The Fire-Bombing of Tokyo on May 25, 1945 – Kikuko Kikuchi (born 1929) Remembers
By Dr. Junichi Saga (from his book Tell Me About the War)
Translated by Avi Landau
Kikuko Kikuchi, the mother of my secretary Kaoru, is one of those people who hardly ever even catches a cold. Her husband, on the other hand, is not very hardy— and she has to bring him in to see me quite frequently. Over the years I’d gotten to hear, in bits and pieces, of how she had lost her mother and sisters in one of the big air-raids on Tokyo that took place in 1945—not in what is known as “The Great Air-Raid” of March 10th, but in one that occurred more than a month later—on May 25th. Recently, though, I was able to sit down with her and get the whole story straight. And as I listened to Kikuko-san tell her tale, I could picture the road running up the Natsume-zaka slope, as if it were right there before my very eyes. Rows of beautiful houses, gardens bursting with greenery and majestic trees… through the narrow roads to the Benten-machi neighborhood, and then the old entertainment quarter of Kagurazaka—with the sound of drums and Shamisen filling the air… As she talks on… I see it all burst into flames… As I listen… I hear the wail of the sirens, the great rumbling of the B-29s, the roar of the fires, the crackling of the burning houses and trees… the shouts… the screams… the moans… all blending in with the sound of her voice.
* * *
The property on which Soseki Natsume’s house (one of Japan’s most beloved novelists, 1867-1916.) once stood is now a public space called Natsume Park. In my childhood, I lived right near there. It was in a neighborhood called Waseda Minami-Machi, Ushigome Ward (now Shinjuku Ward)—not far from Waseda University. And at that time, the great novelist’s old house was still standing.
Soseki Natsume was born in Babashita-yokomachi, Kikui-cho, Tokyo. After his death, the sloping-road that his birth-house was on, came to be known as Natsume-zaka (Natsume-slope). The road that I lived on was called exactly the same thing—Natsume-zaka, because the house he was living in when he passed away was there.
That house had an enormous wooden gate that was always kept shut. The gate’s doors had some big, round, iron fixtures set onto them—and they looked just like breasts! It was hard to resist touching them, and my friends and I would giggle whenever we cupped our hands around them—as we sometimes did, when we passed by on our way to or from school. The gate was really very high and we couldn’t see much of what was inside the compound. Through the dense foliage of its majestic trees, we could make out just bits and pieces of the second-story of a wooden house. I’m pretty sure that no one was living there at the time. I don’t remember ever having seen a single person going in or out of that place—not even once. Anyway, the house, the gate and all those trees went up in flames on the night of the second Great Tokyo Air-Raid—the one that took place on May 25th, 1945. Oh, dear… the Natsume-zaka road was lined on both sides with such magnificent homes… but after the B-29s had come and gone, there was nothing left but a charred wasteland… for as far as the eye could see… And as you know, my mother and two younger sisters were killed…. roasted alive in a public restroom.
During the war, my father was a drill-instructor at Waseda University. It must have been hard on him—always having to see his students sent off as soldiers… because one day, he came up to Mother and said, “I can’t stay here like this while my students are making such great sacrifices… I’ve signed up and am leaving for the front immediately.” That was the last thing he said to us. He went off as a 42-year-old volunteer.
My father had actually started out as a teacher at the Shimotakatsu Elementary School here in Tsuchiura. He fell in love and married my mother, who had been teaching at the same school. The problem was that at that time, two teachers falling in love at work was considered unprofessional—and unethical, as well—so they both had to leave their positions. Father became a police officer working out of the Kagurazaka Police Station in Tokyo.
At that time there was a famous Waseda University professor, an economist named Bunjiro Hattori, who lived on the Natsume-zaka Road—right at the top of the hill. The piece of property his villa was on was enormous—it must have been about 500 tsubo in area (NOTE: 1650 square meters), and our family lived in a small house on its grounds. The idea was that having a policeman living there would make things safer for the professor and his family. My parents moved in just before I was born—so that would be around 1929. We stayed there till 1940… and it was a very special neighborhood.
Next to the Hattori residence was another large compound—with so much greenery and so many large trees in it that you could hardly see the house. And next to that one was Dr. Okei Kasumi’s house. She was a dentist… Ah… She helped us out in so many ways, but after trying to get away with my mother and sisters, she ended up dying in the fires, as well. Next to her lived a famous cartoonist named Batten Nagasaki. After the war he was a regular on the NHK radio program Tonchi (Quick Wit) Classroom—and he appeared in other shows, as well. He was a very cheerful, friendly, and funny person—with naturally curly hair! He would do magic tricks and other things to entertain us kids. His wife was charming and kind—and so beautiful that she looked like someone you’d see in one of those glamour magazines. They had no kids of their own, so they poured out all their affection onto Monchan, their pet monkey. On the night of the air-raid, they put Monchan into a cage and fled the house… The three of them made it through okay.
