The air-raid siren’s wail woke Yoshiko Hashimoto from her sleep. It was just after midnight on March 10, 1945, when the first of hundreds of American bombers appeared over Tokyo. Incendiary bombs soon crashed through tile rooftops, igniting fires in the surrounding thicket of tinderbox homes.
Hashimoto and her family fled for their lives. They made their way through terror-stricken crowds and found themselves trapped by fire on a bridge. Urged on by her father, Hashimoto jumped into the freezing water with her 13-month-old son in her arms. The leap saved their lives. But her parents and sister, along with an estimated 100,000 others, died in the raid, which obliterated 16 square miles of the city.
After its defeat in World War II, Japan was forced to renounce its right to wage war and maintain standing armed forces capable of doing so — a clause enshrined in its 1947 Constitution. Ms. Hashimoto and other survivors of wartime horrors zealously guarded this principle, fighting to stave off what they worried could be a slide back down the path of militarization.
Despite the strong current of pacifism in Japanese society, circumstances have forced a reappraisal of that stance. China is continuing its saber-rattling toward Taiwan. North Korea is firing missiles near the Japanese archipelago. Russia, which has a longstanding territorial dispute with Japan, invaded and occupies parts of Ukraine.
In December, Fumio Kishida, Japan’s prime minister, released a new national security strategy, which concluded that Japan faces “the most severe and complex security environment since the end of World War II.” His cabinet pledged to double military spending over the next five years. If it does so, Japan could have the world’s third-largest military budget.
At the same time as the country moves to expand its military capabilities, the voices of Japanese citizens like Ms. Hashimoto, who experienced the devastation of war nearly eight decades ago, are fading. She died in 2016 in her mid-90s. Hiroshi Hoshino, who survived the March 10 raid and worked for decades to compile the names of those killed in Tokyo, died in 2018 at 87. Katsumoto Saotome, who led the movement to memorialize the March 10 raid, died last year at 90.
Lost with these survivors are more than just tales of the firestorms. Their deaths close a decades-long crusade to hold the Japanese government accountable for wartime death and destruction — and bring to a hush the pacifism born in the fires of war. This is happening just when their voices are needed most, as longstanding bulwarks against remilitarization come under new and intense pressure.
“We are heading down the path to the next war without discussing relief for the damage caused by the previous one,” Setsuko Kawai, who is now in her 80s and lost her mother and two siblings in the air raids, warned in a recent interview.
That damage was immense. Tokyo was only the first city razed by fire. The incendiary raids left millions of civilians in over 60 cities homeless.
Cast adrift by the end of the war, firebombing survivors were pushed aside after the war. The Japanese government paid generous benefits to former soldiers and their families but didn’t compensate air raid survivors for injury or loss. It made no concerted attempt to compile a list of the names of those killed. Nor did it honor the request by some survivors to build a public memorial dedicated solely to the raids.
In the decades following the war, the ruling party had little incentive to remember the firebombings. Highlighting the raids risked reminding the public of wartime orders that compelled civilians to fight fires rather than protect themselves and their families. It also risked drawing attention to the Japanese military’s bombing of cities and civilians across China, including incendiary raids that laid waste to its wartime capital. The government focused instead on commemorating the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nurturing narratives of victimization that helped deflect responsibility for wartime atrocities abroad and suffering at home.
The rapid reconstruction of Tokyo in the years after the war buried almost all physical traces of its destruction beneath the facade of the resurrected capital. By the time the city hosted the 1964 Summer Olympics, amnesia surrounding its wartime incineration had taken root.
After the war, Yoshiko Hashimoto rebuilt her life in the area she once fled. She began work as a librarian and watched with alarm as younger generations grew oblivious to the raids that had reduced their blocks to ashes years earlier. A 1970 survey of schoolchildren in a Tokyo ward annihilated on March 10 found that while most knew about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, only 15 percent were familiar with the firebombing of their own city.
Yet survivors like Ms. Hashimoto remembered.
They remembered in 1964 as their government awarded Curtis LeMay, the American Air Force general who oversaw the incendiary bombing of most of Japan’s cities, one of the country’s highest honors for his role in creating Japan’s postwar air force. They remembered as crews expanding Tokyo’s subway system discovered in 1967 skeletal remains of firebombing victims. They remembered while watching their government provide support for American bombing operations in Vietnam — waged in part with napalm, the weapon that destroyed much of urban Japan.
In 1970, on the anniversary of the March 10 raid, Mr. Saotome called on survivors to talk “sincerely about the truth and reality of war to children” so that they might realize that “similar indiscriminate air raids are now happening in Vietnam.”
Survivors like Ms. Hashimoto and Mr. Saotome took the work of memorialization into their own hands. They gathered hundreds of witnesses’ accounts and organized peace marches, carrying the banner “Reject the road to war.” They also raised funds to build a memorial museum.
There, surrounded by photographs of the ruins and maps of destruction, Ms. Hashimoto narrated her experiences, step by painful step. She regularly spoke to groups of schoolchildren, local residents and other visitors. Bodies bobbing in the river, the stench of burned flesh, the loss of her family members — she spared no detail.
What started in Tokyo as a grass-roots project of remembrance soon grew into a national movement to remember the destruction of dozens of cities, yielding monuments, memorials and peace museums across the country. With it grew a network of activists who spoke out against the bombing of civilians, whether in Vietnam, Iraq, Syria or Ukraine.
Yet membership in what remains of these civic groups has dwindled. Local museums created by survivors are closing their doors as staff members die. The movement is approaching its end just as politicians and the public weigh a shift in defense policy of seismic proportions.
So far, public opinion in Japan has warmed to strengthening the country’s defense. Public wariness has largely stemmed from opposition to the tax hikes most likely required to pay for the expanded defense budget.
Strikingly faint in these debates are pleas that Ms. Hashimoto and fellow survivors have made for decades: Remember the horrors of the last war and renounce rearmament.
David Fedman is an associate professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and an executive producer of “Paper City,” a documentary about the Great Tokyo Air Raid. Cary Karacas is an associate professor of geography at the College of Staten Island and the City University of New York Graduate Center, a creator of the digital archive JapanAirRaids.org, and an editor of “Cartographic Japan: A History in Maps.”
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