Originally published on another blog on March 7, 2014. This post is an update made on March 11, 2020.
Every year in Japan in early March news organizations, citizens and activist groups prepare to commemorate the anniversary of earthquake-tsunami-meltdown disaster that occurred in Northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011. It would be good to note another important event from March 9-10, 1945 and see the traces that connect it with the events of 2011.
On night of March 9-10, 1945, US forces struck Tokyo with the most destructive air raid in history. It caused such an inferno of boiling asphalt and rivers that probably killed more people in one night than either of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This date is not as well-known as those of the atomic bombings in August that year, and the reason is largely political.
In the West, people tend to be Eurocentric in their knowledge of the war, so they know about London and Dresden, but not about Tokyo. Tokyo was the capital and headquarters of the Allied Occupation that lasted from 1945-52, so for seven years there was little motive to make historical evaluations of the event. The pro-American, anti-communist government that followed the occupation had just as little interest in dwelling on historical events that would remind people of the war. Another reason that a publicly funded memorial doesn’t exist is that there would be no political compromise in the controversy over how to portray Japan as an aggressor in the war, not only as a victim of the air raids. The citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were more successful at resisting the national government pressure to sweep history under the carpet, but this never happened in Tokyo to such an extent, so the night of March 10 is not memorialized as much as the atomic bombings.
A report in the Seattle Times back in 2005 claimed the reason for this was the sensitive feelings of the victims, but this rational wouldn’t explain why Hiroshima and Nagasaki did much more to commemorate their experiences. In any case, a memorial in a Tokyo park was finally opened in 2001, and a small museum called the Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage opened in 2002 with private donations and no official support.
In 2013 Prime Minister Abe said the bombing of Tokyo by the United States in 1945 was against the “humanitarian principles of international law” of that time. In March 2020, a friend who is quite knowledgeable on this history, Satoko Oka Norimatsu, provided more information on what was behind the statement of the Japanese government:
Our apartment is near the Tokyo Air Raid museum (officially called “The Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage”), so I have been there many times. The whole exhibit will be renewed and will reopen in April 2020 (I don’t know the exact date). My father’s family lost their home not in the Shitamachi raid but the Yamanote raid of May 24/25, 1945. No one in his family was hurt to my knowledge. I was just curious about where you mentioned what Abe said in 2013 about the raid being against the humanitarian principle in international law, and so I did some searching. In fact, I think it was a way for him to get away with actually stating it was not against international law of that time.
Fukushima Mizuho’s question is here (transcript in Japanese). Abe’s answer is here (transcript in Japanese).
Abe said to Fukushima, “It cannot be said entirely that the Tokyo raid was against the international law of that time, but it was inconsistent with the humanitarian principle, which was one of the basic principles underlying international law.” Later, in 2015, Independent House of Councilors member Taro Yamamoto challenged Abe about the government’s stance on the Tokyo air raids in the context of Abe’s support of the American wars that violate international law, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and the so-called “War on Terror.” It is a noteworthy exchange (transcript in Japanese).
What Mr. Yamamoto said was very well said indeed. In this case, Abe used Foreign Minister Kishida to give an answer that is almost the same as the 2013 statement. Then Yamamoto challenged Abe as to why he couldn’t answer with his own words and whether Japan could not accuse their master nation of their past wrongdoing or even why it could not judge the deeds of a nation that is a permanent perpetrator of war crimes. Of course, he should have also referred to the Empire of Japan as a past permanent perpetrator of war crimes, but other than this shortcoming, Yamamoto’s challenge was perfect.
If there is a tenuous connection between March 10 and March 11, it must be in the fact that March 10 was indicative of the how the world had been desensitized to sacrificing civilian during the six years of WWII. German, British, Japanese and American air raids paved the way to making atomic bombing seem like a reasonable thing to do to civilians in an enemy nation, and there has been a similar desensitization in modern times to making civilians suffer for national energy policy.
The regrets about the bombing of civilians after the war seem to have been expressed in Japan and the US only as an urge to develop nuclear energy under the slogan “atoms for peace.” Sixty-six years later, a civilian Japanese population was again assaulted by nuclear technology. Coincidentally, the eastern region of Tokyo that was heavily affected in the air raid is also the part of Tokyo where the most radioactive hotspots have been found since Fukushima Daiichi exploded. For some reason, the rain fell in a particular way on a swath of land between eastern Tokyo and Kashiwa City in Chiba prefecture.
Another ironic connection between March 10 and March 11 shows a certain regress, as opposed to progress, in the moral standards governments live up to. As wicked as the wartime Japanese government was, it still had enough concern for the children of Tokyo to relocate them to the countryside, and many lives were spared on March 10, 1945 by this precaution. The veteran anti-nuclear activist Takashi Hirose is one of the few people who have asked why a country impoverished by war was able to muster the resources to protect its children, but the present government cannot arrange evacuation of children in a rural prefecture to protect them from radioactive fallout. (Watch his speech here, and select English subtitles in the “captions” icon on the bottom right of the screen.)
So what good could have possibly come out of all this history? I came to Japan in 1986 on a desperate lark to have an adventure and make some money teaching English. In those days, I bore an uncanny resemblance to a young Royal Canadian Air Force pilot I’d seen in a photo, an uncle I never met, who was shot down and killed during one of his first bombing raids over Holland to destroy a German-controlled runway–something that British officers probably understood as effectively a suicide mission. Fifty years later, a nephew the pilot never saw married the granddaughter of a survivor of the Tokyo air raid. No one in either of our families had a problem with intermarriage. It had become completely unremarkable. Three children came from this, and everyone around here calls them “halfs,” but I prefer to think of them as “doubles.” My wife and my children probably wouldn’t have existed if my father-in-law hadn’t missed the air raid by being one of those children sent out of Tokyo during WWII. This fact can only make me wonder what future potential is being erased by the Japanese government’s insistence on keeping children in Fukushima.
Excellent source of paintings, photos and documents in English and Japanese at http://www.japanairraids.org/
Paintings by survivor of the air raid, Teruo Kanoh.
Japanese government says 1945 Tokyo bombing was ‘against humanitarian principles.
Joseph Coleman. “1945 Tokyo firebombing left legacy of terror, pain.” Seattle Times. March 9, 2005.
Takashi Hirose. Fukushima Meltdown: The World’s First Earthquake-Tsunami-Nuclear Disaster (2011).