Victims seek redress for ‘unparalleled massacre’ of Tokyo air raid


Staff Writer

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.”

Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • tisho

    Is this not the very definition of hypocrisy ?

    • Gordon Graham

      How exactly is this hypocritical? Did you read the article or just look at the picture? It says that a group of citizens is seeking redress from the government which they claim bear some responsibility for them being subjected to horrific consequences when the outcome of the war was already a foregone conclusion. Who is being hypocritical…the citizens?

      • thompson_richard

        The contrast between the March 9-10 raid and the August one on Hachioji, out in the county part of the prefecture, is telling. Warned by handbills and quite prepared to believe them, the people of Hachioji fled. There were only two hundred twenty-five deaths, although the number and weight of the bombs were higher than in the Tokyo raid.

  • GBR48

    Only the Japanese people would be so ready to blame their own government first.

    Regardless of the behaviour of the wartime Japanese government, the indiscriminate, wholesale slaughter of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in the firebombing of Japanese cities (and of Dresden for that matter) all stand as textbook war crimes.

    The US (and the Allies in the case of Dresden) got away with it because they won. No other reason.

    The houses were made of wood. The Americans knew exactly what they were doing.

    Given the amount of compensation people get in American courts if their privacy is invaded, their feelings hurt or their copyright breached, you would have thought the US Government could put their hands in their pockets for the surviving victims of the Tokyo firebombings, fund a memorial, and then have President Obama come and apologise on bended knee at it.

    • Richard Solomon

      It would be very healing if President Obama did what GBR48 suggested. Perhaps by the USA taking some leadership on this and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Japanese government could be more forthcoming in its responsibility for the Nanking massacre, Korean comfort women, and other atrocities it committed during the Great Pacific War. I’d love to see President Obama and his wife meet with PM Abe and his wife as well as the Royal Family to begin these proceedings. The President would have to face down the Republicans and other so called patriotic Americans in doing this, however. He’s got less than 2 years before he leaves office to do it.

      • R0ninX3ph

        You do know that wikileaks already leaked that Obama wanted to apologise during his 2009 tour of Japan and the Japanese government were the ones to nix it, right? Oh, that doesn’t fit with your narrative.

  • Rotating Beater Shaft

    Apologise? You first, Japan.

    • Gordon Graham

      They’re asking for an apology from, Japan…A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Here’s a clue…read the article you comment on before you comment

  • Naur

    I think the best thing to happen for them is the movie Grave of the Fireflies. If you haven’t seen it, check it out.

  • R0ninX3ph

    To say there is no evidence, is to claim the wikileaks information false. Thats fine. Im not going to start a conspiracy conversation over this, I’m not tinfoil hatting, but I’m not going to take a statement from the White House as evidence that the leak is necessarily false.

    That doesn’t mean I think the leak is true because the White House said it wasn’t, that would be ludicrous. However, there could be many reasons why the Japanese government wouldn’t want to put the current President of the United States into that situation of apologising for it.

    It would set a precedent that the Japanese government doesn’t want to deal with, people apologising for what other people see as war-crimes (or close to it).

    • Where in the cables released by WikiLeaks is it stated that Obama contemplated making such an apology?

  • The Japan Times article paraphrases the cable as saying “antinuclear groups would speculate over whether the president would
    visit Hiroshima in light of his Prague speech on nuclear
    nonproliferation.” And indeed Obama had expressed an interest in visiting Hiroshima. But that he planned to apologize is sheer speculation. The Vice Foreign Minister may have mentioned it only to head off something that he feared would be discussed. This was 2009, when it was still possible to imagine Obama doing such a thing.

    This is a pretty minor point, so I’ll leave it at that.

  • Toolonggone

    Arguably, this event is even more devastating than Hiroshima and Nagasaki since the air raid lasted for over several months, costing over 100,000 of lives. No one is for sure if this is going to be a part of national conversation for 70 year anniversary of WWII. Unlike A-bomb catastrophe victims, no one has ever been compensated for this horrific event. No single Cabinet member or lawmaker in the Diet has ever brought this up as an opportunity to speak up to heal the wounds of those victims that are long overdue.

  • thompson_richard

    Edward Seidensticker in Tokyo Rising wrote about the dark days of 1945, “and the decimation of the Kanto air defenses in the heavy raids that preceded the incendiary attacks made mass, low-level American bombing runs as nearly safe as they could be. Some two-fifths of Tokyo went up in flames! Between seventy and eighty thousand people are believed to have died that night: March 9-10, 1945. It was a night of horror, and the Americans and their bombers were the agents. Starting from the eastern part of Setagaya Ward and Suginami Ward and proceeding past Shinjuku and Kanda, or, alternatively, along the south side of the palace and on through Nihombashi, one could in the summer of 1945 have walked all the way to the Arakawa Channel upon nothing but cinders. Yet a few words may be slipped in by way of mitigation for what they did. The wards east of the Sumida river were — along with the wards nearest Yokohama — the most heavily industrialized parts of the city. The pattern of industrialization beyond the Sumida was so fragmented that it would have been impossible to separate implicitly military targets from purely civilian ones. Foresight on the part of the Japanese authorities was, moreover, lamentably bad, and measures to prevent the disaster scarcely existed. Through the first months of 1945 people were actually discouraged from leaving the city. Their patriotic duty was to stay at their posts. Four of Tokyo’s thirty-five wards suffered more than ten thousand fatalities. All were in the Low City, and among them they accounted for more than 80 percent of the total. It is a situation that once more calls to mind the Tokyo Earthquake of 1923 — about which, see: Edward Seidensticker Low City, High City; Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake, 1867-1923 [Knopf: 1983],