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  • Writer's pictureJody Ferguson

Japan at War

Last week The New York Times ran a series of articles on the 75th anniversary of the U.S. firebombing raid of Tokyo, which in a single night (March 9-10, 1945), killed more than 100,000 people. Some estimates put this figure higher than the combined first day death toll for both atomic bombings. Two Times articles separately interviewed a Japanese survivor and a U.S. airman, who participated in the raid. This took me back to the days when I lived in Japan and had the opportunity to speak with many individuals about their war experiences. It also prompted me to write a letter to the Times editor, which I reproduce here:

C.J. Chivers’ column “At War” (March 13) refers readers to “Beyond the World War II We Know,” a series of articles that have been published this year on the website of the NYT Magazine. Two recent articles elucidate the stories of participants of the U.S. firebombing campaign against Tokyo that began in earnest on the night of March 9-10, 1945. I lived in Japan in the 1990s and spoke with several survivors, some of them from smaller cities. Seventy of Japan’s largest cities were over 50% destroyed by incendiary bombs in the first half of 1945. The bombing campaign combined with the naval blockade reduced Japanese civilians to starvation, yet the military refused to quit fighting. Nowhere is this subject more sensitively and devastatingly portrayed than in the 90-minute Japanese animé film “Grave of the Fireflies,” written and directed by Isao Takahata in 1988. It follows the path of two orphaned siblings struggling to survive the final grim months of the war. The fire-bombings are graphically but superbly portrayed. It is well worth watching.

Grave of the Fireflies Photo: GKids

Photo: New York Times: An aerial view of Tokyo after it was firebombed by U.S. Army Air Forces on March 10, 1945.Credit...Mondadori, via Getty Images

One of the owners of a bar that I frequented in Kochi, Japan recounted how as a young boy at war’s end, he and his friends would go into the forest, burn a pile of leaves, and then eat the ashes. A dear friend of mine, a professor in Tokyo, was in an army encampment outside Hiroshima the day the atom bomb was dropped. He spent the next week—at the tender age of 17—helping to evacuate the wounded from the devastated city. Another man who served with the Japanese Army military police in China chillingly related to me why the Japanese treated the Chinese so poorly. “They rooted around their farms with animals, laying around in the dirt with pigs. So, we treated them like pigs.” Another woman who survived the Battle of Okinawa as a middle school student gave me a tour of the cave where she and over one hundred of her classmates—who had been conscripted as battlefield nurses—took shelter to hide from U.S. Marines. They were told the Marines would rape them, kill them, and eat them. When U.S. born Japanese interpreters (Nissei) came to the cave and called for everyone to come out and to surrender, no one emerged. The Marines, who had no idea whether Japanese troops were in the cave, were told to clear the cave as they did every other cave they came upon: pour aviation fuel into the cave and throw in a satchel charge. Only twenty girls survived the explosion, including my guide. She told me that they sat in daze when they were pulled out. A Navy corpsman came to each girl and inoculated them. She told me they assumed it was poison (in fact, it was a Cholera vaccine). She told me that were grateful when the Marines gave them water and chocolate. They cried. They knew they were safe, but they cried for their friends who died needlessly. I write about this incident in my first novel, Above the Water. My question is this: Why did the Japanese government keep going on? The ruling class subjected their own people to a “rain of ruin.” This is why the root of Japanese pacifism is directed more toward their own government than toward the U.S.


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