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The Man Who Won’t Let the World Forget the Firebombing of Tokyo

As a child, Katsumoto Saotome barely escaped the air raids over Tokyo. He has spent much of his life fighting to honor the memories of others who survived.

Katsumoto Saotome, 87, came to the door of his home in the outer reaches of Tokyo wearing a herringbone blazer, a black wool scarf tucked neatly into a vest and a black beret that he reckons makes him look like Che Guevara, the guerrilla leader in the Cuban Revolution. Saotome has practiced radicalism of a much quieter kind, insisting on preserving memories that many may prefer to forget.

Seventy-five years ago, less than 10 miles from where he now lives alone in a low-lying neighborhood known for its moderate rents, Saotome (pronounced SAH-oh-toe-meh) survived the brutally effective American firebombing of Tokyo. Over the course of nearly three hours, an attack by the United States Army Air Forces killed as many as 100,000 people — more than some estimates of the number killed the day of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. But while the Japanese public — and the world — rightly remember Hiroshima as a living symbol of the horrors of nuclear war, the Tokyo firebombing is generally regarded as a footnote in any accounting of the war in Japan.

There is no public memorial solely dedicated to those who died in the air raid, which started just after midnight on March 10, 1945. Although most casualties of the Tokyo firebombing were civilians, they are not the victims history remembers, in part because Japan itself committed atrocities during the war — and, Saotome and others suspect, because Japan did not want to upset its postwar American occupiers by casting the United States as the aggressor. “I think people do not want to see or know,” said Saotome, who has spent more than five decades collecting and publishing survivors’ accounts and prodding the government to memorialize those who died.

For 30 years, Saotome tried to secure public funding for a museum to commemorate the Tokyo air raid. In 1990, the city government designated March 10 as Tokyo Peace Day, and it commemorates the anniversary every year, but it never allocated funding for a museum. Undeterred, Saotome raised private donations and opened a modest museum 18 years ago.

Today, the Center of the Tokyo Raid and War Damages sits well outside the city center and is far less known or visited than the Hiroshima peace memorial and museum. In 2018, fewer than 10,000 people, including groups of schoolchildren, visited the Tokyo center, compared with the more than 1.5 million people who visited the Hiroshima memorials the same year.