Asakusa – the top bridge in upper right hand corner is Kototoi Bridge. Photo taken at The Center of the Tokyo Air Raids and War Damage.

It was chaos on Kototoi Bridge.

B-29s were buzzing above as fire fell from the sky. Kikujima Koji, 13, was holding the hand of his 8-year-old sister, Harue, his parents standing paralyzed as panicked residents crossed the bridge from both directions trying to escape the fires all around them. Koji decided he needed to act, and continued to cross the Sumida River to Mukojima.

That was the last time Koji saw his parents as he dragged his sister over other people to cross the bridge. It was past midnight on Saturday, March 10, 1945, and the temperature before the American bombers appeared was icy cold. But when the hundreds of B-29 Superfortress bombers began their two-and-a-half hour campaign on the Eastern part of Tokyo between the Sumida and Arakawa rivers, the air was searingly hot, as Koji relayed to the writer, Saotome Katsumoto in his book “The Great Tokyo Air Raid (東京大空襲―昭和20年3月10日の記録).”

In the intense heat, my clothes quickly became bone dry and my eyes were burning. Drenching ourselves again and again with water from the roadside and crouching low, we crawled forward until we reached Kinshi Park. We made our way to a water storage tank in the park.

I soaked my gloves in the water and used them to beat off the sparks on our clothes. Brushing off the sparks, warding off smoke, and covering our hands and mouth with the wet gloves, we somehow made it through to the morning. Many of the trees around us were burned, but Harue and I had survived. We looked at each other and breathed a sigh of relief. My school coat was full of holes made by the sparks, my trousers were in shreds, and Harue’s feet were bare.

The view from Ningyocho area. Extending the view through the upper left hand corner of the picture for another 4 kilometers would take you to Kinshi Park. Photo taken at The Center of the Tokyo Air Raids and War Damage.

Kinshi Park in Kinshicho

As night turned to early morning, Koji and Harue saw charred bodies everywhere, “naked mannequins painted with black ink.” Over the next few days, bodies from all over the neighborhood were carted to Kinshi Park, where over 13,000 bodies were buried in mass graves (until they were moved to more formal burial plots later that year). In fact, parks all over that part of Tokyo were suddenly requisitioned for the immediate burial of the dead.

I know Kinshi Park. When I joined an insurance company in 2016, my office was on the 20th floor of Olinas Tower, which is situated across the street from Kinshi Park. I’ve taken many pictures of cherry blossoms there. Families descend on Kinshi Park on the weekends. On any given day, Kinshi Park is a celebration of family and friends.

Kinshi Park with Olinas Tower and Skytree in the background, Spring 2019

I never suspected its past was cloaked in unspeakable tragedy.

In fact, Kinshicho was at the center of what is commonly called the single most destructive bombing raid in human history. It is estimated that about 100,000 people died that day in Tokyo.

In 1945, Olinas Tower and the Olinas Mall next to it did not exist. At that time, the watchmaker Seiko had a factory, a solid three-story cement structure that stretched the length of Kinshi Park across the street. This factory was built after the one before it was felled by the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, and was torn down in 1997.

Seiko Factory Kinshicho_1988

In 1945, Seiko was making munition parts, and because of its prominent size, may have been a target of the B-29 bombers. But that entire area, today lovingly called “shita-machi,” (a nostalgic way of calling the area “downtown”), was filled with small family-run shops that were making parts for the larger manufacturers feeding the war effort.

Trying to discriminate between civilian areas and war industry in the midst of downtown Tokyo was a challenge from 20,000 feet in the sky. So Major General Curtis LeMay asked the simple question – why try?

The map of Eastern Tokyo, or “shitamachi” that was ravaged by incendiary bombs. The red line indicates the general target area for the B-29s on March 10, 1945. The areas shaded pink are where the fires raged. The red circles represent the number of bodies buried in temporary graves. I added names of locations familiar to residents of Japan. This map is large and is displayed on a wall in the Center of the Tokyo Air Raids and War Damage.

