BY: JUSTIN KOERNER
Imagine your entire town suddenly bursting into an inferno in the middle of the night with many people running around and screaming because their bodies were engulfed in flame. That is exactly what happened when the United States firebombed Tokyo, Japan, at the end of World War II. They called it “Operation Meetinghouse,” and it was later estimated by some to be the single most destructive bombing raid in history due to the number of casualties and the huge damage caused. To make matters worse, the bombs were incendiary napalm bombs, which were intentionally designed to cause the Japanese houses, which were mainly made of wood and paper, to burst into flames. In the Tokyo Firebombing, it is estimated that well over 100,000 Japanese civilians, including women, children, and elders, were killed in the firestorm, and very many more were suddenly made homeless.
My Japanese maternal grandmother, Michiko Mizumura, is currently 82 years old and has lived in Tokyo for all of her life. I call her “Baaba,” which is a casual and friendly term that basically means “Grandma.” Due to her life-long residency in Tokyo, Baaba is a living witness to the events surrounding the Tokyo Firebombing, which occurred in March of 1945. After explaining my wish to interview her about the firebombing, Baaba agreed to share her memories with me.
Since Baaba lives in Japan and I live in California, we had to conduct this interview by telephone. Baaba speaks very little English, but fortunately, my Japanese is sufficient enough to understand and respond in conversations. My mother was also in the room to help with any communication difficulties. On the other side of the phone, I pictured Baaba sitting on a couch in the living room with the phone to her ear.
Initially, I began by generally asking Baaba to recall her life in Japan during the end of World War II. Baaba thought back and told me, “I was a young teenager, 12 years old, at the time of the Tokyo Firebombing. I lived with my family in the Ome region of Tokyo at the time of World War II. We had a large family with eight children, and my father’s family owned property with a large house and surrounding land for growing vegetables and fruits.”
I asked Baaba whether she had any family members that were part of the Japanese military. Baaba answered, “My older brother was in the Japanese military serving domestically within Japan during the last part of the war. He was not physically injured during the War, and he came back home soon because the war ended.”
I then asked Baaba to explain what she personally saw during the period of the bombings. Baaba recalled, “I saw many huge planes flying through the sky past our home on their flight route to target the main downtown Tokyo area. Also, I heard the sounds of many bombs, which were the oil-type that are designed just to start fires and burn wooden houses. I also saw bigger bombs designed to destroy taller buildings dropping from the planes in the far distance. I saw the flames over the train station area in our local town of Ome, Tokyo. Fortunately, our town was on the western edge of Tokyo, away from downtown, so the U.S. bombers didn’t attack our area as strongly as the downtown area.” For me, to think of this was horrifying. To have to hear the constant sounds of planes overhead and bombs exploding on a regular basis must have been terrifying.
Next, after I had asked her what she had seen, I asked Baaba to explain what she personally heard during the period of the bombings. Baaba recalled, “I often heard air-raid sirens and bombing sounds coming from off in the distance. Whenever we heard the air-raid sirens, we used to turn off all of the neighborhood lights and hide underground in a bomb shelter that we had built.” Again, because these air-raid sirens and bombing sounds were so constant, civilians had to be frequently prepared for the worst to happen.
Baaba and I then talked about her feelings during the time of the bombing attacks. Baaba simply said, “I was so very terrified. That is all. I wished the war would just finish soon. I guess that we were aware that Japan was eventually going to lose the war with America.” Her loss of words had startled me. And also, the fact that she had to live in fear of the Americans when she knew Japan was going to lose must have been very nerve-racking and hectic.
Baaba and I also talked about the aftermath of the bombing attacks. I was interested to learn that her family had taken care of refugees fleeing this disaster. Baaba recalled, “We accepted three families of refugees from the bombed-out area in Tokyo because I was from a well-off landowner’s family living a larger house. The children from the refugees then attended the local school with me. The refugee children were usually quite good at school. I remember that one father was commuting to downtown Tokyo by train every day for work. Mothers were trading their clothes for food, such as potatoes and yams, just to survive. When I think back now, I feel like crying just to think about the lives of these poor refugees.” When I had learned that she had housed families of refugees, this changed my view of her. I knew that Baaba was a kind-hearted woman, but to house strangers in need of help with scarce resources is so compassionate and humane.
I asked Baaba whether she wished that more people were aware of the devastation and suffering caused by the Tokyo Firebombing. Baaba didn’t directly answer my question, but instead said, “The Tokyo Firebombings were so destructive that the whole area of Eastern Tokyo became totally burned-out and flat except for the Imperial Palace. The surroundings of the Palace were not bombed. The Tokyo Firebombing was a major World War II event in Japan, similar in destruction level to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Baaba and I talked about how the firebombings affected the Japanese people’s view of America and Americans. Baaba told me, “I saw America as an enemy at that time because of the ongoing war between the U.S. and Japan, but especially after the Tokyo Firebombings. That’s the way everyone in Japan thought at the time.”
My final question for Baaba was whether she has been able to forgive America for the suffering and tragedy endured by the civilian victims of the Tokyo Firebombings. Baaba ended our interview on a positive note and said, “When World War II ended, Japan had lost. We actually appreciated that the U.S. supported Japan very well after the total disaster of the war. I think that almost all Japanese think as I do. I feel friendly to Americans.” Luckily, Baaba does not have any feeling of resentment towards Americans at this time. However, although it is difficult to accept, some Japanese people still have a grudge against Americans for what they did.
Most Americans are familiar with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, it seems that fewer Americans have heard of the Tokyo Firebombings. For example, my father, who is fairly knowledgeable about international historical events, said that he was unaware of the horrors of “Operation Meetinghouse” until I researched this topic for my interview. This lack of awareness is surprising since approximately the same number of civilians was killed in the Tokyo Firebombings as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
Many people question the morality of randomly attacking innocent civilians to achieve a military objective. Of course, Japan was not completely innocent, either. However, there were many casualties and tragedies on both sides, and it is therefore important to document the testimony of an actual witness to the Tokyo Firebombing, so that future generations of Americans, Japanese, and people of other nations, can learn from the tragic mistakes made in World War II, and hopefully avoid making these same mistakes again in the future.