The March 10, 1945, Great Tokyo Air Raid was the most destructive air attack in history. Nearly 100,000 people lost their lives after approximately 300 B29 bombers attacked Tokyo’s present-day Sumida, Koto and Taito wards. Some 1,700 tons of napalm and incendiary bombs created a firestorm that raged at speeds of up to 112 kph at temperatures of 1,000 degrees Celsius. The bombers’ mission was to break enemy “morale” by killing as many civilians as possible.
Antiwar author Katsumoto Saotome was 12 years old and living in Mukojima Ward (present-day Sumida) during the early-morning raid. He rushed to escape with his parents and siblings as flames enveloped the area and bombs exploded around them.
“Breathing became incredibly painful,” he wrote. “We were unable to see and ran practically groping about.”
Despite Saotome losing consciousness and his mother’s backpack catching on fire, all five members of his family survived the night.
Around 40 sq. km of the city was burned to the ground in the attack. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey stated that “all combustible material was completely consumed” and that “more persons were killed in one six-hour period . . . than in any other recorded attack of any kind.”
During the war, 67 Japanese cities were bombed, with many of them over 70 percent destroyed. Excluding the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these attacks killed more than 300,000 people.
“The memory of that night of fire has remained with me throughout my life,” Saotome, who went on to produce more than 150 books on issues of indiscriminate bombing and the killing of noncombatants in war, later wrote.
For Saotome, confronting messages of the horrors of war is directly linked to peace. He has encouraged other survivors to share their experiences, and later generations to learn about the war. In 1970, he helped form the Association to Record the Great Tokyo Air Raid, which collected over 1,000 survivors’ testimonies, along with American and Japanese air raid documents. Saotome opened the Center of the Tokyo Raid and War Damages in Koto Ward’s Kitasuna in 2002. The small center is the only one in Tokyo dedicated entirely to the memory of the raids.
Many air raid survivors later recalled this destruction when they witnessed the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. “There’s nothing left of the town. It’s just like the air raids,” March 10 air raid survivor Yachiyo Ikoma, 82, told the Mainichi Shimbun after the tsunami destroyed her home in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.
Saotome also reflected on his experiences during the Tokyo air raids and sympathized with victims of the Tohoku earthquake.
“The task for Japan now is to recover from March 11,” he said in an October interview with the Asahi Shimbun. “I certainly don’t think March 11 and the Great Tokyo Air Raid are unrelated. It’s precisely the power to imagine the pain and suffering of others that allows us to empathize and create bonds with each other.”
Recently, Saotome has also begun to speak on the dangers of nuclear power. “I had so desperately advocated against war and for peace that I hadn’t really given much thought to the safety of nuclear power plants,” he mentioned of his pre-March 11 career.
This changed after the Fukushima No. 1 disaster.
“Until today, nuclear power plants rapidly developed under the pretext of their ‘peaceful uses,’ ” he noted. “I realized how fragile the peace was that had been supporting our daily lives.”
Saotome reflected on instances from his childhood in wartime Japan and linked them to a criticism of nuclear power.
“It was just like a miniature army,” Saotome explained, describing his middle school during the war. Students trained with bamboo spears to defeat the “devil” Americans and British (kichiku beiei). Militaristic wartime education taught that Japan was the land of the gods and was fighting a war for Asian peace (tōyō heiwa), uniting Asia under a “co-prosperity sphere.”
“There are a number of similarities between the militaristic wartime education in Japan and the education surrounding power plants,” Saotome told The Japan Times recently. The idea of the ” ‘peaceful uses’ of nuclear power and the myth of nuclear safety were (during the war) found in the form of ‘Asian peace’ and the idea of Japan as the ‘land of the gods.’ It was taken for granted that such phrases were making use of the word ‘peace’ and being used to foster a belief in resolute victory, and many citizens were deceived.”
Early in the war, many believed that Japan was impervious to air attack. This was reinforced by government and military rhetoric that touted the nation’s “steel defenses” and assured citizens that air raids were nothing to be afraid of.
“This could be applied to the case of nuclear power plants,” noted Saotome. The situation surrounding both “rapidly progressed without any strategy of where or how to put a stop to it. As a result, citizens bore severe damage.”
At the same time, Saotome underscored the importance of recognizing individual citizens’ responsibility.
“A while ago, there was a song called ‘The Children Who Don’t Know War.’ However, it would be more precise to say that they didn’t make any attempts to know the war. The same applies to nuclear power plants. Adults didn’t make an attempt to understand nuclear power.”
“I feel a great responsibility toward later generations,” he continued. “After the war, adults couldn’t provide a clear answer when children asked them why they started the war and why they couldn’t stop it. I wonder, after some years pass, will we be able to answer our children when they ask us why we started using nuclear power, and why we couldn’t stop accidents?”
Send comments on this issue and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. Justin Aukema is a graduate student at Sophia University. His main research areas are the Japan air raids and Japanese antiwar authors