Once again in September, after a summer of turmoil, Yachiyo Kuge has become so overwhelmed with emotion that she feels unable to do anything.

But as she has done so many times in the past, Kuge will collect her thoughts and travel overseas to mark the anniversary of her son’s death.

This will be his first visit to the United States on September 11 in three years.

SHANKSVILLE CRASH

In 2001, Kuge’s second son, Toshiya, a 20-year-old sophomore at Waseda University, was on United Airlines Flight 93, which departed Newark International Airport at 8:42 a.m. and was bound for San Francisco.

But he and the 36 other passengers and seven crew members never reached their destination.

The plane was hijacked by four al-Qaeda terrorists and crashed in a rural area of ​​Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

At her home in Osaka, 11,000 kilometers away and 13 hours away, Kuge watched a newscast showing two planes crashing into the World Trade Center in New York.

It was late at night in Japan and she took the family dog ​​for a walk. She asked the dog, “Is Toshiya-kun okay?”

WE LOVE CULTURE

Toshiya loved American sports and culture. He listened to CDs of foreign music and at night he often watched American football games on television.

“I want to excel in the United States,” he told his high school friends.

In March 2001, Toshiya took a short language course, which reinforced his desire to study abroad.

At the end of August, he traveled to Canada and the United States and visited the campuses of Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as Niagara Falls and the Statue of Liberty.

Before the trip, Toshiya visited his mother in Osaka, and they went shopping at a nearby Tokyu Hands to buy her a black passport case.

Kuge thought the holster strap was a little loose, so she machine-sewed it and reinforced it.

At the entrance to Shin-Osaka Station, Toshiya said to him, “Here is fine. You can go home.

“Be careful,” she said.

Kuge watched his son enter the station. It was the last time she saw Toshiya.

HOMEMADE JAPANESE FLAG

On the morning of September 12, as Toshiya’s flight from San Francisco was scheduled to land at Kansai International Airport, Kuge received a call from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His mind is momentarily blank.

United Airlines staff came to see her and she asked if there was a chance that Toshiya would survive.

She couldn’t believe her son was dead.

As soon as she got a passport, she took a flight from Kansai to San Francisco and followed Toshiya’s travel route in reverse.

After several days, Kuge arrived at the crash site in Pennsylvania.

“I’m just an ordinary person. I don’t understand terrorism or war at all,” she said.

Everywhere she went in the United States, she saw Stars and Stripes flags. It was surreal for her.

She asked an employee of the Japanese Consulate General for red and white cloths and scissors.

Using a coffee maker in her hotel room, she cut a circle out of the red fabric and sewed it onto the white fabric to create a Japanese flag.

Kuge left the homemade flag among the countless American flags at the crash site.

She was given Toshiya’s remains identified by DNA testing – shoulder bones, coccyx bones and the first toe of the right foot – in a large coffin.

She also received the passport case.

It was exhibited at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York.

A photo of Toshiya Kuge, one of the passengers of hijacked United Airlines Flight 93, with a Japanese flag and origami cranes, is displayed at the crash site in Shanksville, Pennsylvania in September 2021. ( Gakushi Fujiwara)

PANDEMIC STOP PLAN

Since 2002, Kuge had spent every September 11 at the crash site.

She has also visited every place Toshiya has been to because she wants to breathe the same air as him and stay as close to him as possible.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted his schedule. She was unable to travel to the United States for 9/11 anniversaries in 2020 and 2021.

“My son must feel alone. I can finally go see it,” she said of planning to visit the crash site for the first time in three years. “I want to call his name, stay close to him.”

Citing her age and health, Kuge said there was no guarantee she could travel to the United States next year.

“This year could be my last,” she sometimes thinks.

“But, compared to what my son has been through, getting to the site shouldn’t be a challenge,” she said.

Kuge stays in touch with many of Toshiya’s friends, other bereaved families and people who helped her 21 years ago.

The network is even growing, she says.

“I think my son wanted to learn more about America,” she said. Doing so in his name “will be the best service to him.”

At the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, the names of the victims are inscribed on 40 marble stones.

Toshiya’s name appears in romaji and kanji characters. Kuge wrote the kanji.

She said she planned to rub the names this year and say, “Your mum is here. Are you still studying abroad?”

More than two decades have passed since the terrorist attacks. Kuge said she couldn’t imagine what her son would have looked like today.

“I don’t know what his old face looks like,” she said.

Kuge added: “I wish I could do more for him. He gave me a lot of joy for 20 years. But he still had many years to come.

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The site where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. (Gakushi Fujiwara)