Below those houses, there was a compound so vast and majestic that I couldn’t tell how far back the property actually went. It had a very high fence around it, and behind it rose up what seemed like a veritable forest of ancient trees. That was the residence of Duke Nijo. Near the Duke’s estate, lived a politician (admiral, engineer, entrepreneur and cabinet minister) named Takuo Godo. Before the War broke out, he had been appointed to some cabinet position or other. When that happened, the whole area was flooded with people from the press and assorted revelers.
While I’m on the subject, let me tell you about what the rest of the neighborhood and the surrounding area were like before the fire-bombing. To the west there were still more large homes. The one at the very top of the hill, facing the Hattori’s, was just enormous! There was a bamboo fence that ran around it, and it must have been 7 shaku (7 feet) high. That and the numerous large trees on the other side, made it impossible to tell from the outside what the house itself looked like. The people who lived there did so very quietly and inconspicuously—without ever having anything to do with “regular people”. That all changed though, when the war took a turn for the worse. When the B-29 attacks grew more frequent, a community air-raid shelter was built on their property—perhaps at the urging of the Neighborhood Committee—though I don’t really know. But anyway, whenever the air-raid sirens sounded, everyone in the immediate area would run through that big gate and go down into the shelter. It was very spacious in there—more than twenty people could fit comfortably inside. But I’m sure that if there had never been any air-raids, we would never have gotten to see the inside of that compound.
Down the slope from that house were several other impressive homes. The next two you came to, belonged to a photographer and a professor of Japanese calligraphy, respectively. At the bottom of the hill was the Benten-Yu Bath-house. There were drainage-channels lining both sides of the road that ran down the slope. They were about 3 shaku (3 feet) wide—and there was always water flowing down them. Large stone slabs lay across them at various intervals—acting as bridges to the entrances of each home.
Soseki Natsume’s old house was halfway up the hill, on the opposite side of the road from the professor’s. The house just up-slope from it belonged to Dr. Tashiro, an MD—that was another huge place. On top of the hill, at the corner, was a big shop—the Mikawa-ya. They sold saké (rice-wine), miso (fermented bean-paste), and soy-sauce. They always had five or six apprentices working for them. They’d go around to the houses in the area asking if they could take any orders for delivery. When you ordered something they would put it on your tab. Twice a year, the apprentices would go around collecting what everyone owed—just before the New Year—and just before the O-bon Festival in summer. They all lived together in a little house behind the shop. There was an old lady who cooked for them and did their laundry. After the war started, the apprentices were always changing, with some new boys always taking over for those who’d been called up.
Beyond the Mikawa-ya were some more homes, but only of your average sort. If you turned down one of the lanes between the shop and those houses, there was a Buddhist temple—Soko Yamaga’s (1622-1685) grave was there. About halfway down the same lane, there was a nice little house that someone’s young mistress lived in. The reason I remember something like that is because I used to bathe at the same place that she did—the Benten-Yu Bath-house. To a young girl like me, her beauty was simply startling—like something you saw in Nishiki-e wood-block prints. She always wore kimono and had her hair up in the traditional Japanese-style. Her eyes sparkled like little suzu balls and her skin was so radiant that it was hard to take your eyes off her. The first time I saw her, I was so struck that I wondered, in my pure child’s-heart, what sort of angel she could possibly be. One day someone explained, “That’s someone’s mistress,” though I had no idea at the time what “someone’s mistress” actually meant.
Across from the Benten-Yu Bath-house, on the opposite corner, there was a futon store. They’d make all their own mattresses and duvets, whipping the cotton to make it softer, and sewing them up right there in the shop. On the same block there was also a pharmacy, and next to that there was a popular coffee shop that was run by Meiko Nakamura’s parents (NOTE: Meiko Nakamura was a Japanese actress and singer. Born in 1934, she debuted as an actress at the age of two). It was always crowded with Waseda University students. Meiko was still just a little girl at the time and she always wore a big ribbon in her hair. Sometimes they’d open up all the windows to the shop, and from outside on the street you’d be able to hear her singing. She was already quite a local sensation at that time.
I had two good friends living nearby—Masako-chan and Mieko Ogayu. Masako-chan’s father was a professional military man who hardly ever came back home. And when he did, it was only at night. I never saw him—not even once. But from time to time, Masako-chan would whisper to me, “My daddy was home last night,” as if she were imparting some important secret to me—and that’s how I’d know he’d been back. Even as a child, it was somehow clear to me that Masako-chan’s father was not just an ordinary soldier. Military men were always putting on airs—and on the weekends they’d go out with their families. Her father never took them anywhere. I found out later that he worked for military intelligence and specialized in Russian affairs. I heard that from my own father who after having started working at Waseda, had apparently met the man.
