It was among the deadliest wartime events in history, killing an estimated 100,000 people, injuring tens of thousands more and leaving a million homeless. So why has the Great Tokyo Air Raid never been properly memorialized in Japan?
That question has haunted Katsumoto Saotome for much of his life.
Saotome was 12 years old when he awoke to find his working-class neighborhood had been turned into a “sea of fire.” It was just after midnight on the morning of March 10, 1945, and a force of more than 300 American B-29 bombers had begun to rain napalm cluster bombs and white phosphorus incendiaries on the capital in a bid to force the wartime government to surrender.
Fleeing their home in search of shelter from the spreading inferno, Saotome remembers seeing a man carrying a small child burst into flames just steps ahead of him, having been struck by one of the deadly projectiles.
While more than 60 cities across Japan were subjected to devastating air attacks in the final months of the Asia-Pacific War, Saotome argues that the March 10 raid was an “unparalleled massacre.”
“We have to pass that fact on to future generations,” he says.
Now 82, Saotome has been working for decades to draw attention to the firebombing, which incinerated 41 sq. km of the city. Today he runs the Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage, a small privately funded museum in the capital that was established following a long but unsuccessful campaign to create a public “peace museum” to commemorate the Tokyo bombings.
The 3-hectare (320,000-sq.-foot) Tokyo-Edo Museum, which is currently closed for renovations, devotes a corner of one floor to the air raids. There is also a small memorial set into the grounds of Yokoamicho Park, a place dedicated primarily to victims of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake.
With no public institution dedicated exclusively to the firebombings, each year on March 10, Saotome’s modest museum becomes a focal point for those seeking to mark the anniversary, including a dwindling number of survivors.
Compared to the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Great Tokyo Air Raid remains “pretty much forgotten,” says Sven Saaler, an associate professor of history at Sophia University, and the lack of a unified, publicly funded institution may be one reason.
Saaler is currently on sabbatical in Germany, where he has been observing how the World War II commemorations unfold in that country. The Feb. 13 anniversary of the air raid on Dresden, which killed an estimated 25,000 people, received considerable attention domestically and abroad, he notes.
“We know who started the murderous war,” German President Joachim Gauck said during a church service to mark the occasion. “That is why we don’t and we will never forget the victims of German warfare.”
But the 70th anniversary of the Great Tokyo Air Raid passed on Tuesday without the same contrition from heads of state or government.
On Tuesday, a large, predominantly elderly crowd converged on Yokoamicho Park, where the ashes of thousands of the victims are interred, to pay their respects to the dead. A memorial service was also held inside the park’s Tokyo Metropolitan Memorial Hall, attended by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
But many survivors say the Japanese government has yet to properly acknowledge their suffering. They also argue it has failed to accept responsibility for the wartime regime’s refusal to surrender when the writing was on the wall — well before the final months of the war, when so many civilians in the capital and dozens of other Japanese cities perished in the U.S. bombing campaign.
Michiko Kiyoka was 21 when her father and sister were killed in the Great Tokyo Air Raid. She survived by taking shelter under a bridge across the Sumida River, using its frigid waters to shield herself from the intense heat.
Kiyoka was one of 112 plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit in 2007 seeking a government apology for the air raid and ¥1.23 billion in compensation. (Japanese civilians are blocked from seeking reparations from the U.S. under the terms of the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, which officially brought the war to an end.)
The lawsuit was dismissed following a seven-year legal battle but a number of the former plaintiffs, including Kiyoka, are now part of a grass-roots movement lobbying the government to pass a law providing redress to the survivors.
Several hundred people gathered at a public hall in Tokyo’s Asakusa district last Friday to renew that demand ahead of the anniversary. Kiyoka was among them. Now 91, and suffering from health problems after being diagnosed with cancer, she vowed not to die “until there is victory.”
The push for compensation is central to understanding why the Great Tokyo Air Raid receives little public attention, according to Saotome.
“The Japanese government doesn’t want to make the fact that there were civilian war victims a public issue,” he said during a recent interview at his museum in Koto Ward. “They have paid more than ¥50 trillion to military personnel and civilian workers in the military, but they have never paid a penny to civilian war victims.”
Cary Karacas, a cultural geographer at the College of Staten Island who co-founded the Japanairraids.org historical archive, says that commemorating the firebombing has always posed a problem for the government.
Focusing attention on victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings “reinforces the Japanese-as-victim stereotype,” he said in an email. But acknowledging the firebombings forces Tokyo to confront the nation’s role as aggressor, including “the inconvenient fact that it was Japan who initiated the first ever air raids on Asia’s cities, when the Imperial Army and Navy both attacked urban China in the 1930s.”
Several survivors of the U.S. air raids interviewed for this story also expressed concerns about Abe’s defense reforms, including a controversial reinterpretation of the pacifist Constitution to allow Japan’s military to come to the aid of allies under attack.
“I think we can say Japan is on the path back to war,” Saotome said.
Saaler, the historian, believes part of the reason that no widely acknowledged public memorial and museum has ever been erected has to do with a clash of ideologies.
There has been “an ever-increasing polarization of the debate — that you have these people who are quite critical of Japan’s past, and then you have people who would less appreciate critical views in an exhibition where Japanese victims are being commemorated,” he said via Skype.
Saotome and Kiyoka both acknowledge that the campaign to press for compensation and a government apology is unlikely to be successful on Abe’s watch.
“But the fighting itself is what matters. If we don’t fight, the government may pretend the disaster of the Tokyo raid didn’t happen,” Saotome said. “If we keep our mouths shut, we accept it.”