Despite the ongoing war in the Pacific and periodic bombing of Tokyo, it was quiet the evening of March 9, 1945, and 8-year-old Haruyo Nihei could play with her friends in their northeast neighborhood of the city.
“Let’s play again tomorrow,” the children told each other after they were called in for dinner.
Not long after March 9 turned into March 10, over 300 B-29 bombers from the 20th Air Force began dropping incendiary bombs of jellied gasoline and magnesium on the dense and wooden metropolis of Tokyo.
By sunrise the decimation would equate to one of the deadliest attacks on civilians ever conducted by the U.S. military. A 1947 survey from the U.S. Secretary of War estimated that 85,793 people were killed and over 1 million were left homeless in the Great Tokyo Air Raid, or Tokyo DaiKushu, in Japanese. Other estimates put the death count closer to 100,000.
The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would come five months later, and the official Japanese surrender ending the war less than a month after those.
Now at age 76, Nihei is a retired librarian who gives her time and survivor’s story to The Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage, a privately funded and little-known museum aiming to remember the consequences of war.
“There is no resource center in Japan, and especially not in Tokyo, that tells people about the Great Tokyo Air Raids,” said Nihei, whose family had the extraordinary luck of all surviving.
The museum and education center doesn’t have the prominence or funding of similar-minded institutions, like the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima, but the simplified message is the same: Peace is preferred.
The experience begins on the second floor, where a meeting room commonly filled with junior high school class trips is lined with powerful survivor art and incredibly precise info graphics.
One featured artist, Toshiro Inoue, took 45 years to cope with his memories before he could begin to paint them, including one gloomy scene of charred bodies piled on top of each other.
Info graphics and maps show how every prefecture in Japan was bombed at least once, what the intended targets were and how many pounds of bomb were dropped by American warplanes.
There are also maps showing where all the mass graves were dug after the March 10 raid in Tokyo, and another displaying and pinpointing great ginkgo trees that mysteriously survived despite serious burn damage.
At the third floor entrance visitors are greeted by a suspended B-29 model that was used in the Japanese film industry and a life-size replica of an incendiary bomb with a few actual cartridges that were dropped.
The planes in the 29th Bombardment Group took off from Guam and bombed Tokyo from roughly 5,000 to 10,000 feet, a drastic decrease in elevation from previous runs.
Sustained winds reached 28 miles per hour that night, but some officials noted that gusts were significantly higher, up to double that strength, likely caused by a vortex of gas being consumed and subsequently sucked in by the massive conflagration.
Returning to Tokyo for the first time in 1995 since sitting in one of the B-29s during the raid, veteran Harry Mitchell told Stars and Stripes then that the fire “looked like you were looking into a blast furnace.”
Most homes in the target area were two-story wood structures floored with straw tatami mats. In a fire test conducted by the U.S. military, a typical Japanese home burned to the ground in 12 minutes.
There are graphic images of the aftermath on the third floor--many attributed to the U.S. Army--but it could be the information presented that is most upsetting.
Documents identify that the Japanese government knew in 1944 that a fire bomb raid was coming and that 100,000 could die, but instead of calling for mass evacuations they bestowed more firefighting responsibility to citizens.
As a result, many more Japanese likely died needlessly fighting the napalm fires with water.
Several copies of American propaganda leaflets warning of impending aerial destruction clash with Japanese clippings that say there’s little to fear. Another contradiction presented is Japan’s denouncement of the deadly American air raids but having no qualms with its own bombings in China.
All of the materials together show the messy, incomprehensible and haphazard results of war.
These days, all of Japan remembers March 11 for the triad of earthquake-tsunami-nuclear destruction. And every year in August, tens of thousands visit Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum to honor the anniversary of the atomic bombings.
There are others in Tokyo working so the significance of March 10 is never forgotten.
Hana Kusumoto and Norio Muroi contributed to this story
IF YOU GO: English placards exist but are limited. Museum is open 12-4 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is 300 yen. The nearest train station is Sumiyoshi Station. More info at English website: http://www.tokyo-sensai.net/english_page/index.html