Katsumoto Saotome: chronicler of the Tokyo firebombing


Katsumoto Saotome, who survived the American firebombing of Tokyo during World War II as a 12-year-old schoolboy and decades later chronicled in books and documentaries the largely forgotten episode that killed up to 100,000 civilians and left about a million homeless. She is aged 90 years died.

Saotome was at home with his parents and sisters when, in early 1945, 334 low-flying American B-29 “Flying Fortress” fighter planes firebombed the town, leveling much of it. The devastation heralded the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, followed weeks later by Japan’s unconditional surrender.

The atomic bombings made headlines around the world, with memorials and museums set up by Japan’s post-war governments. But Saotome said the Tokyo arson attack, which used a gelled petroleum prototype of what would later become napalm, was forgotten around the world. (The jelly even set fire to local rivers, which Tokyo residents, including Saotome’s family, fled to escape the landfires.)

That Irish times in 2005 quoted a B-29 pilot, Chester Marshall, as saying, “At 5,000 feet you could smell the burning flesh…I couldn’t eat for two or three days. You know, it was really gross. We just said: ‘What am I smelling?’ And it’s kind of a sweet smell, and someone said, ‘Well, that’s burning flesh, that’s got to be.’”

Saotome said he believes the post-war Japanese governments tried to downplay the bombing of Tokyo so as not to aggravate relations with the American occupiers.

More than two decades later, Saotome recalled it The New York Times, he made his living as a full-time novelist by attending a history class and asking why the Tokyo firebombing campaign was never mentioned in school texts. When the speaker, a professor, said little documentation was available for historians, Saotome recalled finding new meaning as a writer.

He searched the country for eyewitnesses, asked the government for access to archives, and in 1971 published the accounts of seven survivors in a book that sold hundreds of thousands of copies Times reported. Several other volumes followed, mostly non-fiction, but also novels and a children’s book with the air raid as a background. He also wrote the screenplay for the 1991 Japanese film Sensou to seishun (War and Youth), with the bombing of Tokyo playing a central role in the drama.

Destroyed buildings left behind after the arson attack


Despite losing his childhood home during the attack and seeing so many of his friends and neighbors dead, Saotome’s writings were never meant to be anti-American, he said, but always “pro-peace.”

At least he told that Nikkei WeeklyIn 1938 the Japanese carried out an indiscriminate air raid on civilians in the Chinese city of Chungking.

“This ‘eye for an eye’ mentality was paid for with the suffering of civilians,” he said.

Saotome was born on March 26, 1932 in a district in northern Tokyo, but grew up in the eastern part of the city known as Shitamachi (Lower Town), where poorer families lived. His father was reportedly refused conscription because of a body weakened by alcoholism, while his mother was a seamstress.

Saotome, his mother, father and two older sisters had fought for their lives when American B-29s dropped incendiary devices on Tokyo from midnight until dawn on March 9, 1945, as part of what the Americans dubbed Operation Meetinghouse.

The US military said it was targeting densely populated areas of Tokyo, then made up mostly of wooden houses, because they contained small factories that made ammunition and parts for the Imperial Japanese Army. Despite his age, Katsumoto also worked at an iron factory, for which he collected scrap metal from the streets to turn into ammunition for the war effort.

Saotome told that Times that American war planners condoned the raids on neighborhoods because civilian families, including youth, were involved in the war effort. He added that there is significant pressure on young and old alike to do what they are being told as their patriotic duty to an emperor who is viewed as a near-deity.

Saotome holds a headband that says “Kamikaze”.


“We were taught by teachers and on radio programs that Japan would definitely win the war because we are children of God,” he said, adding that his own private doubts were not voiced. Dissent would lead to disgrace and treason charges, he declared.

A strong northwest wind bellows the night of the attack, fanning flames so high and wide that B-29 pilots returning to base in Guam said they could see the flames from 150 miles away over the Pacific. “It was like looking at an image through a red filter,” Saotome said Times 1985. “The fire was like something alive. It ran after us like a creature.”

According to US military records, nine B-29s, each carrying a crew of 11, were shot down that night. Years later, as a writer, Saotome spent years identifying the downed B-29 pilots. Speaking of Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper in 1993, he said one of the B-29 bodies found was a woman, and he speculated that she might have been an American war correspondent, although he was never able to confirm it.

Aside from his books and films, his proudest achievement was establishing the museum to commemorate the bombings. On the outskirts of the capital is the Tokyo Raid and War Damages Center, which opened in 2002 and was built through private donations. Saotome’s museum attracts fewer than 10,000 visitors a year, many of them student groups, a far cry from the more than one million annual visitors to the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the atomic bomb victims.

Information on Saotome’s survivors was not immediately available.

In 1990 he published a children’s book entitled Tobe Tobe Hiyoko (Fly, Fly Away, Little Chick), based in part on one of his memories: In anticipation of an air raid, neighbors of Saotome killed a rooster kept by a child as a pet because of its loud crowing.

“I want kids to understand that sometimes people take their frustration out on the harmless when their lives are constantly in danger,” he said Daily Yomiuri in 1990. “After losing everything in the fire, people regretted their selfish actions and realized that if they had kept the rooster alive, they might have woken up before the ambush. I want children to understand that war kills all living things.”

Katsumoto Saotome, author, born March 26, 1932, died May 10, 2022

© The Washington Post


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