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Marking Time: No Sound of Planes

Emma Connolly

Emma Connolly

Emma lives in England. Ace the dog keeps her feet and heart warm while she writes about music and culture.
Emma Connolly

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What is courage, resilience, faith? Who is enemy, family, fighter?

The answers to these questions are fundamental to our geographical, religious and cultural identities. Often the answers are straightforward. But even the most strongly held assumptions and beliefs can be challenged, and once confounded, the new truths that emerge are often as valuable as they are complex.

On September 2nd, The Chronopages marked 70 years since Japan signed the Instrument of Surrender, formally ending World War II. In the summer of 2015, I began some research with the idea of a short, factual piece that would simply detail the events and statistics of the U.S. Superfortress bombing campaign in Japan and its particular impact upon the town of Toyama, where I had once lived. Hoping to source some photographs and local government reports, I contacted my friend Masami Ueno, an employee of Toyama City Hall. When she replied it was with something altogether different and more fascinating. Masami had been in contact with a local journalist and author, Setsuko Horie, who in 2011 wrote a book, ‘The Woman Missionary who became Japanese’ (堀江節子『日本人になった婦人宣教師』桂書房). Horie-san was generous with her time and resources and soon I was poring over photocopies of a lengthy typed document, faded with age, which recounted events surrounding the night of August 1st 1945 in Toyama City.

Japanese print of Admiral Perry (center) and other high-ranking American seamen

Japanese print of Admiral Perry (center) and other high-ranking American seamen | Public domain

In 1853 Commodore Perry’s squadron had appeared in Tokyo Bay, ending a period of isolation and opening interactions between Japan and the West. In 1873, the Emperor Meiji began a series of reforms, including the removal of edicts that had forbidden the preaching of Christianity. Missionary groups immediately began to extend their efforts to Japan, and opportunities arose for ambitious single women who wanted to pursue professional careers rather than Victorian domesticity. In 1881, the Woman’s Missionary Society (WMS) of the Methodist Church of Canada was formed, with the immediate aim of sending a woman missionary to Japan. In 1882 the first WMS overseas missionary, departed for Tokyo. Within two years, the WMS ran a boarding school for girls that counted the daughters of important public officials, military officers and a prime minister among its early students. By 1896 there were fifteen WMS missionaries in Japan, and the society had expanded its operations to Kanazawa city, on the west coast.

Despite this apparent success, the missionaries faced challenges ranging from unfamiliar cuisine to the lack of western-style clothing, to active hostility and opposition from the local population and religious leaders. A number suffered from a range of health difficulties including what would probably today be called severe culture shock, and stress-related illnesses due to the demands of their work. In 1912 one missionary in Kanazawa wrote:

Buddhist opposition is still very intense. The west coast is the source of income of the great Honganji temples in Kyoto and when this part of Japan becomes Christianized these temples can no longer exist. Therefore it will still require long years of earnest prayer, patient work and unwavering faith ere we see the victory of the cross of Christ over the empty formalism, the undisguised vulgarity and the deteriorating superstition of this Shinshu sect of Buddhism which has so long held undisputed sway.

The author of this account was Margaret Elizabeth Armstrong, a 35 year old from Ontario. She had been working in Japan as a missionary with the WMS for nearly a decade, first in Nagano, then Kanazawa, and since 1909 working part-time in Toyama city, a little over 40 miles away. In 1911 a house was purchased in Toyama by the WMS and Margaret Armstrong had moved there permanently.

I arrived in Toyama nearly a century after Margaret Armstrong, and I left a dozen years ago, but as I sit at my laptop in England the strong threads that run through the fabric of time are nearly tangible. So many experiences must be recognisable across those ten decades. The monsoon season, with rain and wind pummelling the city. Hanami – when the cherry trees blossom, and the paths by the Matsu river burst into delicate and transient beauty. The unmistakable sweet sharp taste of sakura-mochi – rice balls wrapped in pickled cherry leaves. Cold soba noodles in summer. Snow, creeping steadily down from the Tateyama mountain range to lie two or three feet deep, while persimmons and satsumas ripen and glow in sunny defiance. The subtle scent of a tatami matted room. Flooded rice fields reflecting the sunset, creating a blaze of colour across sky and land.


Today, Toyama is a modern city, linked by Shinkansen to Tokyo. The city is thriving and forward-looking, but it remains rooted in tradition. A new cultural complex opened in August 2015, looking as futuristic as one might imagine, but built from local timber and using the stone, aluminium and glass of the region. Traditional festivals, foods and crafts are maintained. The city centre is undergoing regeneration; in the twentieth century it could never have been described as beautiful; a mass of stocky, blocky concrete buildings. In this regard, Margaret Armstrong’s memories of the city would have differed greatly. Workshops and shops open to the streets. Grand samurai houses enclosed behind high walls, creating narrow pathways. A multitude of sloping roofs and lanterns. None of this remained in the Toyama I knew.

Margaret Armstrong oversaw the building and opening of a kindergarten. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, she stayed in Toyama. In 1940 she retired, and still she stayed, taking the unusual step of becoming a naturalized Japanese citizen. Just before the end of 1941, Japan launched an attack on the United States military base of Pearl Harbor and in doing so entered the Second World War against the U.S.A. and her allies – including Canada. With the outbreak of war, almost all Westerners rapidly left Japan, but Margaret Armstrong remained.

What is courage, resilience, faith? Who is enemy, family, fighter?

Not only did Margaret Armstrong believe strongly in her purpose as a missionary in Japan, she had grown to love the natural environment and people of Toyama. She published a book about the birds of the region, and her passion for nature became a foundation of the Kindergarten’s ethos. She had friendships with the Japanese women who taught at the Kindergarten, in particular Yayoi Ichikawa, who became Principal after Margaret.


The outbreak of war brought immediate changes. As Christians, both Margaret and Yayoi were under constant surveillance from the special police. The missionary aspect of the kindergarten was restricted and they were forced to take in younger children so that their mothers could take part in the war effort. Already under economic sanctions, conditions in Japan grew increasingly difficult as the war progressed. By 1944, Margaret recalled,

Soap and the very necessary paper, always in use for handkerchiefs and all sorts of things, were not to be had. Some people washed their clothing in ashes; others used egg-shells, when there were any… Our neighbourhood groups notified one another of ration of vegetables or occasional fish, and stood in line to buy at last a quarter of a cabbage, or half a cucumber, or a bunch of half-withered greens of some unknown sort. The well-known onion, potato, carrot, squash, tomato, all seemed to have disappeared completely from the market, as had everything in the way of fruit. Clothing, umbrellas, foot-wear, all were mere memories.

These hard times were to grow worse. A month before her 68th birthday, on 9th March 1945, United States Superfortresses bombed Tokyo with awesome efficiency. Cluster bombs released M-69 napalm incendiary bomblets which could penetrate buildings, igniting 3-5 seconds after impact. M-47 incendiaries were also dropped; these were a mixture of jelled-gasoline and white phosphorus that ignited instantly. The exact number of casualties will never be known, but it is likely that over 100,000 Japanese lost their lives that night.

While Superfortresses flew over Tokyo, Toyama city was held in the grasp of a particularly harsh winter with snow lying at depths of nine feet. As the season turned, the melting snow was joined by torrential rain, and it became clear that every Japanese city was a potential target.

We lived in semi-darkness, with black paper curtains on all windows and our dim electric lights covered with black paper shades, turned off by half past eight. There were frequent neighbourhood meetings where minute directions were given in the art of extinguishing incendiary bombs, and there were frequent practices in so doing. There were tubs and tanks and vats of water in front of every gate or house, and sandbags piled up in every entrance.

These preparations and precautions would soon be tested and fully revealed in their pathetic inadequacy. At 9:00 p.m. on 1st August the air raid siren sounded. Planes could be heard passing overhead but then they seemed to move away, and the all-clear was sounded. Margaret Armstrong, Yayoi Ichikawa, the school janitress and her young son were gathered together in the Mission House. They sang hymns of thanksgiving as it seemed that the danger was over, for one more night at least. Their relief was not to last long, as suddenly the sirens began again. Radio reports announced that a large number of planes were moving towards Toyama. The janitress and her son, Hiroshi, took shelter, but Margaret and Yayoi stayed in the living room, looking out of the window. All was silent.

Toyama city before the air raid

Toyama city before the air raid | National Archives, USA

There was as yet no sound of planes. They were muffled, but we did not know that, at the time. All at once the darkness became one vast glare and the stillness was rent by the horrible din of falling bombs, cracking and hissing all over and about us. Ichikawa San called to me that we must run quick. I replied that now was the time to put into practice that extinguishing of bombs, following the instructions so often received, and that we must protect the place. But she came to me and seizing me by the hand fairly dragged me out. If I would not go, she declared she, too, would stay and we should both be killed.

The two women found the city already ablaze, and many routes cut off by flames.

We ran under a hail storm of bombs, dropping all about us, making it necessary to drop to the ground several times … on we went on dropping flat on our faces in the dust, or again running, creeping, crawling.

[Ichikawa San] was carrying a thick quilt, which she wet from time to time in the water vats or tubs along the way before people’s houses, where she also replenished the water in her bucket, and frequently when we managed to get together, either running or crouching or lying flat, she would throw a bucketful of water over me and another over herself. The heat and smoke became intense and unsufferable respectively. We kept wet towels in our mouths. Numbers were suffocated by the smoke alone. The city was one blaze.

They pushed on toward the Jinzu River which ran along the edge of the city:

We lay on the slope of the embankment, our hands grasping some roots of weeds, with Ichikawa San’s wet quilt on our backs, and her bucket and dipper keeping it wet, our faces buried in the dirt and wet towels in our mouths. Bombs cracked and shrieked overhead, each one seeming about to burst on top of us. It was an inferno in very truth. Ichikawa san and I were both praying. It seemed impossible to avoid being killed.

