'In memoriam' Katsumoto Saotome, a custodian of Tokyo’s war-time history

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 of the attack, which occurred on March 10, 1945, when American B-29s dropped napalm on a mostly civilian population.
'In memoriam' Katsumoto Saotome, a custodian of Tokyo’s war-time history

TOKYO: Katsumoto Saotome, a novelist who lived through the American fire-bombing of Tokyo during World War II and worked to preserve the memories of survivors in published accounts and in 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 was hospitalized with pneumonia last fall.

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 of the attack, which occurred on March 10, 1945, when American B-29s dropped napalm on a mostly civilian population. Plunging into the complicated politics of war remembrance, he pushed the Japanese government — without much success — to memorialise the estimated 100,000 people who were killed in the attack, which has been 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,’” Saotome, who was 12 years old at the time of the fire-bombing, 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.’”

His first volume of survivors’ stories was published in 1971, modelled on John Hersey’s famous 1946 account of the bombing of Hiroshima in The New Yorker, and has sold more than 550,000 copies. The memorial museum Saotome 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, 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.”

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

Hiroshi Suenaga, who lived through the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and who accompanied 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 Saotome was “very soft and calm on the surface, but he had an unbending spirit inside of him.” Besides the survivors’ tales, Saotome wrote an account of an American B-29 pilot’s ordeal when his plane crashed in Tokyo and he was taken prisoner, as well as multiple novels and children’s books on the subject of war.

As a survivor of the Tokyo fire-bombing, 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 missing child during the war. In the message, read by his daughter, 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.

The writers are reporters with NYT©2022

The New York Times

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