One of the salient points that Edward Seidensticker made in his history of Tokyo was that, in the Shitamachi area of the capital—the “low city” where the hoi polloi lived—the carpenters’ guild was congruent with the fire brigade; meaning that the people who built all those wooden structures were the same people who had to put out the fires when they burned, which they did in a big way every decade or so. This cycle of construction-destruction evolved into Tokyo’s infamous scrap-and-build urban development policy, and though Seidensticker doesn’t mention it, it also likely had something to do with Gen. Curtis Lemay’s decision to firebomb the Shitamachi area during World War II, since he knew it contained densely arranged wooden dwellings that would light up like matchsticks, despite the fact that it contained few facilities that were strategically important. The whole point was to create casualties that would “disrupt production.” During the night bombing raid that started just after midnight on March 10, 1945, American B-52s dropped more than 1,500 tons of bombs, destroying one-fourth of the city. About 100,000 civilians died, with another 125,000 wounded. Lemay considered it a great success.
Australian filmmaker Adrian Francis’s documentary, Paper City, is less about the raid itself than about how it has been memorialized. For the most part, only those persons with a direct link to the terrible event have kept its memory alive. As one elderly witness explains, young Japanese today don’t even know that the U.S. was Japan’s enemy during World War II, much less that Americans massacred tens of thousands of men, women, and children indiscriminately in the course of one night. Francis focuses on three people who survived the firebombing and subsequently worked to get the Japanese government to set up a permanent memorial to those who died, though, in truth, what they are after is to get the government simply to acknowledge officially that it happened. Most of the footage was filmed between the 70th anniversary of the raid in 2015, when the memorial association submitted a 300,000-signature petition to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party demanding they create a permanent memorial, and the following year, when the government effectively killed the petition by ignoring it.
Consequently, the memorial activists have had to set up their own memorials piecemeal, raising money privately to pay for them. As they go about this business, the three principal subjects relate the horrors of that night: How the Sumida River filled with dead bodies and, as children, they were forced by soldiers to pull the bodies out of the water; how all the public parks “from Asakusa to Oshiage” contained “mountains” of charred, unidentifiable corpses; how the residents couldn’t do a thing since the volume of incendiaries was so great it caused firestorms that blew flames through the streets with hurricane force, and yet these residents were prohibited from leaving the area by the military authorities because they were supposed to put the fires out somehow.
At one point, Francis films a demonstration outside government offices and a sound truck from a rightist organization drives by and scolds the demonstrators for “begging the government for money” when they should be picketing outside the U.S. embassy. In a sense, they are right—the U.S. has never apologized for the wholesale carnage, the same way it has never recognized Hiroshima and Nagasaki as being inherently genocidal military actions—but as one association member puts it, the “pre-war establishment still controls Japan,” which means the government will never acknowledge its own part in the destruction caused by the firebombing until that faction is removed somehow. Getting them to at least recognize the horrors of March 10, 1945, is the only way to begin that process, which, at the moment, is more vital than ever as these establishment forces prepare the country to accept a larger and more offense-oriented military.
Addendum: A reader has pointed out that Lemay received the First Class Order of Merit of the Grand Cordon of the Rising Sun, one of Japan’s highest honors, in 1964, which only adds insult to injury and further explains why the current government would rather not talk about the Tokyo firebombing.
In Japanese and English with English and Japanese subtitles. Now playing in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114).
Paper City home page in Japanese and English
photo (c) 2023 Feather Films Pty Ltd.