The JAL crash illustrates how the traditional, sometimes rigid customs of Japan’s highly group-oriented society take many forms and how people who fail to live up to them may face shame or condemnation.

In times of disaster, Japanese custom dictates unique and often dramatic response from those responsible or otherwise involved. The government official or company president apologizes profusely, quits his post or even commits suicide. Relatives rush to be as close as possible to their lost loved ones.

Takagi told reporters late Wednesday he was determined to resign to take responsibility for Monday’s crash and would step down when the accident investigation appeared to be settled and his presence was no longer necessary.

Although preliminary reports indicated that nobody had survived the crash, the avowed first priority of many passengers’ families was to reach Mount Osutaka, the crash site. Some hoped to climb the peak, but most were content just to wait.

JAL officials, using company planes and buses and hired taxis, transported the relatives from Osaka and Tokyo early Tuesday to a town near the crash site, where they were to be housed until the remains were recovered and identified.

The motivation for this gathering near the scene of calamity is said to stem partly fom Buddhist belief that the spirit does not separate immediately from the body and remains an integral link to the deceased’s family.

Buddhism also teaches that a person must have a proper burial so that the spirit may rest in peace, a teaching that accounts for why, 40 years after the end of World War II, Japanese continue to make pilgrimages to remote South Pacific islands in search of soldiers’ bones.

Shortly after Korean Air Lines (now Korean Air) Flight 007 was shot down by a Soviet jetfighter in September 1983, relatives hired fishing boats to go to the approximate spot where the plane went down, where they cast wreaths upon the water. A year later, many returned to do it again.

Japanese custom also obligates companies to offer consolation payments to victims, an act that in some countries might be interpreted as an admission of liability but in Japan is simply an act of good faith.

A JAL company source, who asked not to be named, said it was ″likely″ that the airline eventually would make such payments.

After a mentally deranged JAL pilot purposely crashed a DC-8 jetliner into Tokyo Bay on Feb. 9, 1982, the company reportedly offered more than $400,000 to relatives of each of the 24 people who were killed. Available records do not show how much actually was paid.

News reports at the time said the figure was well above the maximum amount of compensation, $93,500 set by the Transport Ministry, but Takagi was said to believe the unusual circumstances of the crash warranted additional compensation.

There were reports then, too, that Tagaki would resign, and one daily paper said he would take 17 other company executives with him. That didn’t happen, but he did fulfill obligations of responsibility by making personal visits, with token gifts, to each of the bereaved families at their homes.

In times of disaster, ″people think that the president should apologize to the people...to take responsibility,″ said Yoshiyuji Sakamoto, a professor working with a government study group on Japanese national character.

Other recent examples also show how the Japanese accept responsibility.

On the same day as the JAL crash, Toshio Komoto, a powerful politician who is founder and ex-president of the world’s largest tanker operator, resigned as cabinet minister without portfolio to take blame for the firm’s bankruptcy.

On Aug. 7, a prefectural (state) police chief in western Japan committed suicide by fire, apparently because of his department’s failure to arrest the ″Man With 21 Faces″ gang that has tried to extort money from candy makers by poisoning their products.

″Someone has to take responsibility,″ said Hiromitsu Muta of the government’s Educational Planning Research Institute.

″The president is a symbol, like the Tenro (emperor), and the group is the strong part. Even if the president resigns, the group isn’t damaged, and politically or socially it has appeal,″ he said.


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