TOKYO — It is now 75 years since the end of the Second World War.
As happened on the many 25th, 50th and 60th anniversaries of the war, there is to be a series of memorials recalling specific events, the 75 million soldiers and civilians who died between 1939 and 1945, and honouring the dwindling number of veterans and civilians who witnessed the carnage and can still tell us about it.
Though the Dresden firebombings and the atomic bombs that struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki are much better known, they did not kill as many people as the massive bomber attack on the heart of Tokyo on March 10, 1945.
Curiously, there have been no high-profile public memorials planned in Japan to commemorate what was arguably the most destructive air raid ever carried out.
While fierce fighting between U.S. Marines and the Imperial Japanese Army raged on atolls such as Iwo Jima to the south of the main Japanese islands, about 300 United States Army Air Forces B-29 Superfortress bombers under the command of Maj.-Gen. Curtis LeMay — who had earlier commanded U.S. bombers that conducted similar firebombing attacks in Europe — massed together near Guam and Saipan in the western Pacific and headed to Tokyo.
As the aerial armada reached its destination, the aircraft swooped down to between 600 and 800 metres in altitude to drop more than 1,000 tons of cluster bombs, each loaded with 38 canisters of highly incendiary napalm. About 30 of these bomblets exploded every second during the two and a half hours it took for all the bombers to fly over the city.
Air crews flew so low that they later told American journalists that they could feel the heat of the fires.
LeMay and others justified the bombing of what were mostly civilian targets as necessary to break Japan’s will as well as its ability to fight. The general cited then-president Harry Truman’s prediction that one million or more troops, including Canadians who began mustering in western Canada after the war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, would be killed if they had to fight their way ashore on Japan’s biggest islands.
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An accurate number of the dead from what the Americans called Operation Meeting House is understandably impossible to come by.
It has been estimated by many Japanese and U.S. sources that somewhere between 90,000 and 125,000 Tokyoites were killed by the bombs, which were a volatile mixture of gasoline and white phosphorous that used the mostly wooden houses they struck as kindling. More than one million people were left homeless. Forty-one square kilometres of the city were incinerated.
The Japanese have commemorated the catastrophic consequences of nuclear war at Nagasaki and especially Hiroshima with major museums as well as annual pilgrimages. There is nothing similar recalling the suffering of Japanese from the firebombing of the dozens of their cities, including the biggest attack of all on their capital.
The only memorial is the Centre of the Tokyo Raid and War Damages.
The volunteer-run museum is in a modest, non-descript, low-rise building far from the city centre that gets by on small donations from about 4,000 people. There are films explaining what happened as well as photographs and huge maps that show in remarkable detail how U.S. bombers concentrated their firepower on populated districts that were interspersed with small factories near Tokyo Bay.
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Saotome Kotsumoto is one of the last survivors of that hellish night and a strong backer of the museum, which finally opened 57 years after the war ended. He vividly explains in a video that is shown at the museum and in his book, The Great Tokyo Air Raid — which has been translated into English — how he, his parents and his sister fled their home and somehow managed to escape the inferno.
“In the crimson sky, black smoke was gathering in a dense fog and sparks were swirling about,” he wrote. “It was a blizzard of sparks. Circling serenely above the pillar of flames, the B-29 bombers continued to pour down their incendiaries. First a bright blue flash shone in the sky, then countless trails of light fell and were absorbed in the black rooftops, from which new flames rose up.
“‘My, how beautiful!’ exclaimed my sister. Strangely I still remember that incongruous remark. At that moment, as if to suppress my sister’s admiration, a metallic explosion rang out.
“Suddenly I saw the huge form of a B-29 flying very low above the rooftops. Its belly opened wide and several black objects fell screeching to the ground. I instinctively covered my face. When I looked up again flames were rising all over the neighbourhood. Then I heard my father’s voice from below: ‘Katsumoto, what are you doing?’”
While Ground Zero at Hiroshima attracts more than one million visitors a month, only a handful of people visit the Tokyo air raid museum every day. Some of these visitors are Japanese schoolchildren who spend a lot more time in class studying the nuclear holocaust. The Tokyo bombings are seldom mentioned.
Only 10 people attended a Buddhist memorial Tuesday that recalled the bombing, though more would have attended if Japan was not reeling from the COVID-19 outbreak. Among those who withdrew from the service were Crown Prince Akishino and his wife.
The reasons for what Katsumoto’s translator, Richard Sams, calls “the question of public amnesia regarding the Tokyo air raids” are complicated. So are how Japan remembers many aspects of the Second World War: the often extremely harsh treatment of Chinese, Koreans and Filipinos when its army occupied their lands, and of Asian, Dutch, Australian, British, Indian, New Zealand and American prisoners of war.
Despite a flurry of U.S. media interest in recent days, few westerners, like most Japanese, know much about the Tokyo air raids, though they took place over 100 nights culminating in the horrors of March 10 and ended up displacing more than five million people.
They should consider what happened that night to better understand that it is possible for conventional bombing to be as lethal as a nuclear bomb, as well as to consider the dreadful moral questions that arise when a crushing attack on civilians might stop a conflict before there are even more casualties.
My father had strong views on the subject. When the war in Europe ended for him in Germany, he voluntarily returned to Canada ahead of his regiment to remuster for combat duty in the Pacific.
When he heard the Americans had bombed Hiroshima with a powerful new bomb, he described it as the best news he’d heard since enlisting. He reckoned there would be no need to invade Japan with the terrible number of casualties that that would involve.
It turned out he was right. Japan finally surrendered.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas