Since so many people lost friends and family in the 1945 firebombing by the United States, it is one of the most retold stories in oral histories, with accounts of spectacular flames and the apocalyptic aftermath of a city reduced to ashes and panoramic vistas over smoldering ruins. But outside of Japan this is one of the forgotten horrors of WWII. Sand writes, “This traumatic irruption in the everyday world of Shitamachi residents […] took roughly one hundred thousand lives in the course of two hours.” Incendiaries dropped on Tokyo’s tinderbox housing combined with powerful spring winds to whip up a deadly conflagration. Oddly enough, there is no state memorial to this tragedy, and, in 1964, Emperor Showa actually bestowed an award on General Curtis LeMay, the man who was in charge of firebombing 66 of Japan’s cities, including Tokyo. He ordered a delay in the Tokyo firebombing and timed the raid to coincide with strong winds to maximize the devastation.
The firebombing of Tokyo has been swept under the national tatami mat, possibly, Sand points out, because many residents held the Emperor responsible. The Tokyo metropolitan government actually established a planning committee in 1990 for a memorial, “but this was ultimately derailed by politicians on the right and national bureaucrats.” Undeterred, in 2002 a private citizen raised funds to establish the Tokyo Firebombing Museum, but it is not listed in the guidebooks or even on Wikipedia’s extensive list of Tokyo museums.
(Image: “Tokyo burns under B-29 firebomb assault,” May 26, 1945, via Wikimedia Commons)