Remembering March 10th and 11th

News organizations and activist groups are preparing to commemorate the third 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 10, 1945 and see the traces that connect it with the events of 2011.
On March 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 it probably killed more people in one night than either of the atomic bombings. 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 much 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. 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 rationale wouldn’t explain why Hiroshima and Nagasaki did much more to commemorate their experiences.
   Another factor causing official reluctance to commemorate the raids was the legal fight for compensation launched by victims. Reasoning that since civilians had been targeted in war, they said that they deserved the same compensation as veterans. They argued that the wartime government was responsible for prolonging the war long after it was obvious that it couldn't be won.
   This demand for compensation, which was never received, has some parallels with the present demand for compensation for land contaminated by radiation. In both cases, the amount owed is far beyond what any government could pay. 
   Despite the official neglect, 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 but no official support.
Memorial of the air raid in Sumida Ward, Tokyo
It is interesting to note that the present government is very conservative, but less concerned about annoying America these days, which may be the reason that the prime minister was recently not afraid to say the bombing of Tokyo by the United States in 1945 was against the “humanitarian principles of international law” of that time.
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 civilians during 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 and defense 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 short speech here--you can 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 in 1942 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 (me) 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 makes 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/

Alex Wellerstein. "InteractiveMap Shows Impact of WWII Firebombing of Japan, if It Had Happened on U.S. Soil." Slate.com.

Ayako Mie. "New Map Shines Light on Tokyo Air Raid Horrors." The Japan Times. March 9, 2014. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/03/09/national/new-map-shines-light-on-tokyo-air-raid-horrors/  

Ida Torres. “Japanese government says 1945 Tokyo bombing was ‘against humanitarian principles.’” Japan Daily Press. May 7, 2013. http://japandailypress.com/japanese-government-says-1945-tokyo-bombing-was-against-humanitarian-principles-0728382/.


  1. When I was in Tokyo, someone (maybe you) explained that most of the old shrines in the city had been destroyed in the war and only one major one remained on the outskirts. But I had no idea how that damage happened. Very interesting links provided here. Reminds me of reading of Dresden when I was a teenager.

  2. Great article, Dennis !
    I like how you connected the past and present !

  3. Thank you Dennis. Beautifully written! My German ancestors moved to US only to have sons return to fight and die in WWI and WWII.
    My father was sent to Korea to help remove the Japanese citizens. One family he was there with later became my in-laws after repatriating to Japan .
    There is a good exhibit for the raids in Hachioji. A neighbor and dear friend of mine led her siblings to the river to escape the Hachioji fires. When she returned, they found their potatoeswere baked! They ate them! She still recalls the taste!