Since the Seoul Halloween crowd crush in October last year, exchanges have gotten under way between bereaved family members in South Korea and Japan to glean lessons from the deadly accident and other such incidents that have occurred in recent years in both countries to prevent future tragedies.
An interview by South Korean reporters of a family member of a victim who died in the pedestrian bridge accident in Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, in 2001, led to the exchanges. Now, their goal is to further improve cooperation to learn the facts behind such accidents.
In January, Seiji Shimomura of Kobe, 65, who lost his 2-year-old son in the Akashi pedestrian bridge accident, received an interview request from South Korean reporters planning to visit Japan to "learn lessons" from the walkway tragedy that occurred in Seoul last year, in which 159 people, including two Japanese, were killed.
Shimomura explained to his interviewers about an independent investigation that was conducted into the Akashi accident by a third-party panel and the mutual support he saw between families of the victims and other accidents, including the 1985 Japan Airlines jumbo jet crash.
"I think (the reporters) found refreshing the fact that there were interactions among the bereaved families," Shimomura said, reflecting back.
Following the release of his interview, Shimomura received a request in early March for advice from a South Korean organization supporting Seoul crush victims' families. Together with other bereaved family members of the Akashi accident, Shimomura visited South Korea to meet with them later the same month.
Participants in the meeting included families of victims in the 2014 sinking of the ferry Sewol, which left more than 300 people dead or missing, many of whom were high school students.
Japanese families of victims in the pedestrian bridge crush, which killed 11 people on July 21, 2001, were willing to cooperate, citing the need for better safety measures and psychological support for affected people regardless of where they come from.
In South Korea, there remain calls for more fact-finding about the Halloween crush on Oct. 29, 2022, and greater efforts to hold accountable those who were responsible.
The victims' families asked Shimomura and others from Japan for advice on the accident investigation and were eager to hear about the criminal trial of the former deputy chief of the Akashi Police Department who, despite being exempt from prosecution on charges of professional negligence resulting in death in the case, was subsequently indicted after a review by an independent committee for prosecution.
Although the case was ultimately dismissed by a court on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired, it was the first mandatory prosecution in Japan.
The meeting between the victims' families ended with an agreement among participants to continue their cooperation.
Shimomura initially felt a wall between the Japanese and South Korean families of accident victims. But he recalled that when they shared drinks at night, the tension eased, and despite the language barrier, they could better understand each other.
"As victims' families, we can smile and weep together. It's important to continue to value that," he said.
Song Jin Young, 54, of Daejeon in the central-west region of South Korea, who lost his 20-year-old daughter in the Halloween tragedy, said he shared a profound sense of grief with Shimomura.
"When he said that even after 22 years from the accident, he still carries the same pain, it was a sadness that could only be understood by people who have lost their loved ones. Empathy offers great comfort," Song said.
Ayumu Tomikawa, 61, of Nemuro, Hokkaido, whose 26-year-old daughter Mei died in the Seoul crush, also finds solace through exchanges with Shimomura and Song. "Since we had no connection with any of the bereaved in Japan, we were grateful that Mr. Song was the first to get in touch with us," he said.
Shimomura, at the request of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, has been serving as an advisor to the families of victims in the sinking of a tourist boat off Hokkaido's Shiretoko Peninsula in April 2022. Twenty people died and six went unaccounted for in the incident.
When he was in South Korea, family members of the sunken Sewol ferry left him a message to pass to the families of victims in the Shiretoko incident. At a memorial ceremony held in the Hokkaido town of Shari in April, Shimomura read the message saying, "Our heart is with you even though we are from different countries."
He said, "I hope to become a bridge between Japan and South Korea to prevent more people from losing their loved ones" in accidents. Song added, "I will contribute to improving cooperation to facilitate the fact-finding processes (for each accident)."