I decided this morning to go down the river, toward the sumo stadium, to attend a memorial for the Tokyo wartime firebombing of March 9-10, 1945. The ceremony is one among several and, like the others, is all but ignored by national media. It takes place at the Yokoamicho Memorial Hall, which is connected to a charnel house in a five-storey pagoda that stores what are believed to be the ashes of 58,000 victims from the Great Kanto Earthquake, and 105,400 from the firebombing. That’s 105,400 people who were incinerated in a few hours on that night.    

Given this context, the day is relatively cheerful. Black-suited officials greet mourners from under white tents on the gravel expanse. Elderly people, many accompanied by family, chat and place colourful flowers in a cement urn. Some take photographs. A woman holds a fluffy dog over her shoulder as she wheels a stroller carrying more dogs. 

Inside, people file silently around the church-like pews. There is a table at the front for incense offerings. Smoke floats in the sunlight. Oil paintings of disasters line one wall, opposite documentary photographs of the firebombing. At the 1pm ceremony (there were others in the morning and afternoon), nine priests offer chants. Two of them pound on a large, bowl-shaped gong and a wooden drum. 

The Yokoamicho hall is a public facility with no religious affiliation. A ferro-concrete, temple-style edifice built in 1931 as a memorial for victims of the 1923 earthquake, its role was expanded in 2001 to cover the firebombing victims. It allows different Buddhist sects to preside over services every year.

I learned this from a mendicant zen monk who stood at the foot of the stairs in a straw hat and black robes, with a bell in one hand and alms bowl in the other. As I put a coin in the bowl, I realise she is a woman. She has a sense of humour. She smiles and the first thing she says, on hearing I am from Australia, is, “Oh, your country was a British penal colony.” 

She lives in a hut in Chiba with no internet or email, but is thinking of going online, to spread the message. She wants to steer young people away from the likes of Aum. She says she knows her way around technology as, “I used to be a computer programmer.” 

But women like her are not able to preside over ceremonies like this. There are no female priests, she says, and women who go to monasteries are sent away when their term is up, when they can either re-enter society or join a temple “as a maid.” She says, “It’s a man’s world,” then smiles.  

She doesn’t have an answer as to why the firebombing is overlooked. Earlier this year, another woman told me about the air raid. She was aged 10 at the time and now runs a restaurant called Kin Sushi in a sidestreet near the Asakusa temple gate. She says the planes came in so low she could read the lettering on their wings. The family survived after her father found safety for them in Asakusa as a crush of people fled over the river. She said all of them perished. The next morning, the father rushed back to the smouldering plot of land that was their restaurant, to protect it from marauders. It took the city three weeks to pull all the bodies from the rubble.   

The crowning riddle of the firebombing is that in 1964, less than two decades after the war, Japan honoured the American who masterminded the slaughter, General Curtis LeMay, with its highest award, conferring on him the First Order of Merit with the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun, ostensibly for helping the country rebuild its air force. 

For those 105,000 people and their families, LeMay’s true legacy was like this:

In 1943, the US air force built replica houses in a “Japan Village” at a base in Florida and tested the best ways to burn them. In 1945, on the night of March 10, 344 B-29 bombers under the command of LeMay flew to Tokyo from their airstrips in the Marianas islands, loaded with 2,000 tons of incendiaries. The planes were modified to carry extra munitions, stripped of all guns except the tail turrets, a move considered safe since the enemy had barely any defenses by then. Approaching the mainland they scattered tons of aluminium chaff to confuse the remaining anti-aircraft gunners. They came in low, some at 2,000 metres, some as low as 150 metres. People who were on the ground said they could see the faces of the crews. As they bombed, some of the airmen vomited at the smell of burning flesh. 

The bombing was not aimed at blowing things up; each explosive was packed with dozens of cylinders of gasoline jelly, 48 bomblets to each bomb, a million in all. The napalm scattered into flaming globules and set off spot fires that licked and caught, burned and continued burning, into roofs and walls, melting through steel and glass, boring into clothes and flesh from which they could not be dislodged, heating the canals to scalding and turning concrete buildings into ovens. Children were found in school buildings, kimono still smouldering. Eighty percent of the delta was incinerated; seven-tenths the area of Manhattan. Mukojima was especially hard hit. Superheated updrafts sent flames 60 metres into the sky, generating winds so strong they sucked people in.

LeMay expressed pride in his actions. He said the US had “finally stopped swatting at flies and gone after the manure pile.” He described the fate of the civilians as “scorched and boiled and baked to death.” 

I wonder if the minimal focus on the air raid anniversary is “mourning fatigue,” as many say. They say it is overshadowed by memorials for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings and, more recently, the Tohoku disaster of March 11. Possibly more pertinent is the firebombing has been the subject of lawsuits against the government. Tokyo journalist David McNeill reported on the raids in this article from the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. And a Wikipedia entry says:  

In 2007, 112 members of the Association for the Bereaved Families of the Victims of the Tokyo Air Raids brought a class action against the Japanese government, demanding an apology and 1.232 billion yen in compensation. Their suit charged that the Japanese government invited the raid by failing to end the war earlier, and then failed to help the civilian victims of the raids while providing considerable support to former military personnel and their families. The plaintiffs’ case was dismissed at the first judgement in December 2009, and their appeal was rejected. The plaintiffs then appealed to the Supreme Court, which rejected their case in May 2013.

Sources from Wikipedia: Bombing of Tokyo

Japan Times: Scorched and Boiled and Baked to Death

Great Tokyo Air-raid Was a War Crime