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Indiscriminate bombing and legal judgment

by Hiroaki Sato

Cultural geographer Cary Karacas asked me to translate some poems about the air raids on Japanese cities during the Pacific War, so I did. Later I found one of the areas he is studying is the civilian experience of aerial bombing.

For my translation, Karacas lent me an anthology of “Great Air Raids: 310 Poets.” I knew of its compiler and editor, Katsumoto Saotome. A survivor of the night of March 9, 1945, that struck Tokyo with the biggest firebombing ever, Saotome was distressed by Japan’s well-nigh disregard for the raid in comparison with Hiroshima and Nagasaka, so he decided to do something about it.

After struggling for more than 30 years, he managed to found a museum to commemorate the calamity, the Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage. I mentioned him in these pages some years ago. (“Great Tokyo Air Raid was a war crime,” Sept. 30, 2002.)

However, one powerful piece describing that night that I found and translated, “Ah, Yokokawa Elementary School,” was not in Saotome’s anthology, maybe because it wasn’t meant to be a poem. Yuichi Inoue, who wrote it, was on night duty at the school, in Honjo, where he was a teacher.

Like most schools that had been destroyed during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, Yokokawa had been rebuilt with concrete and steel, and that proved fatal. After a thousand people evacuated into the school, incendiary bombs engulfed the building.

“Ferocious fires around them / The old the young the men the women voiceless,” Inoue wrote. “With no energy to escape again / The building inside because of fire / Is like daylight / Iron-framed window glass shatters all at once / In one second / Explosion all at once the building’s inside turns into fire.” In the raging fires, the school building turned into “a strongbox.”

Three hours of that firebombing by 300 B-29 Superfortresses alone killed 80 percent of the 105,000 people bombed to death in Tokyo in the entire war.

This piece, which you can see on the internet, is written as if splashed on a piece of paper with a brush, writhing breathlessly like “the parents’ and children’s death screams.” In fact, surviving this inferno, Inoue went on to become an outstanding avant-garde calligrapher who, some say, influenced Isamu Noguchi and Franz Kline.

Whenever I read about these air bombings — large-scale, methodical, and persistent — I often wondered: What happened when B-29s were shot down or crash-landed and crewmen survived? After all, from November 1944 to August 1945, Tokyo alone was firebombed 122 times, by one count. What awaited the surviving airmen? But I hadn’t explored the matter.

Yes, I’ve remembered a Japanese TV-drama from the end of the 1950s, “I’d Like to Become a Clam.” In it, a barber turned draftee is ordered to kill a survivor of a crashed B-29. After Japan’s defeat, he is indicted on a war crime, found guilty, and sentenced to death. It was a fictionalized composite of actual incidents.

More recently, I’d heard that a film was made about a general who took responsibility for executing captured American airmen and was himself executed. His name was Tasuku Okada. Later I learned the film comes with the English title, “Best Wishes for Tomorrow.”

This time, with little effort, I found a website called POW Research Network Japan. It devotes one section to “crash-landed U.S. aircraft during the air raids on Japan and crewmen POWs.” Based on the documents of the Legal Section, GHQ/SCAP, it reports that, in total, about 570 crewmen of aircraft shot down or crash-landed in Japan survived and were captured.

About half of them were executed, died of wounds, or perished during air raids and the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. After Japan’s defeat, those responsible for their deaths were tried at the Yokohama War Crimes Trials. Lt. Gen. Tasuku Okada, commander-in-chief of the Tokai Military District, headquartered in Nagoya, was one of them.

The Nagoya area was bombed 38 times from Dec. 13, 1944, to July 26, 1945, by a cumulative total of 1,973 B-29s. As many as 8,200 people were killed, 519,000 rendered homeless. During that period, crewmen of crashed B-29s were captured twice, 38 in all, and they were beheaded. To defend his subordinates, Okada insisted he was fully responsible for the acts.

Okada, a devout Nichiren Buddhist, wrote that at first he thought of killing himself but that, as he “studied the U.S. military and found it was illegal / lawless (fuho),” he decided to fight the charge of war crime, calling it a “legal / dharma battle” (hosen). A number of Japanese ranking officers committed suicide upon Japan’s defeat. Of those directly related to airmen’s executions, there were Lt. Gen. Tomosaburo Shimada and Maj. Gen. Chiichi Okada, both judge advocates.

As Shohei Ooka points out in his detailed account of Okada’s court battle, The Hague Rules of Air Warfare of 1923 states, in Article 22, “Aerial bombardment for the purpose of terrorizing the civilian population, of destroying or damaging private property not of a military character, or of injuring non-combatants is prohibited.”

But the Hague law was never adopted in legally binding form because the major powers criticized it as being unrealistic. The German bombing of Guernica in April 1937, which Picasso made famous, ignored it; so did Japan’s “transoceanic bombings” of China from August 1937 to August 1943.

Okada made three arguments: The crewmen who carried out indiscriminate bombings were not POWs, but felons; Japanese military law required them to be executed; and no existing international laws and rules would apply now that the U.S. had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Joseph G. Featherstone, chief counsel for Okada’s defense team, made similar arguments, to no avail.

Indiscriminate or otherwise, aerial bombing remains the preferred choice of warfare for the United States. Earlier this year, the Council on Foreign Affairs reported that America dropped 26,171 bombs in 2016.

Hiroaki Sato is a poet, essayist and translator based in New York.