LeMay and the Perfect Storm

In the summer of 1944, the United States Navy won critical battles against the Japanese Navy to control three islands in the Marianas: Saipan, Tinian and Guam. The strategic importance of these islands was huge as they immediately put Japan in range of a new American bomber. The B-29 Super Fortress could fly for about 3,500 miles, which was just right since the Marianas were about 1,500 miles south of Tokyo. A B-29 could carry 4 tons of bombs to Tokyo and still have enough fuel to make the return back.

In late 1944, after the American military very quickly built massive air bases and runways on the three islands, the B-29s started to make sorties to knock out factories and disrupt Japan’s war production. But as Malcolm Gladwell explains in this fascinating podcast about napalm, LeMay and the firebomb attacks on Tokyo, the initial attempts to knock out Japan’s war production failed.

The philosophy at that time was to use precision bombing to blow up military targets and Major General Haywood Hansell stuck to that philosophy. In order to hit a military target, you had to see it. That meant his bombers flew during the day time. But to avoid Japanese fighters and anti-aircraft artillery, that also meant flying high in the sky, at least 20,000 feet in the air.

At the end of 1944, a major target was Nakajima Aircraft, which built fighter planes (but today builds Subaru cars). But no matter how hard the pilots tried, they did little damage to the factory in Western Tokyo.

When LeMay replaced Hansell, the philosophy was flipped. We’re simply too high up in the sky for precision bombing, reasoned LeMay. And the goal is to win the war, which can be accelerated by increasing the level of intimidation through indiscriminate bombing. LeMay decided to fly lower, around 7,000 feet. But since that was within range of anti-military craft and fighter planes, he decided also to fly at night.

M69 Incendiary Bomb; Photo taken at The Center of the Tokyo Air Raids and War Damage.

He targeted the eastern part of Tokyo – shitamachi – as it was the most densely populated area speckled with small to medium size manufactures. And he decided to drop incendiary bombs, the  napalm bomb, freshly developed in the research halls of Harvard University, to maximize its destructive impact. Tokyo homes and buildings were composed primarily of wood. And because March was known as the windiest month in Japan, the expectations were that the wind would spread the fires ignited by the napalm bombs and thus widen the destruction beyond the drop areas.

If ever a plan came to fruition, it was on March 10, 1945. Two hundred and seventy nine B-29s dropped 609,000 pounds of incendiary bombs, burning to the ground fifteen square miles of Tokyo. As historian Edward E Gordon explained in his talk entitled “Fireball in the Night: The Bombing of Japan, 1944-45,”

The Red Wind (as it was called in Japanese) drove temperatures upwards of 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, creating a super-heated vapor that advanced ahead of the flames, and killed or incapacitated the victims. The mechanisms of death were multiple and simultaneous: oxygen deprivation, carbon monoxide poisoning, radiant heat, direct flames and debris, and trampling crowds.

Saotome Katsumoto wrote these words as an adult, remembering the feelings of helplessness he had as a 12-year-old boy.

In every direction – east, west, south and north – the dark sky was scorched with crimson flames. The steady roar of the B-29s’ engines overhead was punctuated by piercing screeches followed by cascading sounds like sudden showers. With each explosion, a flash of light darted behind my eyelids. The ground shook. Flames appeared one after another. As our neighbors looked outside their air raid shelters defiantly holding their bamboo fire brooms, they cursed when they saw how fiercely the fires were burning. They were helpless against the raging flames. Fire trucks, sirens wailing, were already speeding toward the fires, but what could they do in this gusting wind and intensive bombardment? Even in the eyes of a child, the situation seemed hopeless.

Ueno; Photo taken at The Center of the Tokyo Air Raids and War Damage.