Mieko-chan’s family, on the other hand, ran a pawn shop—and they were amazingly wealthy. The first time I saw how they lived, my eyes almost popped out of my head. Their shop was enormous and very solidly built—like one of those traditional fire-proof store-houses. And there was a big sign hanging outside that read OGAYU MIZO STORE-HOUSE PAWNSHOP. When you entered the shop, you could go down a long corridor that took you to the main-house which was a separate building set in the middle of a big Japanese garden. The house was built of the finest cypress wood and everything looked so clean that it seemed to sparkle. The beams and posts and all the rooms looked like what I imagined you’d find at a feudal lord’s manor house. At least that was how it looked to a young girl like me. Most amazing of all, was the fact that they had a flush toilet! Big, beautiful, and perfectly clean! It drove home very clearly the fact that the rich didn’t live like the rest of us! But all their money didn’t help them when the bombers came. That big house burned up with all the rest—not a trace of it was left behind.
Professor Hattori, the man whose property we lived on, was very famous at the time. He had given a series of lectures on economics that was broadcast on NHK radio. Next to the name-plate that hung outside the main-entrance that read: BUNJIRO HATTORI, was another one that said: CONSULATE OF GUATEMALA. “What a strange name for a country,” is what I used to think, whenever I looked at it. But there were no foreigners living there, so I guess that the professor acted as its representative in Japan.
His house was mostly in the Japanese-style—but there was also a western-style annex with a very high ceiling. There was a beautiful grand piano in there. The professor had two daughters and they both attended the Futaba School for Girls. They were very kind, those girls. I remember once, when they saw me looking at their piano as if it were a sacred treasure, they told me to just go ahead and touch it—they even encouraged me to tap on the keys. Their brother was still in elementary school when I lived there, but you could already tell that he was an intelligent young man.
They had several maids living there, too.There was one who worked in the kitchen, one who did the cleaning, and one who served the meals. There was also a live-in seamstress. She would sit all day sewing in a six-mat tatami room. She made and mended all their kimonos. The professor’s wife always dressed in the Japanese-style—and she was very pretty. After New Year’s, Mother would take me along with her to the main-house to make a formal greeting to the Hattori’s—and every year we’d receive a bolt of silk fabric. They also had a chauffeur, and whenever the daughters went out for a concert or something, he’d be the one who’d take them and pick them up afterwards.
The professor’s study was a Japanese-style room. He had a big desk set on the tatami-mats and he worked there surrounded by mountains of books. While at home, he always wore Japanese-style clothes and when he went out for a stroll, he always took a walking stick with him. He was really quite a nice-looking man, with a handsome face and good physique. I used to look at him with something like awe, thinking, “Aah… now that’s what a professor should look like!”
As a police officer, father’s beat covered the Kagurazaka Geisha Quarter. Everyone there would fawn over him as he made his rounds. They’d call him “Gov’nor” wherever he went. They’d also let him in to see movies and shows for free. And since everyone knew that I was his daughter, the man at the movie theater ticket-booth would also let me in without a ticket. Yes, I was already frequenting the movies back when I was still in the lower grades of elementary school! When I think about it now, I realize that taking favors like that was wrong—but back then, that’s the way things were.
Kagurazaka was really a thriving at that time—even a child could tell. You took one step off the main road and there were geisha houses lining the back-streets on both sides all the way down. In the evenings, the sounds of shamisen and drums streamed out from behind the shoji-papered walls. Rickshaw drivers moved quickly along, carrying either geisha or their customers. The sound of wooden clogs rang out “clickety-clop—clickety-clop” as women in brilliant kimonos hurried by. There was real atmosphere—and the geisha made a fuss over me—treating me like I was their little pet. What I remember most about them was their Bon dancing. During the Bon festival, the women who worked in the Pleasure-Quarter used to hold a Bon Dancing event. They wore yukata (robe-like summer kimonos) and beat hand-held drums. Some of them played the shamisen. You can’t imagine how moving it was when they all sang and danced the Tokyo Ondo together. And there was only one child there in the circle of dancers—me. It was thrilling… a wonderful memory…
There was an Akagi Shrine in Kagurazaka. I used to have “cold-weather” naginata practice there. That was after I’d finished elementary school and had started at the Ushigome Commercial School for Girls. The war hadn’t started yet, so we had early-morning “cold practice” every winter’s day. Then, when we arrived at school, we’d have the hot rice-porridge the teachers had prepared for us.
