Remembering the Firebombing of Tokyo

Some of the fiercest Pacific War land battles between armies — John Dower’s “war without mercy”–occurred over the summer of 1944. The Allies’ “island hopping” campaigns over the long South Pacific archipelago culminated in the capitulation of Guam, Saipan, and Tenian. Landing strips were built for the B-29 superfortress and the US Air Command commenced to strike “soft targets” on the main island of Japan. This past week marked the 58th anniversary of the first such “shock and awe” attack.

At about a quarter after midnight on 10 March 1945 the first sirens went off as small canisters of fire were scattered in the densely populated eastern section of Tokyo. Writer Saotome Katsumoto was twelve-years old at the time:

“A belt of fire swept over from Shita-machi. It became a raging stream running over streets and stabbing through houses, joining together with others until it transformed the landscape into a phenomenal hell.”

He remembers flames shooting from the windows of the houses lining the evacuation route. He saw one B-29 at close range dropping countless fires, slowly floating towards a diagonal route towards him and turning over and over like a dice as it hit the ground nearby; someone burnt beyond recognition tried desperately to extinguish one; in another moment a glimpse of a young girl of four or five becomes a blur as her figure is suddenly engulfed in smoke. That night the foray of over 300 bombers and dropped a payload of 1700 tons over Tokyo. The all-clear sounded a little before noon but the fires were whipped by a strong north wind and continued. All told about 100,000 lay buried in the scorched earth or afloat in the city’s canals with one million homeless. Saotome comments: “There is no record of that number of soldiers losing their lives in a battle of similar length.” The air raids would hit Tokyo again and all of Japan’s major cities become similar battlefields until surrender in August.

This modern carnage has been recorded by the modern art of photography, but in my opinion another medium captures meaning better. The emaki, or rolled-painting, has been used to exhibit pictorial narratives in Japan since at least the 8th century, particularly epic stories known as monogatari (“The Tale of Genji” is the most well-known). Monogatari are special because they embody an organic versimilitude, an essential truthfulness that appeals to the observer. The deep, almost maroon vermillion red color motif of the Tokyo air-raid emaki is the functional signifier, alluding to the “hell scrolls” (jigoku-e) of ancient times and also fitting Saotome’s description precisely (the lightbulb in Guernica anchors the event to the 20th C and is an interesting foil).

Post-attack photography of the city highlights, in my opinion, another aspect: the psychology of the victors. The charcoal-colored effigies of once legitimate human activity recall most of the preserved corpses encapsulated in the volcanic ash of Vesuvio. In other words, the strategy of the victors appears to declaim, “Not only your government but your society too is ash, gone, a ‘non-starter’, ‘history’.” So it may probably come to the city of Baghdad; however, it is a strategy doomed to failure because those swearing jihad in their hearts and minds will not soon forget the memory of a destroyed and desecrated metropolis.

Koizumi: A Chochin Before the Wind

The image of fire was also brought to mind this past Monday the tenth in an evening newscast. Prime Minister Koizumi and his Foreign Ministry appear ready to “carry the chochin” for Bush, commented anchor Kume Hiroshi of News Station. A chochin is a traditional round paper lantern lit by a candle; in feudal times when an imperial or shogunal progress came trooping the color of authority through a populated area, a few guys proceeded them waving these lanterns shooing people out of the way. Today these comic-bully characters are stock in period drama. It is an apt description for the Prime Minister who signaled his continuing support for the US-sponsored UN resolution authorizing force by announcing he would place phone calls to the “middle six” undecided nations. He made this announcement on the tenth.

The ledge upon which Koizumi sits at present is becoming to resemble Tony Blair’s. While it could be argued that Japan’s position vis-?-vis North Korea would be strengthened by US support there are growing quarters of domestic dissent. He appeared to have lost some potential political allies from other parties, or at least strengthened the resolve of those already in opposition, by announcing his pro-US stand most clearly last month standing lone with Australia at the UN-member speak out. This was made prior to any formal clarification of position in the national Diet, and there is now relentless criticism in the news media for not making his case to the public. This was reflected last weekend in the demonstration at Hibiya Park in Tokyo that drew 40,000, and on 2 March when 7,000 gathered in Hiroshima to spell “NO WAR-NO DU” in a park.

Even the elders within his own party have been advising he reconsider his position, including Reagan’s buddy former-p.m. Nakasone Yasuhiro. In fact the only former-p.m. vocally supporting Koizumi is his immediate predecessor Mori Yoshiro, whose year in office will remembered primarily for his professing the divinity of Japan–the famous “God’s Country”/Kami no Kuni statement–and for his Taftian-burlesque bulk in golf togs when he refused to interrupt his golf game after being notified that a US Navy submarine had accidentally collided with Uwajima Fisheries High School training craft off the coast of Hawai’i. Faced with this kind of opposition (and current economic troubles), and perhaps even chastened by former-UNHCR Ogata Sadako warnings of a humanitarian disaster, Koizumi appears to have backed-down materially if not rhetorically on an attack on Iraq, refusing any financial support for military action but pledging to help in the “rebuilding” (his caricature gracing his party’s homepage amusingly illustrates his current situation) .


A conflagration, a human-induced disaster on the scale of Tokyo and possibly Baghdad usually accords blame to more than one individual; not only to the those ordering the ordeal, to those pushing the buttons, to those who design the weapons themselves, but also to the leaders of the defeated. Hussein has not accepting a dignified retreat. Some blame should also go to us brave citizens of the Republic for being loath and cold in agitation following the coup-d’etat of November 2000. Finally the lack of reflection on national experience distributes some blame to the current Japanese administration as well for not openly questioning the proposed military tactics, despite the uncertainties of the DPRK situation.

In fact, the only people who might be blameless are the people in Baghdad, the women floor traders on the Baghdad SE; the players in the 12-team strong professional soccer league who fondly remember knocking-out Japan in the 1994 World Cup prelims; the 12-year-olds dutifully studying English in class. Especially the young; they are truly the brave in their dedication to daily routine, doing their best with the double axe of economic hardship and threatened conflagration overhanging. So well they were portrayed in an extended series of the NEWS 23 program with anchor Chikushi Tetsuya entering the schools and slums around Saddam City; in the same situation I would be (as Dr. Evil might have it) “a frigging basket case”. To suggest to this distressed population they find the energy and will to engage in open conflict with authority ranks with the highest hubris.

Novelist and critic Nosaka Akiyuki’s position in an essay from last summer on the Hiroshima atomic bombing was similar. Most pointedly he avoided condemning the US but rather levels his plain-spoken fury at Japan’s war-time authority who with their delusions and dithering refused a “window of opportunity” to countenance surrender offered by the Potsdam Agreement. The result: The younger adolescents of that city and Nagasaki just under the age 16 draft age became “history”, although it was they who were certainly “doing their best” for their country, balancing schoolwork, household chores, and the community service of auxiliary fire brigade. The problem is that their leaders did not reciprocate in kind.

Irony is rarely absent from history, and yet this essential element of self-reflection appears to be absent in the current Japanese leadership as they continuously “raise the chochin lantern” for the Bush administration. Should war commence this stand will be remembered and will live on as a particularly infamous irony in the latter part of human history.

ADAM LEBOWITZ teaches at Nihon University and has lived in Japan for 12 years. Click here to read MIT Prof. John Dower’s fine rebuttal to the “Iraq as Japan” argument from the Boston Review. A free download of the English translation of Ikezawa Natsuki’s On A Small Bridge in Iraq with fine photos by Motohashi Seiichi is available at

ADAM LEBOWITZ can be reached at: