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Top>Education>The Academic Significance of Listening to People on the Scene:Korean Air Lines Flight 007


Ryoichi Matsuno

Ryoichi Matsuno [Profile]

The Academic Significance of Listening to People on the Scene:
Korean Air Lines Flight 007

Ryoichi Matsuno
Professor of Media and Journalism Studies, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University

Students Covering an International Incident during the Cold War

Do you remember the incident of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 that occurred in September 1983? This is the incident when Korean Air Lines Flight 007 entered the territorial airspace of the Soviet Union due to some error and was then shot down by a missile fired by a Soviet fighter. The destroyed fuselage crashed into of the ocean a few dozen kilometers north of Wakkanai City in Hokkaido. The 269 crew and passengers on board the flight were killed (including 28 Japanese people). This has also been marked on the historical timeline as an international incident that occurred during the Cold War. Due to the late public disclosure of information, only the battle of information between Japan, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, as well as their political posturing was given serious scrutiny. I have a strong feeling that memories of this Korean Air Lines 007 incident faded rapidly following a series of incidents that occurred afterward. These included the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123 into Mount Osutaka and the bombing of a Korean Air flight by North Korean agents. Eventually, not only was the shooting down incident brought to an end while the truth still remained unclear, but the remains and possessions of the deceased were not even returned to their families. In a certain sense, the bereaved families were left behind in history.

Photograph 1: The special feature Korean Air Lines Flight 007 Incident (published by Chuo University Press) based on interviews with 14 members of bereaved families

In 2009, when the Ryoichi Matsuno Seminar of the FLP Journalism Program produced a documentary in Wakkanai City, they became acquainted with Kensuke Nakazawa, vice-president of the Bereaved Families Association. At that time, the seminar members launched a project to record the testimonies of the incident. After this, over a period of around three years, it was possible to walk in the footsteps of the victims all over the country and finally to interview a total of 14 members of the bereaved families. The students reported based on the testimony of the bereaved families, including their own experiences covering this story. These results were published as the special feature Korean Air Lines Flight 007 Incident in Chuo University Criticism No. 277 published by Chuo University Press.

Many Hardships and the Process of Overcoming Them

When carrying out this project, there was a series of hardships. First of all, the shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 happened before the students were born. Therefore, there was no one who knew about this incident first-hand. The seminar students split to collect materials and give presentations. They studied an overview of the incident and the structure of the Cold War. After this, they contacted the bereaved families.

However, the whereabouts of most bereaved family members were unknown. There were also those who declined to be interviewed saying "I want to forget about it" and "I am taking a different path in life now." To those who had turned down the request for an interview, the students wrote directly and posted letters carefully explaining the intent of their project. As a result, it was possible to speak with a total of 14 people from the families of ten victims. Among these, there were those who replied "Because you are students, I will talk to you."

Photograph 2: A university student (left) interviews bereaved parents, Mr. and Mrs. Nakazawa.

The seminar students divided up the work and set out for their interviews; from Kagoshima in the south to Sakhalin in the north. These interviews were divided into three blocks: (1) History before boarding Flight 007, (2) the incident at that time and then (3) the incident afterward. These testimonies were then recorded. In order to confirm their reporting, several follow-up interviews were also held by telephone. The testimonies collected were all full of extremely valuable information.

Each of the stories of the 10 victims and the 14 members of their families is unique, but they also shared common traits, including: (1) The bereaved families found it difficult to feel the reality of the death of their loved ones because their remains and possessions were not returned; (2) Many of the victims happened to be travelling on Flight 007 because there had been a change to their flight or date of travel for some reason or other; (3) There is irritation and anger at the fact that the detailed cause and reason remains unclear to this day, including the reason why a civilian passenger plane was shot down; (4) There are questions such as, "Where are the remains and possessions of the victims?" and "Why has the Soviet Union not returned those items?" (5) After the incident, the bereaved families carried on living the best they could while carrying a lot of sadness; (6) There was happiness and gratitude that students were listening to them and that their stories would live on.

Impact on the Students and their Growth

What did students who participated in the project feel through the interviews? I want to share with you to the words of three of these students.

Haruka Nikaido (3rd year student in the Faculty of Economics at the time of the interviews) interviewed Kensuke and Tori Nakazawa, the parents of Takeshi Nakazawa (25 years old at the time of his death) who was a junior high school art teacher returning to Japan after a tour of art galleries in the U.S. when he got caught up in the incident. Here are Haruka's thoughts.

"It felt like the clock of those who had lost a loved one had stopped. I spoke to them for about 20 hours in total, but I heard things that had not been reported in the media. In news coverage, the value of the news is determined by the number of people involved, but I could understand that each person had his or her own story and own thoughts. I have learned that among the bereaved families, there is a universal desire for peace and love for family."

Furthermore, Kaori Masuda (3rd year student in the Faculty of Economics at the time of the interviews) interviewed and recorded the thoughts of Yumiko Haba, who lost her son (18 years old at the time of his death). Her son encountered this incident on his way back to Japan from a home-stay.

"At first, listening to the story of someone who had lost a very important member of their family made me falter. This is because I thought it might trigger memories of sadness. However, when I actually visited Mrs. Haba's home, she took my business card with utmost care and happily reported this to the Buddhist altar in her house. That smile left an impression on me. Nevertheless, I could see that she has had many tough times before now and while listening to her story, my tears would not stop flowing. I learned how important it is to have peace as well as the importance of the safe operation of aircraft."

Risa Ominato (2nd year student in the Faculty of Policy Studies at the time of the interviews) interviewed Ken Osaka, who lives in Kyoto. Mr. Osaka lost his younger brother in the incident (who was 39 years old at the time of his death). His brother had been returning to Japan after inspecting a new restaurant in New York.

"Listening to the stories from a bereaved family member of this historical incident had a great impact on me. I thought maybe their memories would have dimmed, but they remembered the incident like it had just happened. I realized that their feelings at that time had continued unchanged to the present day. Conversely, I was given following words, 'People don't know when they are going to die, so please live your life to the fullest.' It was the first time for me since I became a university student to have felt the joy of just being alive."

All ten of the university students who participated in this project replied, "I think I became an adult after being able to talk to the bereaved families of this incident." Furthermore, they are confident to have been able to dig up these buried historical facts by themselves, and they speak of their satisfaction that the valuable testimonies of bereaved families will be passed on to future generations.

Picture 3: The Parenting for Peace Day Memorial Ceremony that takes place every year in Wakkanai City to remember the victims of Korean Air Flight 007 (photographed by the writer on September 1, 2009)

What did the students learn from connecting with society?

Figure 1: Students can leave university and come into contact with society through carrying out interviews

So then, what is the significance of doing this kind of practical journalism and investigative reporting in university? I think that one of the significant points is that students leave the university with an awareness of issues and come into contact with social, human and historical facts. Please refer to Figure 1.

Ordinarily, students have few opportunities to get outside of the university. If they just want to spend all their time on campus, in the lecture building, library, canteen or club hall, then this is possible. If they would like to socialize only with other students, then this is possible. In other words, there are many students who finish their time at university having only socialized with other students of the same age in the closed space of the university. However, this means that their communication skills will not improve. It will also be difficult for them to develop their social skills and awareness.

Conversely, if students participate in activities beyond the university campus and communicate with people of different ages or interact with a variety of workers in regional society, then it is possible for them to improve the basic abilities of theirs needed to be a member of society. If they study through these practical experiences, there is a huge educational benefit.

One more significant point of the practical experience is that coming into contact with historical facts becomes an opportunity for students to increase their awareness about the small units such as individuals and families, the large units such as society and nation, and the relationships between them not only through books but also through personal experience. In particular, the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 Incident is a historically unique event of a fighter plane shooting down a civilian aircraft off the coast of Japan. The simple questions, "Why did such an international incident occur?" and "What kind of emotions do the bereaved families have?" became strong motivation for this activity. In the process of the work of recording the testimonies of the bereaved families, I think it became an opportunity for the students to address issues head on and think for themselves in concrete terms about them. These issues include: What are humans? What are the organizations, society and states that have been created by people? Why do wars occur? What should we do to prevent this from ever happening again?

There is study inside the university, and there is fieldwork in the regional community. I believe that the combination of these two is very important for students living in the modern age.

Ryoichi Matsuno
Professor of Media and Journalism Studies, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University
Born in 1956. Ryoichi Matsuno graduated from the Faculty of Education (Psychology Major) at Kyushu University. He completed a postgraduate course in education at the University of Tsukuba Graduate School. Ph.D. (Policy Studies) from Chuo University. He is in his present position after jobs as a city news reporter at Asahi Shimbun, a TBS producer and a visiting researcher at Harvard University (Fulbright Scholar). One of his research themes is about the relationship between media representation activities and capacity development exercises. Furthermore, the Ryoichi Matsuno Seminar has to-date won a great many prizes. These include the Good Design Award, Podcasting Excellence Prize Award, The Age of Regionalism Video Festival Excellence Award, Hida Takayama Documentary Film Festival Grand Prize, Development Education/International Understanding Education Contest Foreign Minister Award, and the Tokyo Video Festival Tetsuya Chikushi Award. Every year, many of his seminar students start work in the media industry. His publications include Citizen Media Theory (published by Nakanishiya). He also supervised and edited Our Elders Who Lived through the World War I and II, Human Behavior in the Digital Age and Citizen Media Activities (published by Chuo University Press). He has also translated Public Access Television: America's Electronic Soapbox published by Chuo University Press).