Professor Hattori had apparently taken a liking to my father and it was he who advised Father to quit his job as a policeman and take a three-month training course given by the Army Ministry in Ichigaya. That’s how he got to be a drill instructor at the university. By that time, though, Father already had seven kids—and the little house we lived in on the professor’s property was getting pretty cramped for all of us. So we moved, though not very far away, to a duplex row-house in Bentenmachi. That was in 1940. The serious air-raids didn’t start coming till February 1945. But when they did, in order to prevent the spread of fire through the area, all of Bentenmachi was evacuated and its wooden buildings demolished. We lived there till that happened.
Our neighborhood was a crowded jumble of small, single-family homes and row-houses. The manager of the Waseda University baseball team, Suishu Tobita, lived there, too. The row-house that we lived in had a front-yard about 50 tsubo (165 square meters) wide. I used to jump rope and play catch there. Everyday my father would be out by the well washing the diapers. Because there were so many kids in our family, Mother had her hands full just taking care of the kitchen chores. Father always made sure to help out when he was at home. The house next-door belonged to a man who drove a roving-taxi and his family. It was a ranch-style house with five-rooms and a kitchen—so looking at it from the stand-point of today’s housing situation, it was quite spacious.
There were always some Waseda University students over at our place. College baseball players, some of them famous at the time, came too. They’d bring rice-crackers, sugar and all kinds of snacks. We’d play together. I can even remember some students polishing my shoes. My father was very kind to young people—but I don’t think that was the only reason that our home was popular. It must also have been the fact that no matter what faculty the students belonged to, they could only advance to the next year if they got a passing grade on their military-drill skills. So the students who didn’t think they were doing well in my father’s class would try to butter him up with courtesy calls. He also got lots of letters from desperate parents: “Please help us out”—and that sort of thing.
I remember the first morning of the war very clearly. Our whole family listened to the 7 AM broadcast together. “On the morning of December 8th, before dawn, the Imperial Army and Navy entered into a state of war with the forces of the United States of America and the United Kingdom in the western Pacific.” I remember getting all hot and then trembling with excitement. I rushed out of the house and ran all the way to school. When I got there all the girls were talking excitedly. Everyone was shouting out things like: “Anglo-American Beasts!” and whipping up each other’s enthusiasm with cliches like: “Let’s get ’em!” or “Let’s do our best!” We didn’t have the slightest bit of fear or doubt in our minds. At that time not a single one of us would have ever imagined that we’d lose the war. The thought never entered our minds. We believed with all our hearts that Japan was fighting for justice—and that if we fought with all our hearts, we’d win. That’s why everyone was so excited. You know the expression: “Our blood and flesh tingle with excitement.” Well, that’s what it felt like.
From that day on, we began to regularly prepare “comfort-bags” (imon-bukuro) for the troops. We’d stuff all kinds of goodies and gifts in them—along with a lucky “Thousand-Stitch Sash” (senninbari) in each one. When they were ready, we’d deliver them to the Ministries of Army or Navy ourselves. To get all the thousand stitches the sashes needed to be effective as amulets, my friends and I would go out to Mitsukoshi-Mae in Shinjuku, and stand out in front of the department store. Soldiers at the front-lines would wrap them around their bellies or foreheads. The sashes were supposed to protect them from bullets and shrapnel—so every soldier needed one.
To make them, first we’d cut off a piece of white cloth—about 6 shaku (6 feet) long. We’d fold it in half, lengthwise, and then sew up the edges. That would give us a double-layered strip of white cloth. Then we’d mark off a thousand points in red ink—all in tightly packed and perfectly straight rows. On the backs of the small calligraphy brushes there are holes, right? Well, we’d put the red ink in there, and then dot the cloth. When we’d done that, we’d go out and ask female passersby to sew a single stitch over the next dot. That made it easy to tell how many more stitches we needed—though there were probably some girls who didn’t dot their sashes like we did, and just asked for stitches on unmarked cloth.
As soon as school was out for the day, I’d go to Shinjuku by train with three or four girls that I was close with. We’d each have one cloth with us, and we’d stand in front of the department store asking the women around there to cooperate. At first we’d go out in skirts and sweaters, but later, as the situation worsened, we switched over to fire-hoods and peasant trousers. The fire-hoods hung from our shoulders down to our waists. We’d stand out there from a little past three, till it started getting dark. It took about two days to gather all the thousand stitches. We didn’t really have to do anything to attract people, except stand there. Just about every woman who passed by would come up and sew a stitch—without having to be asked. Normally you wanted one woman to make one stitch, but stitches put in by women born in the Year of the Tiger were supposed to be extra lucky—and they could put in as many as they liked, up to the number of their own age. That was what people believed at the time. So if any “Tigers” did happen to come along, it really helped us out. They’d come up and say: “I was born in the Year of the Tiger so I’ll do a whole bunch for you!”
When we’d finished getting all the stitches, we’d sew the “comfort-bags” themselves, and when we’d finished making them, we’d fill them with all sorts of things. First came the pictures. We’d draw mountains, towns, flowers, dolls…. but the scene we probably drew most often was a house with a “Rising-Sun” flag flying from its gate—and Mt. Fuji looming in the background.
