Website to document air-raid devastation

Online archive will feature historical accounts of the suffering of ordinary Japanese during World War II

by Takahiro Fukada

A digital archive of information about the air raids on Japan during World War II is being prepared for launch in late November by two Americans who believe more English-speaking people should have a better idea of how ordinary Japanese suffered.

Scheduled to store around 600 U.S. and Japanese historical documents at the launch of the Japan Air Raids Digital Archive, they hope the website will help people around the world find information on the air raids.

“Once you begin learning the details of what people experienced, rightwing or leftwing political beliefs, historical sensibilities, even nationalities don’t really matter anymore,” said Bret Fisk, 37, a resident of Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, who is busily preparing the archives. “Anyone can sympathize with the suffering of the air raid victims.”

Fisk is working on the project with Cary Karacas, 39, an assistant professor of human geography at The City University of New York. Fisk has been gathering the materials in Japan while Karacas is collecting documents in the United States.

Documents they plan to store in the archive include notes by air raid victims, damage records of bombed cities, theses and essays analyzing air raids, bomber command mission reports and reports of postwar U.S. investigations of its attacks.

The archive will also include propaganda films made by the U.S. Army Air Forces, and a documentary on production of the B-29 bomber, said Fisk, who came to Japan in 1992 and is married to a Japanese.

The idea of launching the digital archive initially began when Fisk encountered personal accounts of air raid survivors.

Fisk, a translator and operator of an English conversation school in Odawara, said he has been interested in the history of the 19th and 20th centuries.

He started working on a novel about the Pacific War three years ago. Thinking of writing about the U.S. air raids on Japan, he sought materials in Tokyo’s “book town” — Jinbo-cho in Chiyoda Ward. There he came across a record of Japanese survivors of the March 10, 1945, bombing of Tokyo.

One story depicted in the book told of a young father whose clothes and hair caught on fire while trying to protect his children from the heat of nearby burning buildings. The man died while repeatedly apologizing to his wife for failing to protect their children.

Another told of a mother forced to leave behind her disabled firstborn child when fleeing the flames. Her husband was not there to help and she knew that on her own she would only be able to protect her two younger children.

Fisk said this was the first time that he encountered the tragedies experienced by mothers and fathers who lost their children, as well as those who lost siblings and other relatives in the air raids.

“Most Americans simply interpret the air raids as part of an unavoidable strategy to end the war with Japan,” he said. “As I read these stories I was amazed at the depth of human suffering they described. It was difficult to even sleep at night.”

Although no other historical event has been researched and written about as much as World War II, few people outside Japan are aware of the details regarding the bombing of Tokyo, in which more than 100,000 people are said to have been killed, Fisk said.

Part of the reason is because although the victims’ stories are largely available in Japanese, few English-language accounts exist, he said.

The idea of creating a digital archive became concrete after Fisk met with Karacas last August when the scholar was in Tokyo to research the air raids. The two agreed they would build the Japan Air Raids Digital Archive to disseminate information on the bombings to the world.

In addition to gathering materials, Fisk has been busy translating them. “Aside from my fiction writing, I’m also glad to have the opportunity to translate survivor accounts,” he said.

“The interpretation of historical events is a very personal affair. Even so, I think it’s important to take the whole story into account. When considering the role of the incendiary air raids in particular, it’s simply imperative to be informed about the experiences of those on the ground,” Fisk said.

“Professor Karacas and I hope that gradually making these materials available will encourage others to read, reflect and perform their own research into the air raids,” he said.