Katsumoto Saotome, Who Preserved Memories of Tokyo Firebombing, Dies at 90

TOKYO — Katsumoto Saotome, a novelist who lived through the brutal American firebombing of Tokyo during World War II and worked relentlessly to preserve the memories of survivors in published accounts and at a museum he founded, died on Tuesday in Saitama, Japan, a suburb of Tokyo. He was 90.

His daughter, Ai Saotome, confirmed the death. She said he had been hospitalized with pneumonia last fall.

Mr. Saotome (pronounced SAH-oh-toe-meh) spent more than half a century amassing the stories of survivors, some of whom were initially reluctant to share their recollections.

Plunging into the complicated politics of war remembrance, he pushed the Japanese government — without much success — to memorialize the estimated 100,000 people who were killed in the attack, which is far overshadowed by the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in any accounting of the war in Japan.

“Some people would say ‘Even if I talk about it, you can never bring back my loved ones,’” Mr. Saotome, who was 12 years old at the time of the firebombing, said in an interview with The New York Times in 2020. “But I said, ‘If you do not talk about it we cannot preserve your memories.’”

Mr. Saotome’s first volume of survivors’ stories, which he published in 1971 and modeled on John Hersey’s famous account in The New Yorker of the bombing of Hiroshima, has sold more than 550,000 copies. The memorial museum he founded, in eastern Tokyo, was built with private funds because he was never able to secure government support.

In his efforts to chronicle the memories of the victims of the attack, which occurred on March 10, 1945, and in which fleets of American B-29s deployed napalm on a mostly civilian population, Mr. Saotome never tried to exonerate Japan for its culpability in the war.

“The United States should also bear responsibility,” he told The Times, “but first of all the Japanese government should be responsible for starting the war.”

A 1945 photo of makeshift housing built in Tokyo amid the destruction caused by U.S. bombings.Credit…Frank Fila/Associated Press

Mr. Saotome traveled extensively, giving lectures and meeting with survivors of war bombings in other countries, including Britain, Germany, Italy and China.

Hiroshi Suenaga, a survivor of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki who accompanied Mr. Saotome on these trips, including a visit to the home of a Chinese man who had been forced to work in coal mines in Hokkaido during the war, said in an interview that Mr. Saotome was “very soft and calm on the surface, but he had an unbending spirit inside of him.”

In addition to his volumes of survivors’ stories, Mr. Saotome wrote an account of an American B-29 pilot whose plane crashed in Tokyo and who was taken prisoner, as well as multiple novels and children’s books on the subject of war.

As a survivor of the Tokyo firebombing, he was outspoken in protesting all wars. As recently as April, he had written a message for an audience that had gathered outside Tokyo to view a movie based on one of his novels, “War and Youth,” about a woman’s search for her child, who had gone missing during the war.

In the message, read by his daughter, Mr. Saotome expressed disappointment in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and said that seeing news footage of women and children trying to escape the war reminded him of the Japanese victims in Tokyo 77 years ago. “I feel like I am seeing scenes of many Japanese people wandering around trying to escape just in front of my eyes,” he said.

Katsumoto Saotome was born on March 26, 1932, in Tokyo, the youngest of Katsuma and Rin Saotome’s four children. The family lived in the eastern part of the city, known as shitamachi, or “low town,” a series of neighborhoods where the poorest residents concentrated. His mother was a seamstress, and his father worked as, among other things, a barber, a street vendor and a theater promoter.

When war broke out, Mr. Saotome’s older brother was conscripted but his father, an alcoholic, was deemed too frail to enlist as a soldier. His two older sisters worked in a factory.

Although Mr. Saotome was still in school, he also worked at the factory, collecting scrap metal for munitions. He remembered harboring doubts about the Japanese war effort; he told The Times that he questioned whether the emperor was really a god, as he and his classmates had been taught, but kept his doubts to himself. “If I ever said that,” he said, “I would be disgraced and considered a traitor.”

On the night of the firebombing, Mr. Saotome’s family, grown complacent by frequent raids, had not sought shelter. His mother and sisters were at home in their wooden house; his father was out conducting fire patrols. As the B-29s flew in, igniting massive fires across the neighborhood, the family realized they needed to evacuate.

Mr. Saotome remembered pushing a handcart through the streets and dodging flames as thousands of residents tried desperately to escape. In the morning, he saw charred bodies piled on the river banks. “For a child who did not know the true meaning of death or fear, March 10 was my first experience of that,” he told The Times.

After the war ended, his family was too poor to send Mr. Saotome to high school, much less college. He began writing in his late teens. “I wrote with a 2B pencil,” he said. “That’s my weapon. It’s very cheap.”

As a novelist, he said, he was proud to be able to hold his own among writers with much more education.

He published his first novel, “Downtown Home,” in 1952. It was nominated for the Naoki Prize for young writers.

In 1962 he married Naoe Kaneko, a student at a music college who was a fan of his novels. She went on to work as a music teacher, and the couple raised two sons and a daughter. She died in 2008.

At a lecture by a well-known history professor in 1970, Mr. Saotome asked why the Tokyo air raid was never included in the school textbooks that referred to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

The professor told Mr. Saotome that there was little documented evidence about the experiences of those who had lived through the firebombing. Mr. Saotome decided he would seek out fellow survivors and ask them to share their stories of that terrible night. “I was not a popular writer,” he recalled, “so I had a lot of spare time.”

He found 16 other survivors, who lobbied the governor of Tokyo to help with their effort to record eyewitness accounts and excavate archival materials. In 1971 Mr. Saotome published the first of six volumes of accounts of the Tokyo firebombing.

Mr. Saotome tried to persuade the governments of Japan and Tokyo to provide public funds for a museum to commemorate the air raid. He suspected that officials would never agree, because Japan did not want to upset its postwar American occupiers by casting the United States, Japan’s most important ally, as an aggressor in a war in which Japan is universally acknowledged to have committed many atrocities.

Mr. Saotome in 1970, a year before he published the first of six volumes containing accounts of the Tokyo firebombing.Credit…The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

In 1990, the Tokyo city government designated March 10 Tokyo Peace Day, but it never allocated funds for a museum. Mr. Saotome raised private donations and finally opened a modest center in 2002. He remained director until 2019.

He reserved some of his most potent anger for the Japanese government, which he said should have taken more responsibility for starting the war and compensated survivors of the Tokyo air raid. A group of them sued the government in 2007, but Japan’s Supreme Court rejected their claim.

Mr. Saotome said he never forgave his government for awarding Curtis LeMay, the United States Air Force general who had been the architect of the Tokyo air raid, its highest decoration for a foreigner for helping to establish Japan’s modern air force after the war.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Saotome is survived by two sons, Teru and Tami, and three grandsons.

In his final address to the movie audience in April, Mr. Saotome reminded them of the horrors of war.

“We should not forget the cruel scenes which happened in this country, and should learn that any lives should not be treated lightly,” he said.

He was already ill. He lamented that he didn’t have more time. “I still don’t think I’ve finished telling everything,” he said.

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