We’d also include a “comfort-letter”. We’d write all sorts of things, but always included: “Please fight for your country bravely, as befits a Japanese soldier. We will do our best here on the home-front.” You have to remember, we weren’t university students who had studied about what the world was really like. We were 15-year-olds who knew just one side of the story—the one given to us by the official media and our teachers at school. We would never have imagined questioning what was going on. Anyway, we’d also put some umeboshi (salted plums) into the comfort-bags—or some sweet-beans that we’d spend our entire allowances on.
We’d also take left-over rice, wash it really, really well, and then dry it in the sun till it got all crunchy. Then we’d roast it and drizzle a little soy-sauce on it for some extra zest. That was called hoshiii (dried-cooked rice). We’d put some of that in the comfort-bags, too. At that time, people living in the towns and cities would prepare that kind of dried-rice for themselves as an emergency food. It could be carried anywhere you went, so just about everyone did it. All the women in the volunteer brigades certainly did. They’d always carry some around—about half a go (90 ml)—in their little pouches.
We’d also knit woolen socks or make origami dolls and stick them in the bags. Then, when we had filled them and closed them up, we’d take them over to the Army or Navy Ministries. We did that at least once a month. At the reception window we’d say, “We’ve brought some comfort-bags!” Then some soldiers would come out and say, “Thank you!” and take them from us. We continued doing that till Bentenmachi was evacuated. In 1944 we received a thank-you letter.
Tokyo was bombed once, right at the beginning of the war—and I saw it happen. It was April 18th, 1942—a Saturday afternoon. At that time we were living in the row-house in Bentenmachi, and on that day, I had already come back home from school. I thought I heard a strange sound, so I stuck my head out the window and looked up at the sky. I saw a very large airplane—a type I had never seen before. It was flying straight across the sky. There were no air-raid sirens or anything like that. But the plane had no Rising-Sun emblem on it, so I thought it quite strange and wondered what was going on. And then all of a sudden it was “BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM!” Bombs were falling not far from where I was—and I just froze up with fear. It was the Waseda Tsurumaki Cho neighborhood that was hit. The air-raid sirens sounded only after the explosions had begun. That got me wondering about our air-defense system, of course. Letting the enemy get through to central Tokyo in broad daylight like that. It seemed pretty sloppy… and the first seeds of doubt were sown in my mind.
In February 1944, my father volunteered and left us. Exactly one year later, towards the end of February 1945, the “real” air-raids began. Just before they did, on February 19th, my two younger sisters were injured by a bullet from an enemy plane—right there in Bentenmachi. At that time I had started working at the Central Telephone Exchange in Otemachi as a member of the Women’s Volunteer Brigade. When I got home that evening, my mother wasn’t there. My four-year-old sister Yuko was home alone. I asked what the matter was and she told me that our sister Takako had said her arm was hurting and that Mother had taken her to the hospital.
Yuko told me that her arm hurt, too, so I helped her off with her kimono and found a big wound on her right arm. It gave me such a shock that I just lifted her up, got her up on me “piggy-back” style, and ran her all the way over to the hospital. Later I found out what had happened. They’d heard machine-gun fire, and Takako, who was nine, got Yuko up on her back and started running toward the shelter. But suddenly an enemy plane came right at them and the bullets it fired cut through the branches of the big maple tree by the house. One bullet apparently injured both of their right arms at the same time. The little one hadn’t bled much, so my mother didn’t notice what had happened. That’s why she had only taken Takako to the hospital.
It was the Katayama Orthopedic Surgery Clinic near the Omagari Noh Theater. It took me thirty minutes to get there—running all the way. Takako claimed she had actually seen the American pilot’s face. She said he was leaning halfway out the cockpit window. When I thought about it though, I realized that she might not really have seen him after all—since there was that big maple-tree there blocking her view. And even if there had been no tree, the plane would have been over her head and gone in a flash. Who knows? Anyway, Takako was in the hospital for about a month after that—and I helped take care of her while she was there. I was with her every night. Because of the enforced blackouts it was always pitch-dark after the sun went down. I sang her her favorite song “Oyama no sugi no ko” again and again, every night till she fell asleep.
On the night of the Great Tokyo Air-Raid of March 10th, more than 100,000 people were killed. About 260,000 houses burned down in Central Tokyo, and a million people were left homeless. But the Ushigome area that we lived in was left untouched. The night that it happened, I just stood there in my fire-cloak—in a stupor of sorts—staring out, as the city went up in flames. A few days later, I was at the Koto Ward Telephone Exchange. The building had survived the fires, but as you can imagine, many of the phone-lines in the area had been destroyed. We had to check which ones were working and which weren’t. We tried contacting every number in the ward. Most of them were out of service. Walking through the ruins to get there and back, it was hard to believe that what I was seeing was real. There was nothing. Not a single thing had retained its original shape—and there was no greenery, either. I walked for hours through that kind of landscape. One thing that stands out in my mind, is passing a young woman kneeling by a charred tricycle and weeping.
Natsume-zaka was hit more than a month later—on May 25th. That’s my birthday. Mother had told me that she wanted to do something to celebrate, but with all the shortages, that was a pretty hard thing to do. So she took some bean-curd lees (Okara) and mixed it with flour—and baked a kind of “bread” for me. My ten-year-old brother had already been evacuated to Yamadera in Tochigi Prefecture with all the other young children from the area. My other siblings, my 5-year-old brother, and my twelve and fourteen-year-old sisters, had been sent to my grandfather’s place in Tsuchiura. I was the one who’d taken them there, and done all the paperwork that had to be done for them to transfer to their new schools. I returned to Tokyo on the 23rd. My two injured sisters and my mother were staying with the dentist Dr. Okei Kasumi, our old neighbor, in one of her upstairs rooms. They had already completed all their preparations for evacuating to the countryside.
As soon as I’d finished eating my “Birthday Bread”, the sirens sounded. We immediately turned out all the lights, and in the dark, I helped my sisters get dressed. On the radio they kept repeating the same bulletin, “A large formation of enemy bombers has entered the air-space over our empire’s capital.” I peeked out through the curtains and saw the beams of countless search-lights cutting through the night sky—and soon the fire-bombing began.
All those B-29s flying over the city created an ominous drone—and the whole house was vibrating. I had visions of a huge black hand coming down to drag us off to hell—but I knew I had to get those thoughts out of my head and start moving… and I tried to… but I was frozen… paralyzed… numb all over. Then I heard Dr. Okei call out, “Quick! This way!” and I snapped out of it—and joined all the others hurrying to the shelter.
The sound of air-raid sirens filled the air. Large formations of B-29s were passing over the city—some not very far from where we were—and they started dropping incendiary bombs. The sky was filled with what looked like millions of little red lanterns slowly floating down—and it was terrifying. We went with Dr. Okei, her family, and the Nagasaki’s, towards the big house with the shelter that I’ve told you about. When we got there, it was already filled with people—and they were all sitting there in complete silence… it was as if they had stopped breathing. Even down there we could feel what was going on… the earth trembled. Everyone seemed to be trying to make themselves shrivel up and disappear. My mother had her arms around my two injured sisters. I sat there for a while, but I was a member of the Women’s Volunteer Brigade—and that was not what I was supposed to be doing. I told myself that I couldn’t just hide in the shelters trying to save myself… and I went outside and stood at the entrance.
The sky was filled with B-29’s moving calmly along, and going perfectly straight across the sky. I could see them as they passed through the search-light beams. The fire-bombs came floating down like confetti—with little tongues of red flame lapping out of them. When they hit something they’d burst open, and everything around them would start to burn. I could also see the streaks of our anti-aircraft fire… but the B-29’s just kept moving along, completely unfazed, way up beyond their reach. All around, flames started rising, as this neighborhood and that, started to burn—and still more fire-bombs rained down into the rising flames!
I was standing there outside the shelter’s entrance in stunned silence, when all of a sudden I saw a B-29 that looked much bigger than the rest—it was passing right over my head! And soon what seemed like thousands of incendiary bombs were coming down right at me. They started hitting the houses, trees, and ground, exploding everywhere, like fire-crackers from hell—and bursting into flames. Natsume-zaka was burning. I saw flames lapping out of the second floor of the Nagasaki’s house… That’s when I knew I had to do something. If everyone stayed down in that shelter, they’d be roasted alive! From the entrance I shouted, “Mother! The Nagasaki’s house is on fire! It’s no good here!” “OK,” she answered, “but you get away, too!” Before I ran off, I said, “Alright! I’m just gonna go get our stuff!!” and dashed over to the dentist’s house. I grabbed a bucket, filled it with water and ran up the stairs. I don’t know why I left my mother and sisters to get that stuff. I have no idea what put the idea into my head. To this day I haven’t been able to figure it out…
The closet up there in the eight-mat room was sizzling and about ready to burst into flames. I quickly stuffed some of our dishes and tableware into a leather bag that Father had left us. Then I put what was left of my birthday-bread into a mess-tin that Mother always used for packing lunches. For some reason, after I’d done that, I took a paper umbrella and stepped out onto the veranda that was used for drying the laundry. I could see that Professor Hattori’s shed was on fire—and beyond that was a sea of flames. I looked around trying to figure out which direction I could go in, once I got out of the house. All the while I was muttering to myself “Keep calm…just…keep calm.” I realized that I would be able to make my escape if I went towards the university. That area didn’t seem to be burning yet. “Okay… that’s where I’ll head to…” is what I decided. I poured the water from the bucket over my fire-hood to protect myself and got out of there. The Nagasaki’s house was by then completely swallowed up in flames, with long, fiery tongues lapping out its windows.
