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Japan Airlines Flight 123, the FRIDAY incident, and the wild 1980s

Japan Airlines Boeing 747R

34 years ago on August 12, 1985, a Boeing 747R going from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to Osaka International Airport operated by Japan Airlines (JAL), with 524 people on board crashed into a remote mountain range in Gunma prefecture in the northern Kanto region, just 12 minutes after takeoff. All but 4 of the 524 were killed, including all 15 crew members. To this day, it is the worst single-plane disaster in aviation history in terms of casualties.

In 1985, Japan was on the verge of a period that is now called the bubble economy, although no one realized it yet. The economy was booming, and national confidence was high. Money was spent freely and many people partied hard. So a disaster of this proportion was an absolute shock, cold water thrown into the face of the national consciousness, especially because it occurred in the evening, and the reports started to come in around 7:30, right at the start of prime time (or "golden" as it's called in Japan) on TV, in an era when TV viewership was much higher than it is now.

Many families were on the flight since it was during Obon week, one of the biggest holiday periods in Japan where many people head back to their home towns. A number of famous people were on the plane too, chief amongst them Kyu Sakamoto, a popular pop singer. He is best known in the west for his song titled Ue o Muite Arukou, which means "Let's Walk While Holding Our Heads Up", which was bizarrely renamed as the Sukiyaki Song when it was released in the U.S. in pre-cultural sensitivity days.

Weekly Photo magazines, a 1980s phenomenon

I remember the incident particularly well because it was the first huge disaster to occur after I'd reached adulthood. I remember the horror and shock at all the casualties, even though I wasn't living in Japan at the time. But move of all, it has stayed in my mind as the incident that made me start to question the media. This was a huge story that occurred not far from Tokyo, and some of the press lost any sense of decency in the mad rush for scoops.

At the forefront of that mad dash were an '80s phenomenon called weekly photo magazines, with titles like FOCUS, TOUCH and FRIDAY. They featured double-spread, provocative photos, usually in dramatic black and white, accompanied by a short article, which implied much without actually making firm statements. Typical photos in these magazines were grainy nighttime pictures of couples making out in parks at night, or a politician or entertainment figure caught coming out of a love hotel, although there were sometimes more serious stories. The public couldn't get enough of them, and the style of voyeuristic journalism they perpetuated soon influenced other news outlets, including tabloid papers (usually called 'sports papers' in Japan because they usually focus heavily on sports), TV and even broadsheets.

I wouldn’t have even known about them since I was a college student in New York at the time. But a couple I babysat for sometimes had a whole stack of them, airmailed to them regularly from Japan.

I admit I looked through those magazines with morbid curiosity whenever I had some spare time. I really didn't have a lot of access to Japanese media save for occasional TV or rented videos, and if I had any money to buy Japanese magazines at Kinokuniya I usually spent it on food or craft publications. It was a side of Japan I didn't really know about, since I'd left there when I was 16, before the advent of these photo magazines. It was sleazy, provocative, and also fascinating.

But when I saw the photos that were in the issues after the JAL 123 disaster, my stomach turned. Apparently a photo magazine called FLASH had managed to send in a part time photographer, a college student, into the mountains where the plane had crashed before the authorities had had a chance to collect all the bodies, and the other magazines either followed or just bought the rights from FLASH to run them in their rags too. There were pages and pages of stark black and white photos of the broken bodies, lying on the ground, hanging from tree branches, piled up on each other. It was absolutely disgusting - I still remember the nausea I felt. I stopped leafing through those stacks of magazines and never opened them again. Later, I found out that one of the magazines (FLASH I believe) had even published a photo book, with the pictures of the bodies in lurid color.

The Takeshi Kitano FRIDAY Incident

Yukiko Okada in 1984.

When 18 year old pop idol singer Yukiko Okada committed suicide by jumping from the window of her management office's window, pictures of her body sprawled on the ground were in all the weekly photo magazines.

I wasn't alone in my disgust, because these magazines received a barrage of criticism from the public. But the magazines went on with business as usual, despite the criticism right after the crash - it seems the public still wanted to buy them. But an incident a year later really put their investigative tactics in the spotlight.

On December 9, 1986, popular entertainer Beat Takeshi (Takeshi Kitano) barged into the offices of FRIDAY magazine with 11 of the younger comedians under his wing, demanding that they stop harassing his girlfriend at the time as well as his estranged wife and his children. When they refused, the discussion turned into a brawl. Some of the FRIDAY staff, including the editor in chief, were injured.

The incident received a huge amount of publicity, in no small part because Kitano's popularity as a TV personality was as its peak at the time. He was headlining a number of ratings winners on several networks, including the now legendary and infamous Takeshi's Castle. The reporting style of FRIDAY and their rivals also came under scrutiny, especially from the politicians who were frequent targets of their brand of dogged, or excessive, probing into private matters. (FRIDAY's main rival FOCUS was especially keen on going after political figures.)

Beat Takeshi's press conference 2 weeks after the incident. Part 2 of the press conference is here.

Takeshi Kitano was sentenced to 6 months in jail and 2 years probation the in June 1987. While Kodansha, the parent company of FRIDAY magazine, made a statement about how such an assault against journalists was a violation of the freedom of the press, the court that sentenced Kitano also made a pointed statement about the invasive kind of 'journalism' practiced by FRIDAY and their competitors.

This was the watershed moment for weekly photo magazines, who started their decline from after this incident. In May 1987 one of them, called Emma, folded because the staff couldn't stomach that style of 'journalism' anymore. (Granted they were already struggling for readership.) When the bubble economy went bust in the early 1990s, most of the photo magazines lost a huge amount of readership. They struggled on for some time, but by the early 2000s most of them had folded. Only two, FRIDAY and another one called FOCUS, are still in business.

The legacy of the weekly photo magazines

Although their methods were often invasive and even questionable, the weekly photo magazines of the 1980s were certainly fearless. As mentioned above, this style of journalism had a tremendous impact on the rest of Japanese news media, at least for a while.

But the poor taste and extreme tactics displayed by the JAL 123 coverage, as well as the Takeshi Kitano vs. FRIDAY incident, gave an excuse to politicians in particular to mount a counterattack against the aggressive investigative methods the magazines practiced. This pushback against the press has been going on in small increments ever since the FRIDAY incident verdict, and continues to this day.

Investigative journalism is still alive in Japan, although it faces a struggle against an administration that is openly hostile towards the press. Japan currently ranks at just 67 out of 180 countries on the Word Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, largely due to the anti-news media stance of Prime Minister Abe, which is remarkable similar to that of the president of the United States, although it's expressed in less blunt terms.

...and that's where it ends for now

I was originally going to try to draw some more conclusions, and tie this volatile period of Japan's recent history to the present. But I wasn't sure I could do that without making a lot of unfounded assumptions. So, I'm going to end it here, and hope you enjoyed reading about this period in recent Japanese history, which is virtually forgotten outside of Japan nowadays.

I may come back to address the "bubble economy" period, as well as the "Lost Decade" that followed it at a later date, as I continue to explore the history of Japan.

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