Saotome Katsumoto and The Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage

It was June 13,1967 and Katsumoto read an article in the Mainichi Shimbun that brought back a flood of memories of that horrible morning of March 10, 1945. In the midst of repair work to tracks of the subway station Monzen-nakacho, construction workers uncovered the grisly remains of an air raid shelter 15 meters below the surface. The workers found the huddled remains of four adults and two children, evidence of burn marks on the bones.

A man named Tszuzuki Shizuo identified the deceased as his wife, daughter, mother in law, her two other daughters and a grandchild. An established author who had already penned 7 books, Katsumoto felt compelled to interview Tsuzuki, who declined. Undeterred, Katsumoto went on to interview victims of the Tokyo firebombings and publish in 1971 the book, “The Great Tokyo Air Raid.”  In the introduction, he wrote:

I was turned away at the door many times, and not one of those who agreed to be interviewed was calm or composed. As if on cue, they all broke down during their accounts and, sitting there with my pen in hand, I was unable to look up at them. The scars are still deep. These wounds will never heal as long as they live. For them the “postwar” period will never end.

Katsumoto understood that despite the pain of remembrances past, revisiting this time and place was critical to our future. “However painful it might be, confronting people’s actual experience of war will surely help to build a firm foothold for peace.”

On March 9, 2002, The Center of the Tokyo Air Raids and War Damage opened, its location in Koto-ku very much a part of flattened, rubble-strewn aftermath of March 10, 1945, its appointed director, Mr Saotome Katsumoto, a keeper of memories.

Take a walk along the Yokojikken River from Sumiyoshi Station and visit The Center.

Remember 8.6.

Remember 8.9.

Remember 3.11.

Remember 3.10.

The walkway along the Yokojikken River today.

Other Relevant Articles I’ve Written

Mother and Child, by Arata Kono, at the entrance of The Center of the Tokyo Air Raids and War Damage
Ann Packer and Robbie Brightwell_PhotoKishimoto
In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the XVIII Olympiad, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”
日本語版:世界を驚かせたアンパッカーと日本製品

Ann Packer was a 400-meter sprinter who was narrowly beaten by Australian Betty Cuthbert in the 400-meter finals. She was happy with her silver medal and ready to enjoy carefree moments shopping in the Ginza. As far as she was concerned, her Olympiad was over. Her fiancé and captain of the British athletics team, Robbie Brightwell, was astounded about how casual Ann was, and explained in his autobiography that she had a chance at history if she could hold off the urge to shop.

“Do you think I should run in the 800-meter heats tomorrow?” she asked. “Maybe I should call it a day and go shopping.” I gaped in astonishment. “Shopping? You must be mad! Shopping? This is the Olympic games, not the Moulsford Village sports!”

“I know, but I’m hardly likely to better a silver medal, am I? And I need to buy some presents for the folks back home.”

“Come off it!” I exploded. “Think about the British girls back home who would have given their eyeteeth to be here in your place!”

She smiled sheepishly. “OK I’ll run. Not that it’ll make much difference. I’m bound to get eliminated in the heats, and then I can go shopping.”

As it turns out, Packer and perhaps even her fiancé Brightwell were missing the telltale signs of potential success. While Packer hoped just to remain respectable, others saw a form and ease that would translate easily to victory. As Packer prepared for the finals, after essentially just making the cuts in the heats, two people of considerable experience and respect came up to Packer with powerfully motivating words. Again, here is how Brightwell explains it in his autobiography:

Milkha Singh jogged past with his 1,600-meter relay squad. Espying her, he dashed over, taking both hands and staring stern-faced into her eyes. “Ann Packer, listen to me. You will win!” She giggled self-conscientiously, flashing me an amused smile. Shaking her hands emphatically, he repeated his message.

You’re not listening, Ann Packer! Yesterday, I watched your semi-final. You were coasting! After the race, you come and show me your gold medal.

