Tokyo remembers WWII firebombings

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Published: Tuesday 10th March 2015 by The News Editor

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Japan has mourned the 105,400 people killed on a single night 70 years ago, when US B-29 bombers obliterated much of Tokyo in the deadliest conventional bomb attack ever.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bowed in a sombre ceremony held in a downtown temple that was built to commemorate deaths from a 1923 earthquake, but is also used as a memorial for the victims of Second World War firebombings.

“With the lessons of the atrocities of war etched deeply in our hearts, we must humbly face the past and do our utmost to contribute to world peace,” said Mr Abe, surrounded by white floral wreaths and chrysanthemums, as a group of dignitaries, survivors and other residents looked on.

The March 10 1945 attack on Tokyo killed more people than the August 9 atomic bombing of Nagasaki. The death toll was on par with the August 6 atomic attack on Hiroshima.

But the firebombing and similar ones that followed in more than 60 other Japanese cities have received little attention, eclipsed by the atomic bombings and Japan’s postwar rush to rebuild.

The only formal public monument for the Tokyo victims is a modest floral memorial near the temple where today’s ceremony was held.

Haruyo Nihei, just eight years old when the bombs fell, was among many survivors who had kept silent for decades. A half-century passed before she even shared her experiences with her own son.

“Our parents would just say, ‘That’s a different era,'” Ms Nihei said. “They wouldn’t talk about it. And I figured my own family wouldn’t understand.”

Now, as their numbers dwindle, survivors are determined to tell their stories while they still can.

In the 1945 attack B-29s flew over Tokyo in the dead of night, dumping massive payloads of cluster bombs equipped with a then-recent invention: napalm. A fifth of the city was left a smouldering expanse of charred bodies and rubble.

Where earlier raids targeted aircraft factories and military facilities, the Tokyo firebombing was aimed largely at civilians, in places including Tokyo’s downtown area known as shitamachi, where people lived in traditional wood and paper homes at densities sometimes exceeding 100,000 people per square mile.

Historian Masahiko Yamabe, who was born just months after the war’s end, said: “There were plenty of small factories, but this area was chosen specifically because it was easy to burn.”

The bombers flew low. “It was as if we could reach out and touch the planes, they looked so big,” said Yoshitaka Kimura, whose family’s toy store in downtown Tokyo’s Asakusa was destroyed. “The bombs were raining down on us. Red, and black, that’s what I remember most.”

Ms Nihei, now 78, was mesmerised as she watched from a railway embankment. “It was a blazing firestorm. I saw a baby catch fire on its mother’s back, and she couldn’t put out the fire. I saw a horse being led by its owner. The horse balked and the cargo on its back caught fire, then its tail, and it burned alive, as the owner just stood there and burned with it,” she said.

Firefighter Isamu Kase was on duty at a train parts factory. He jumped onto a pump truck when the attack began, knowing the job was impossible.

“It was a hellish frenzy, absolutely horrible. People were just jumping into the canals to escape the inferno,” said Mr Kase, 89. He said he survived because he did not jump in the water, but his burns were so severe he was in and out of hospital for 15 years.

After about two hours and 40 minutes, the B-29s left.

Survivors speak of the hush as dawn broke over a wasteland of corpses and debris, studded by chimneys of bathhouses and small factories. Police photographer Koyo Ishikawa captured the carnage of charred bodies piled like blackened mannequins, tiny ones lying beside them.

“It was as if the world had ended,” said Ms Nihei, whose father sheltered her under his body, as others piled on top and were burned and suffocated. All her family survived.

Michiko Kiyo-oka, a 21-year-old government worker living in the Asakusa district, survived by hiding under a bridge.

“When I crawled out I was so cold, so I was warming myself near one of the piles that was still smoldering. I could see an arm. I could see nostrils. But I was numb to that by then,” she said. “The smell is one that will never leave me.”

From January 1944-August 1945, the US dropped 157,000 tons of bombs on Japanese cities, according to the US Strategic Bombing Survey.

It estimated that 333,000 people were killed, including the 80,000 killed in the August 6 Hiroshima atomic-bomb attack and 40,000 at Nagasaki three days later. Other estimates are significantly higher. Fifteen million of the 72 million Japanese were left homeless.

The bombing campaign set a military precedent for targeting civilian areas that persisted into the Korean and Vietnam wars and beyond. But the non-atomic attacks have been largely overlooked.

Firebombing survivors feel their pain has been forgotten, by history and by the government. After the war, only veterans and victims of the atomic bombings received special support.

“We civilians had no weapons and no strength to fight,” Ms Kiyo-oka said. “We were attacked and got no compensation. I am very dissatisfied with how the government handled this.”

No specific government agency handles civilian survivors of firebombings or keeps their records, because there is no legal basis for that, said Manabu Oki at the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry.

Published: Tuesday 10th March 2015 by The News Editor

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