TOKYO – Katsumoto Saotome, a Japanese writer who gathered the accounts of survivors of the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo in World War II to raise awareness of the massive civilian deaths and the importance of peace, has died. He was 90.
One of his publishers, Iwanami Shoten, confirmed his death. He died on Tuesday of organ failure related to old age at a hospital in Saitama, north of Tokyo, NHK public television reported.
A native of Tokyo, Saotome was 12 when he narrowly survived the firebombing of the city on March 10, 1945, that turned the densely populated downtown area of the Japanese capital into an inferno. “I ran for my life as countless cluster bombs rained down,” Saotome recalled in one of his storytelling events.
More than 105,000 people are estimated to have died and a million made homeless in a single night, but the devastation has been largely eclipsed in history by the U.S. atomic bombings of two Japanese cities several months later.
After the war, Saotome pursued his writing while working in a factory. His debut autobiographical story, “Downtown Home” was nominated for the prestigious Naoki literary prize in 1952.
In 1970, Saotome began visiting survivors of the firebombing to hear their stories to let their voices be heard.
He established a civic group to document the firebombing and collect documents and artifacts about the attack, leading to the establishment of a museum, the Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage, in 2002. He served as its director until 2019.
As head of the museum, he published magazines about the firebombing, while continuing to write books for children and young adults to raise awareness of the tragedy.
“We must hand the baton to the younger generation” to keep retelling the story, he said in an interview with NHK in 2019.
Many of the survivors of the firebombing feel they were forgotten by history and by the government.
Postwar governments have provided a total of 60 trillion yen ($460 billion) in welfare support for military veterans and bereaved families, and medical support for survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but nothing for civilian victims of the firebombings.
Acclaimed filmmaker Yoji Yamada, known for his highly popular film series “Otoko wa Tsuraiyo" ("It’s Hard Being a Man"), featuring a lovable wandering peddler named Tora-san, was a longtime friend of Saotome. He told Japanese media that he was “deeply saddened by the loss of his precious friend with whom he discussed postwar Japan, war and peace.”
Yamada often visited the firebombing museum. Sometimes Saotome took him around the area, making him a big fan of the Shibamata area, which became home to the Tora-san series.