She nodded respectfully. No sooner he departed than Percy Cerutty, Betty Cuthbert’s coach, rushed up. Even though they had never been introduced, Percy wasn’t a man for social ceremonies. “This,” he said, wagging a finger in front of her face, “is the finger of experience. And it’s standing to attention. Listen! Betty and I’ve been talking. Stay with them until the end, and you will hammer them. Understand?”

Astonished, Ann nodded dumbly. Mission completed, Percy disappeared as quickly as he’d appeared.

When Packer won her race, right away she steered to the stands and into the arms of Brightwell. Milkha Singh was there as well, smiling with the satisfaction of clairvoyance proved correct. “Did I not say your woman would win? You didn’t believe me! I was right! Hee, hee, hee! Brightwell, you never listen to me!”

Packer had little experience in the 800 meters. But that was true for all the other competitors. For the first half of the twentieth century, the IOC believed they were protecting women from competing in what they believed to be overly strenuous competitions for the fair sex. Thus, after 1928, women didn’t run as far as 800 meters in the Olympics until 1960.

As a result, very few women were experienced at this distance. Packer had no preconceptions about how to run the race. But being naïve, and being a sprinter, was Packer’s advantage. Packer was at the back of the pack for most of the race. But in the final 200 meters, she climbed to third, and in a burst sprinted out a dominating finish. A world record finish, in fact. As she later said, “Ignorance proved to be bliss.”

Japan, as an emerging economy in 1964, was similar to Packer in the 800. Any new goal was a new challenge without any preconceptions about how to get things done. If they had a problem to solve, they tried anything and everything, leveraging what resources were available and learning from the world.

Toyota’s famed just-in-time (JIT) lean manufacturing methodology has been recognized the world over as a superior process to maximize both quality and efficiency, leading to the transformation of the auto industry by the Japanese. Instead of stocking large inventories of doors that sat in a warehouse unused for weeks and exposed to potential damage, as was the case with large American manufacturers in Detroit, the Japanese engineers improvised.

With little capital available during those lean postwar years, they could not “waste” money on one or two months of stock. So parts were built only when they were going to be used—just in time. Capital was used efficiently, parts were not damaged while sitting for weeks, and everyone on an assembly line was charged with the mandate to innovate in any way that eliminated waste and improved quality.

And so, even in 1964, to the surprise of visiting Olympians, Japanese products were not cheap and low quality. They were cutting edge.

Packer and Brightwell flew to Tokyo with their fellow Olympians on British Overseas Airways Comet, the world’s first commercial jet airliner. They had the opportunity to visit the cockpit and talk with the pilot. They asked about Japan, and Brightwell asked the well-travelled pilot whether he had any recommendations for things to buy there.

He said, “Yeah, Seiko watches. They make fantastic watches. Get a movie camera. Get a tape recorder. You got to get one of those transistor radios. And a camera. Oh, I see you’re wearing glasses. Go and get contact lenses.” So I did see the optician one day in Tokyo. And got them the next day! The Japanese were already making gas-permeable contact lenses. They were brilliant. For my first race, I could actually see the track.

We were very impressed. We knew about Japanese engineering in heavy industry, but we didn’t know anything about their use of American transistors and computers in Japan. We could see they were moving to higher-value, technologically intense products.

Brightwell was friendly with members of the British press, including BBC sports star commentator and presenter, David Coleman. Brightwell said that his conversations with Coleman in Tokyo were often about how many things he had learned about the innovative way Japan was televising the Games—that these Games would be the first to be globally broadcast by satellite; that there were dozens of movie cameras in the National Stadium, when the BBC might employ two; that the media in the Press section had events results provided to them by computers; that the Games were going to be seen in color in many homes in Japan, while most in England had to settle for black and white.

“Relatively speaking,” said Brightwell, “we were still on steam locomotives.”

