On Writing Fire
The firebombing of Tokyo stands among the most brutal air raids in history. Shortly after midnight on March 9, 1945, hundreds of American B-29 bombers roared over the Japanese capital, raining high-tech incendiaries and an early incarnation of napalm onto a city constructed largely of wood and paper. A hundred thousand people died that night; sixteen square miles of urban landscape became ash. As a single event, the attack was more deadly than those on Dresden, Hiroshima or Nagasaki. And yet Tokyo is rarely–if ever–mentioned in the same breath.
This lack of note both astounded and intrigued me. To be honest, it also shamed me slightly. Not just because it was my nation that carried out this singularly ruthless act (along with the firebombings of 66 other Japanese cities). But because as someone who had studied Japanese language, history and culture for over a decade, it simply seemed like something I should have known about.
And yet, like most people, I did not. I knew Tokyo–in fact, I’d lived there for three years. But I knew it in a purely postwar sense: as a place of dynamic cuisine and seething urban culture; of whimsical fashion and groundbreaking architecture and fascinating contrasts and clashes. It’s wartime history was another subject completely. Unlike in, say, Hiroshima—where the nuclear bombing still largely defines that city’s identity—the wartime devastation of Tokyo went almost completely unmentioned; both by the books I read and the people with whom I spoke. Certainly, there was no sign of it in the city itself, which had grown up utterly anew from its postwar ashes.
It was this seemingly empty space—the “unmarked grave” of firebombed Tokyo–that prompted me, one March morning in 2009, to begin researching the event, with the idea of writing about it from a young girl’s perspective. But as I jotted down facts and figures and quotes, I realized that one perspective wasn’t going to be enough. I wanted to delve into all the attack’s repercussions, both devastating and redemptive; to explore how war’s worst horrors bring out the worst and the best on both sides of the battleline, from its planners and executors to its victims and survivors. To, as D.H. Lawrence once said, “track it home.”
Needless to say it was a daunting and (at times) grueling track, and one that took me places I’d never imagined: to Japan’s ill-fated colonial settlements in Northern China, and the propaganda-fed patriotism in “the Homeland.” Into the freezing cockpits of America’s bomber pilots, and the sleepless beds of their wives waiting for news. Into the conflicted psyche of an architect in love with a forbidden woman and her city, and the guilt-wracked mind of a Occupation officer whose own life feels as destroyed as the metropolis he’s been sent to rebuild. And of course, the ways that these lives and events would shape the future of Yoshi Kobayashi, the young girl who remained at my novel’s heart and was (in many ways) its moral compass. It was through Yoshi that I truly sought to understand, not only the firebombing itself, but the way war itself impacts the lives of people on both of its sides.
The result was The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, which may or may not have succeeded in its task. That is, as always, up to the reader. For my own part, though, I’ve at least partially filled in that empty space in history for myself—if only by a few hundred pages.