I ran back to the shelter—but there was no one in there anymore. I wondered where they’d gone to, and hoping to join up with them I went out past the Mikawa-ya Shop and then past the Waseda Elementary School. I soon found myself at the Hachiman Shrine, among a group of people trying to keep away from the fires. I ran ahead shouting out for my mother and sisters—and felt certain that I was heading in the right direction to find them. What had actually happened though, is that after getting to the Mikawa-ya, they’d gone down the alley that led to the temple—and then out to the Waseda Market. I heard it all later from Harue-chan from the Mikawa-ya. My mother, sisters, and Dr. Okei Kasumi had apparently stopped in the middle of that lane. Harue-chan, came running by that way, and told them that they couldn’t just stay there, and that they’d better get away quick. But Mother said, “My daughter hasn’t come back yet!”
After I hadn’t shown up for a while, they must have run back towards the temple. If only I had met up with them, everything might have worked out all right—but they ended up going out onto Waseda Boulevard and soon found themselves trapped in a sea of flames. The only path open to them was the entrance to a public lavatory—and that’s where they died.
Meanwhile, I was running towards Waseda University, past my old school—Waseda Elementary School. One of the teachers, Mr. Ishizaka, was standing out there shouting: “Everyone! Come save the school! Don’t run away! Save the school!” He was actually grabbing onto people, trying to stop them from running past, pleading with them to help. No one stopped, of course, they just tore away from his grasp as he tried to cling onto them. With fire-bombs still falling all around, the whole area was a roaring inferno—with flames rising up like they wanted to scorch the very heavens. It was no time to save any schools. It was hard enough just staying alive. He kept trying to get people to help him, though. He was crying, screaming… pleading… It really was very strange. By that time all children of elementary school age had already been evacuated to the countryside, and there weren’t even any students to study there anymore. Still, he was dead-set on trying to protect it. I don’t know what happened to him in the end.
As for me, I found myself being carried along by the flood of people trying to get to somewhere safe. But all around, the fires were going so strong that I was sure we were all going to burn up. I took some water from a fire-cistern I passed, poured it over my head, and then ran though the flying sparks. I made it through and somehow found myself once again at the Hachiman Shrine near the university. I ran into an old elementary school friend of mine there. “The university seems to be OK for now… but it might start burning soon… what do you think?” I asked. And she said, “Yeah, it looks like its gonna get bad there, too. Let’s get outta here!” We promised each other we’d try to hold up for as long as we could, and keep a grip on ourselves till the end. But my first priority was to find my family—so we soon separated. Suddenly, I was all alone. The area around Takadanobaba Station was burning furiously. I couldn’t go any further. “This is the end,” I thought. But I couldn’t just stand there. So I told myself that I had to find a way… I ran between the lapping flames, avoiding their dancing tongues and heading for the spots that were not yet burning. I ran and ran and ran and ran. At some point I found myself in something like the eye of the storm—a little enclave that was calm—completely untouched by the surrounding fires. But it was pitch dark there and I had no idea which way to proceed. So I just started walking, thinking about what I should do.
Soon I came across some human figures squatting in the darkness. Looking more carefully, I realized it was two women—one young and the other old. In a kind of daze, I asked them where we were. The younger one stood up and said, “Behind the Gakushuin University. Where’ve you come from?”
“I’m looking for my mother and sisters… I have no idea how I ended up here,” I explained. Then, very kindly she said: “You must be very worried. But the ‘all’s clear’ siren will probably be sounding soon, and when it does, come to our house—it’s near here, and somehow it’s still standing. I’ll give you something to eat there. It’s no use searching in the dark like this, so stay at our place for the night. Tomorrow morning you can go out and look for your family—I’m sure you’ll find them.”
Having been convinced that that was the best thing for me to do, I sank down into a crouch next to them and looked around. The sky glowed a deep red in every which direction. It seemed like the whole city was ablaze. The strange thing though, was the silence. I realized that there were no more B-29s around—and no more fire-bombs dropping. The night sky was just glowing in silence. Soon the “all’s clear” signal sounded. I followed the two women, one young and one old. The paper umbrella I had taken from Dr. Okei’s veranda and Father’s leather bag hung down from my arm as I walked along.
I spent that night at the young woman’s house—and was served rice-porridge. At dawn though, I left and continued the search for my mother and sisters. When I entered the precincts of the Hachiman Shrine, the big old sacred trees were all charred and smoldering. There was a human head floating in the cistern. A woman groaned as she passed by, carried on a stretcher. I thought it might be Mother and rushed over to have a look—but the kimono wasn’t right.
