It has been 60 years since U.S. bombers destroyed much of Tokyo in the spring of 1945. Survivors of the “Great Tokyo Air Raids” — most of them now in their 70s and 80s — are few and far between. Words like “B-nijuku” (B-29), “bokugo” (air-raid shelter) and “shoidan” (incendiary bomb) are no longer heard in daily conversations. To remember the tragedy and leave its records to posterity, citizens in Tokyo and other cities that were bombed during the final months of World War II are promoting a variety of memorial events and programs.

In Tokyo, a project is under way to determine the actual number of casualties on the basis of newly discovered documents related to the March 10, 1945, air raid, which took place before dawn. A group of popular artists and entertainers has produced a music CD to complement a Tokyo exhibition on the bombing. Elsewhere in the country, monuments and other memorials for those who perished during the raids have been constructed or are scheduled for construction.

As memories of the war steadily fade, survivors who in the past have refused to recount their experiences in public are coming forward, while those who have been too busy with their daily work to give much thought to the past and now lead a quiet life in retirement are telling their children and grandchildren about their sufferings and hardships. Others, while complaining that life is short, continue to play an active role as living war witnesses. Their common message is that the 21st century must be a century of peace.

Large-scale air raids by bombers are often indiscriminate. According to war historians, such attacks date to 1937 when German aircraft bombed the Basque city of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. The primary objective of that operation, they say, was not to attack military personnel and munitions factories but to destroy the city and deprive its residents of the will to fight. In World War II, similar raids were conducted by the Allied Forces as well. Most of the victims were noncombatants — women, children and elderly people.

Japanese surveys show that more than half a million people died during the air raids on Tokyo and other cities. The March 10 bombing is estimated to have killed 100,000 people. To make an exact tally of the casualties, a group of Tokyo citizens has prepared a “disaster map” showing the routes that victims took to escape the fires. The map, now on exhibit at a Tokyo museum, is based on a list of Tokyo’s war dead that was discovered four years ago.

An exhibition on the Tokyo raids is now open in Roppongi Hills, a fashionable shopping district. It is attracting young people, as it offers a rare glimpse of wartime Japan. Also contributing to their interest in the war is a commemorative CD that features a song by a pair of young actresses. The song is based on a poem written by a 78-year-old woman who survived the bombing. Thus, in their own way, young people are joining in a war-memorial program.

Around 1970, civic groups in Tokyo and other bombed cities began to collect information on the air raids in order to pass down accurate records of the disasters to future generations. The following year, with the publication of “Great Tokyo Air Raids” by the popular writer Katsumoto Saotome, those groups set up the National Liaison Council on Recording the Air Raids and Other War Disasters.

The “recording” movement quickly spread throughout the country and involved a broad range of activities, including the collection of related materials (documents, personal belongings left by the deceased, photos, notes), interviews with surviving victims and an analysis of U.S. military documents released by the U.S. National Archives. In memory of the raids, monuments and statues have been erected in various parts of the country.

The national council, which meets once a year, held last year’s session in Yokohama, one of the cities devastated by bombings. This year’s meeting is to be held in Nagaoka City, Niigata Prefecture, in August. At a war archive that opened in the city last year, survivors of the raids are often invited to talk to visiting elementary and high school students. A mother-child statue is to be constructed in the hall by Aug. 1, the date the city was attacked.

In Tokyo, a plan to open a “peace hall” hangs in the balance because of disagreement in the metropolitan assembly. There is good reason to build a public “war museum” in Tokyo, the most heavily bombed city. Obviously, though, such a project requires cooperation between local authorities and residents. It would be especially beneficial if the museum, whatever its official name, provided a special space where survivors could tell their stories freely to both adults and children.

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