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Drawing on the Past

John LaDue

Sep. 2, 2015

On September 2, 1945, Japan surrendered to the allied forces at a ceremony in Tokyo Bay, officially closing World War 2. Officials from the United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and China observed the signing of the instrument of surrender aboard the USS Missouri.

During the war, Japan had been battered to ruins. What happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is well known. What is less known is that as Japan fought to the bitter end, the United States military changed strategy and began bombing indiscriminately.

One artist spent his life depicting the suffering caused by the air raids. Teruo Kanoh uses the tools of an artist to teach history. After being unable to find a home for his art, a helping hand came from an unlikely source.

Several of Kanoh’s paintings show people running through the flames. Kanoh was one of them. The sight of victims being burned alive is permanently etched in his memory. “Huge planes kept dropping bombs on us one after another,” he recalls. “It was like seeing a nightmare. I was beyond terrified.”

Kanoh was 14 at the time. He lost everything, including his home, his two younger sisters, and his parents. As the war intensified, US bombers began targeting cities to try to hasten the end of the war. A total of 66 cities across Japan were burned to the ground, killing over 400,000 people. Tokyo was the hardest hit, with over 100,000 dying on a single day.

After the war, Kano was unable to attend art school and so taught himself. His wanted to relate the horrors of his experience in the Tokyo Air Raids to others.

Over the years, Kanoh has visited schools across Japan, displaying paintings to tell his story. Many students have written to him afterwards. One message from a 10-year old boy reads “when I saw your paintings, I decided I never want to go to war, because terrible things happen.”

Now 84, Kano is no longer healthy enough to speak at schools. Some of his paintings are displayed in galleries, but most have been gathering dust in his home. A lack of funds dashed his hopes for a peace memorial to display his work.

A solution came from an unexpected source. An American novelist who had been researching the air raids stepped in to help. Like everyone, Bret Fisk was familiar with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but he knew very little about the air raids. “There were fires everywhere,” he says. “It wasn’t instantaneous death. There were people running around in utter chaos. There are things that just brought tears to my eyes. And there are horrific stories that you just can’t forget."

After hearing about Kanoh's life and seeing his paintings, Fisk felt an obligation to preserve the works. He was not in a position to finance a museum, but he was able to build something that would reach an even wider audience: a website. He took photos of the paintings and then uploaded them to the site to create a virtual museum, viewable from anywhere in the world.

The website also includes interviews with Kanoh and other survivors, in both Japanese and English. Fisk set out to relate the stories of those on the receiving end of the bombs, to prevent the events from being obscured by politics. “This is just information we wanted to put out,” Frisk says. “Everybody can read it and analyze it and reach their own conclusions. Whatever conclusion they come to, we want it to be based on fact, not just this side, and not just this side, but we wanted the whole thing to be accessible.”

Kanoh is grateful for Fisk's collaboration and he doesn't blame anyone for his losses, not even the American military. The blame, he believes, is properly laid on war itself. “Recollections of the war are beginning to fade,” he says. “Some people are even giving mistaken views of historical accounts. That's why it's as important as ever to pass on the facts and the truth about what really happened.”


NHK World's John LaDue joins Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio to further discuss the topic.

Beppu: John, the World War Two air raids are a big part of Japanese people's memories and education. Why don't many people abroad know much, if anything, about these events?

LaDue: That’s true. Students in Japan learn a lot about the air raids in school, but people outside the country largely don't know about it. Fisk says that's mostly because there are very few Japanese documents and accounts translated into English. That's exactly why his website japanairraids.org is such an important project. People can see Kanoh's paintings in the online museum, and hear him talking about his experiences. There are also air raid timelines from the war, and historical footage.

Shibuya: The website is a good way to share this dark chapter of history. Because of these air raids, countless civilians lost their lives. Why was that allowed to happen?

LaDue: At the beginning of the war, the United States' armed forces targeted military facilities, but near the end they changed strategy and hit cities. And it wasn't only the US. The UK, Germany and Japan also indiscriminately bombed civilians. I spoke with Professor Yanagihara of Tokai University who has spent his career researching World War Two air raids. He says that when Japan launched an air attack on China in the 1930s, the US criticized Japan for targeting civilians, but later ended up doing the same thing. Here’s what he had to say.


Yanagihara: They changed their strategy and began targeting cities because at the time a large number of US pilots were losing their lives. These pilots were being shot down by Japan, of course, they had families, and this changed public opinion...the fatalities should be on the enemy's side, not the US. The US changed the way they went about air raids due to this shift in mentality. I think it's interesting and important to see Kanoh's art in the internet museum.


Beppu: The US still conducts air raids today. When its military leaders decide against sending in ground troops, it's considered a clean war because American lives are spared, and they claim they are pinpointing the target. But there are many reports of significant civilian casualties.

LaDue: Kanoh and Fisk feel strongly about conveying the reality of the victims of these air raids that took place during World War Two, and that will give us a perspective on current events.