I walked along Waseda Boulevard. The pavement was still hot and there were bodies everywhere—like burnt logs, or dolls made out of mud. Charred corpses everywhere. I checked all of them, but couldn’t find Mother or the girls. So I went towards Natsume-zaka. It had become a bare, burnt-out hill. The novelist Soseki’s two-story house, the Mikawa-ya pawn-shop, the Duke’s manor, and Professor Hattori’s house, had all been turned to ash. There was nothing left standing.
I walked through the smoking ruins… and there was Mr. Nagasaki! He was poking at the earth with a piece of scrap wood. It was where his house had been, and I guess he was checking under the ashes to see if anything had survived the fires. I went up to him, and he was elated to see me.
“Ah… you’re alright!” is what he said.
“Auntie and Monchan are with the neighbors taking shelter at Seijo Junior High School. Your mom and sisters must be there with them.”
I ran over there by way of Yanagimachi—and I found my friends and Mrs. Nagasaki with her monkey. Everyone was happy to see that I was OK. But Mother and the girls weren’t there.
The school was packed with people. Just after 12 noon some crackers were distributed—but neither Mother nor my sisters showed up. I was getting very worried about them. I went out and wandered through the smouldering debris, but they weren’t to be found. There was nothing else I could do, so I kept pacing back and forth between the room being used as a shelter and the school gate. Then, at sundown, Noboru Yamaguchi, a Meiji University student who had once lodged at Dr. Okei’s house, showed up at the school. He told me he had found Dr. Okei, my mother and my sisters in a public rest-room. They were all dead.
“Kikuko, it’s just horrible. I’ll take you to them tomorrow—tonight let’s go to my apartment, all of us.”
Noboru had an apartment near Ushigome Park, and for some reason, of all the buildings in the area, it was the only one that hadn’t burned down. That night, me, the Nagasaki’s—and their monkey, stayed there. The next day, he took me to where my mother and sisters were, but at the entrance to the restroom, he said: “Kiku-chan… don’t come inside… if you see them like that, you’ll be haunted for the rest of your life. I’ll go in and cut off pieces of their kimonos—and some hair, so that you can identify them.” He went inside alone. While I waited out on the corpse-strewn road, I think I was crying…. At some point I looked up and noticed a middle-aged woman staring at me. “It’s all just so awful,” she said. “Here—take this and offer some incense and flowers…” She put something into my hand. It was a ten-yen bill.
Noboru took a long time coming out. The snippets of charred cloth that he brought out to show me were without a doubt what my mother and sisters had been wearing on the night of the air-raid. There was nothing I could do or say—so I just cried.
But we couldn’t stay there like that forever, and Noboru said that we had better go file a report. I slogged behind him to the Waseda Police Station. There was a long wait, but I was finally able to make my statement. The next day I went back to the public restroom—but the bodies were gone. All the corpses in the area had been loaded onto trucks and taken somewhere. It was terrible. What were we going to do? How were we going to perform the proper funeral rites? Noboru went everywhere trying to find out what was going on—and he finally did. All of the bodies found in the Waseda area, had been taken to a field in Ikebukuro for temporary burial.
We rushed over there and asked everyone we met—all sorts of people, where the mass grave was. It wasn’t till evening, though, that we found out. We spotted some of the workmen who’d been doing the burying. They were already on their way home. I ran up to one of them, saying: “My mother died holding my two little sisters in her arms… do you know where the bodies are?” And by an amazing coincidence, it turned out that he was the one who had actually buried them. He said that he felt really bad for me, it was all so pitiable—and then he took me to the site. They had buried lots of people that day, but a mother with two children in her arms was something that had made an impression—so he was able to show me exactly where they were. I found a wooden board and wrote my mother’s and sisters’ names on it. I then set it into the ground over the spot he had indicated.
At some point in time, though, the grave and the marker disappeared! When I inquired, I learned that all the bodies that had been buried there had been removed and cremated. The ashes had apparently been taken to the Memorial Hall for the Two Great Disasters, in Sumida Ward. I was also told that the ashes of all the victims had been mixed together. Time and again I went to the Memorial Hall asking if I could have the ashes, and each time I was told that it would be impossible: “The deceased are all together now.”
The amazing thing though, is that thirty-nine years later, I found out that my mother and sisters had, in fact, been cremated separately from the other victims—and that their remains had been kept apart. When I went to the Memorial Hall to take custody of them, the person on duty handed me a small urn. It looked quite old. Glued onto it was a very fragile-looking paper label that looked like it would crumble into dust at the slightest touch. Looking at it closely, I found written, very clearly for posterity—the names of my mother and little sisters.