March 2023

The director of a new documentary about the Tokyo firebombing says survivors fear their trauma will be forgotten

Paper City director Adrian Francis at the FCCJ

Whatever else it was, the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo was an act of planned mass murder. By the time the rumble of 300 American B-29 bombers jolted the sleeping city awake around midnight on March 10, 1945, the attack had been well rehearsed. Two years earlier, the U.S. Army had built a mockup of a Japanese village to better understand the impact of burning it to the ground. The village was designed by an architect who had worked in Tokyo.

Adrian Francis, the Australian director of Paper City, a documentary about the firebombing, said it marked a turning point in American strategies, which had been focused for much of the war on daytime precision bombing. “Now it switched to nighttime carpet-bombing from low altitude, using bombs specifically designed to burn down Japanese cities,” Francis told a press conference at the FCCJ on February 10.

The 1,500 tons of bombs that fell from the bellies of the B-29s, full of jelly petroleum, were like nothing anyone had seen. They turned rivers to flames, and if the jelly stuck to bodies, it kept burning until flesh turned to bone. The bombers incinerated a city made of paper and wood, killing 100,000 people. Because men of fighting age were away, most of the victims were women, the elderly and children.

Like most Australians, Francis says he grew up with stories about the heroism of the Allied forces and the cruelty of the Japanese military. He discovered the grey area in between, appropriately enough, by watching The Fog of War, Errol Morris’ groundbreaking 2003 documentary about former U.S. Secretary of State Robert McNamara, one of the architects of the bombing. “This was a shocking moment for me, not just because of the scale of death and destruction, but also because I knew nothing about it,” Francis recalled. “Where were the signs and memorials to what had happened here?”

Had the attacks occurred in Sydney, they would have been properly memorialized and become part of the city’s identity, he said, citing the memorial to the Holocaust in Berlin, Hiroshima’s peace museum, “or the way New Yorkers remember September the 11th”. Tens of thousands of Tokyo children have taken school trips to Hiroshima, he noted ruefully, often oblivious to the fact that they grew up in a city that suffered the most destructive air raid in history. 

Francis began digging and found three elderly survivors, whose childhood recollections anchor the documentary. Another survivor, Katsumoto Saotome, had set up a private fund to build the Centre for the Tokyo Raids and War Damage in the shitamachi area of the city. Saotome, who died in May 2022, also helped launch a compensation lawsuit that was dismissed in 2009. Government lawyers said that since Japanese civilians had experienced severe hardship in equal measure during a time of national emergency, no particular group could receive special treatment.

Francis reminded his audience that Tokyo was just one of over 60 Japanese cities – almost every urban center in the country – that were bombed in 1945. “Japanese civilians were told essentially not to flee, that their duty was to stay and fight fires,” he said. “So, civilians were on the frontline.”

For decades, survivors have asked for the building of a Hiroshima-style peace museum and a dedicated memorial where people can pay their respects, along with token compensation and an apology. Those demands, said Francis, “are a plea to the Japanese government to take responsibility for the war it forced on its own citizens”.  None has been met. By contrast, he noted, government has given generous compensation to soldiers and families – ¥60 trillion to date.

“I assumed when I started that this would be a film about the past, about memories,” Francis said, adding that at some point he realized it was about “what we chose to remember, aim to forget and what the consequences of that are”.

He added: “The greatest fear of survivors is that the firebombing will be forgotten. Paper City is not just about erasing civilians through mass murder, but of their postwar erasure through history, first at the hands of their enemy, the U.S., then at the hands of their own government.”

Why is there still no publicly funded museum in Japan’s capital to commemorate the night of 10 March? Tokyo lacked the emotional or financial resources to properly mourn the victims immediately after the war. Later, there was no appetite for a political fight with Washington, Japan’s new Cold War ally, said Francis. “And of course, America doesn’t want to talk about its war crimes. We had this notion that we were fighting the good war, so any uncomfortable truths are brushed under the carpet.”

Plans for a museum became bogged down in controversy in the 1990s. Conservatives said the plans were “anti-Japanese” and “masochistic”. Tokyo had no stomach for reminding people of the horrors of war, said Saotome, who was 12 when the bombers arrived.

The Tokyo government, urged on by a small group of private citizens, began compiling an incomplete list of victims in 2010. A small memorial squeezed into a corner of Yokoamicho Park contains their names, next to a charnel house with the mixed ashes of thousands who died. Remarkably, Japan awarded the architect of the 1945 raids, U.S. General Curtis LeMay, its highest prize in 1964 for helping to reconstruct Japan’s Self-Defense Forces after the war.

Francis urged people to understand this awful history not as a matter of nation against nation, but as the “powerful versus the weak”. Civilians always bear the brunt of war, he said, noting the horrific conflict in Ukraine, now entering its second year. “Already it feels like we are being groomed to support another war, perhaps against Russia, perhaps against China.” Soon the last survivors of the air raids will be gone, he concluded, leaving us with a question: will we listen and learn - or will we forget?

David McNeill is professor of communications and English at University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo, and co-chair of the FCCJ’s Professional Activities Committee. He was previously a correspondent for the Independent, the Economist and the Chronicle of Higher Education.