Seiko Type III Timing Printer
Seiko Timing Printer
In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the XVIII Olympiad, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”
日本語版:セイコー──時をとらえ、差をつける

In 1959, when Tokyo was awarded the XVIII Olympiad by the IOC, Seiko’s President, Shoji Hattori, was determined to make Seiko the official timer of the Olympic Games. In 1960, he sent a telegram to one of his watch design section managers, Saburo Inoue, with instructions that would forever change the fate of the Japanese watch company—”Intend to handle official timing duties. Go to Rome Olympics in August and observe timing procedures.”

Inoue was deeply skeptical of the idea, and for good reason. “I’d never seen timing devices for the Olympics,” he said. “I didn’t know how they used their stopwatches, or what types they would need. We couldn’t do computer simulations, so we had to work out every single thing by trial and error.”

But again, as explained in the 2012 The Daily Telegraph article, ignorance proved to be bliss.

In those days, it was the prerogative of the local organizing committee to select the company that would supply the timers, and it was likely they would choose the tried-and-true Swiss watchmakers—Omega or Longines. Up till then, they were the only firms trusted with ensuring accurate times in Olympic competition.

In contrast, Seiko’s experience in building timers specifically for sports was zero. Such was the confidence of Hattori and Japan at the time—that anything was possible if they tried.

Without assurance of a contract for the Olympics, Hattori asked his three group companies to work on Olympic-related projects: large clocks, stopwatches, crystal chronometers, and a new idea, a device that could print the times of competitors right after the end of a race. They were called printing timers, and this revolutionized the way results of competitions were determined.

In only two years, Seiko was producing sports stopwatches that passed the standards of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Technical Committee. In a track and field competition in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, the IAAF was witness to a successful test, as the Japanese-made stopwatches proved accurate and reliable.

Seiko had already successfully developed quartz technology for small watches, and used this crystal technology for long distance races, like the marathon among others. Developing this quartz technology was key to developing Seiko wristwatches of the future that would stay accurate over longer periods of time.

More significantly, perhaps for the athletes, was Seiko’s development of the printing timer, a machine that would electronically time and print the results of an event, up to 1/100 of a second for track events.

This machine had a significant impact on a high-visibility competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics—the women’s 80-meter hurdles final.

On October 19, at the National Stadium, Karin Balzer of Germany and Teresa Cieply of Poland settled into their starting blocks. When the pistol shot rang, an electric signal was sent via wire to a printing timer, as well as a signal to a camera that would take special photo finish pictures, and a signal to a large spectator clock that set the second-hand in motion.

Karin Balzer wins 80 meter hurdle
Karin Balzer of Germany (3rd from right) and Teresa Cieply of Poland (169); from the German book “Olympia 1964 Tokio,” by Maegerlein, Heinz

In a stunning finish, Balzer, Cieply, and Australian Pam Kilborn hit the tape seemingly in a dead heat, all three timed by officials at 10.5 seconds. Despite numerous officials with hand stopwatches that measured in tenths of seconds, officials could not determine a winner.

The officials preferred not to hand out three gold medals, and fortunately, had a fallback plan—the latest timing technology from Japan.

When the runners arrived at the goal, a picture was taken by a slit camera, manufactured by Japan Photo Finish Co. Ltd. After thirty seconds, the image’s negative was transmitted as a reflected image, and converted in three minutes to a positive print. The information from Seiko’s printing timer was integrated into an image noting times in hundredths of seconds. The photo would show not only the athletes, but time, and thus the order in which they finished.

Thanks to the printing timer, it was revealed that Balzer completed the race in 10.54 seconds, 0.01 seconds ahead of Cieply, who was also only 0.01 seconds ahead of Kilborn. While the IAAF officially recognized times to the tenth of a second, in this case, they accepted the recorded electronic time to the hundredth.

The printing timer contributed mightily to the evolution of timed sports, and led to the creation of the famed, global printing company—EPSON—its name a simple mash-up of the words “son of electronic printer.”

1964 was Seiko’s time.

1964 was Japan’s time.