Above it sounded as if all the hounds of hell had been let loose, and were bent on the destruction of thousands of innocent people, people who hated war and longed for peace as much as, or even more than, if possible, the people of America.

At last it was over, after what seemed a lifetime of indescribable terror. It was close on three o’clock in the morning. A chill wind was left behind as the death dealing planes lifted their wings…

The morning was to bring fresh horror:

The City was still a blazing furnace, and the smoke arose from it as if from a great altar whereon were offered innumerable human sacrifices, the homes of the citizens the wood for the fire for the burnt offering. In the gray light of dawn the continuous procession of soldiers carrying litters along the top of the embankment looked like a procession of ghosts.

It was a desolate scene. No hospitals, no schools, no churches, no kindergartens, no dwellings, no temples, no shrines.

Toyama city during the air raid

Toyama city during the air raid | National Archives, USA

What is courage, resilience, faith? Who is enemy, family, fighter?

On that night of August 1st, 836 B-29 Superfortresses had staged the largest single raid of World War II. 6,145 tons of bombs and mines had been dropped, targeting the cities of Hachioji, Mito, Nagaoka and Toyama. The first three cities suffered extensive damage, but 99.5 percent of buildings in Toyama were destroyed. To all intents and purposes, the city had been obliterated.

With the rising heat of the day, Margaret and Yayoi trekked out into the countryside, to take shelter with friends. After a restless night, finally dawn broke.

We looked out on a panorama seldom to be surpassed for beauty. The grandeur of the Tata Mountain Range silhouetted against a sky of pale rose. In the foreground the fields of rice green and fair undulated gently like the waves of the sea in the morning zephyrs. Swallows twittered tunefully, flitting over the rice fields.

This was in stark contrast to what awaited on their return to Toyama city. The mission house had been destroyed.

At the gate of the house next door lay the blackened corpse of a young woman, and at the next neighbours to that the body of a mother holding her baby in her arms even in death… One wealthy house in Toyama was said to be absolutely raid proof as a large tank of ever-flowing water covered the roof, but there is nothing left of it except a pile of ruins and the family of eight buried beneath them.

As the people of Toyama gathered the small remnants of their lives together, the United States was preparing a raid on Hiroshima for the 6th August. Margaret recounted the events that followed with evident anger, the evangelical zeal of her writing undimmed since her account of the Buddhism in Toyama in 1912, but aimed in an altogether different direction.

The enemy made use of the inhuman ‘genshi Energy’ at eight a.m. when they could focus their mirror on the sun. One such bomb would have sufficed to destroy five square miles at once, but four were used and many miles laid waste.
Are these countries, say people, “Which sent missionaries to us to tell us about Jesus and His gospel of love and brotherhood?” The cruelties of this awful war have brought to naught the long years of earnest evangelism. May the Occident be let to look up at the cross of Christ and in its light to repent of race hatred, suspicion, greed, pride and arrogance as well as idolatry upon which not only the stars but God himself and our Saviour Jesus Christ look down with untold sorrow.

What is courage, resilience, faith? Who is enemy, family, fighter?

After the Emperor announced surrender on August 15th, American troops began to arrive in Japan as Occupation began. “Japan has become a subject nation. It is the greatest blow our national pride has ever sustained”, wrote Margaret Armstrong. However, appointed as a point of contact for the forces, she formed acquaintances with some of the military and remained in friendly contact with them even after they left Japan.

In the Autumn of 1947 the Japanese Emperor, no longer a deemed a god, was touring throughout the country. In Toyama, he met teachers whose schools had been destroyed by the raid. Margaret Armstrong described in a letter to an American serviceman’s wife how she met the Emperor, who spoke directly to her, saying, “Thank you. Please continue to work for the education of Japanese children from now on.” Indeed, by that time, Margaret Armstrong was already raising funds for the rebuilding of the kindergarten. Her sense of purpose and mission remained undimmed. Her identity had changed fundamentally.

What is courage, resilience, faith? Who is enemy, family, fighter?

Every year on August 1st, Toyama city remembers the devastation of the 1945 air raid. There are fireworks, and people gather together in the city centre.

August 1, 2015 in Toyama City

August 1, 2015 in Toyama City | Credit: Nanako Ueda , Yuya Ueda

Every year on the same day a small group of teachers from the oldest Kindergarten in Toyama go to Kureha, on the outskirts of Toyama City. There they sing hymns and clean a grave.

Margaret Armstrong died in Toyama on January 18th 1960, at the age of 82, and is buried in Kureha cemetery.

The current Principal of the Kindergarten is Nozomi Okuhara, whose mother worked with Margaret Armstrong. Okuhara-san continues the work begun over a century ago, and says that the Kindergarten “strives to foster friendly children, rich in humanity… to love birds, to love the rich nature of Toyama. In taking over from Armstrong-sensei, who was loved by the people of Toyama, we did not change much. We want to aim for the development of children that are loved by God and man.”

Setsuke Horie, author and journalist who first researched the story of Margaret Armstrong to commemorate the centenary of the Kindergarten, tells The Chronopages that she found inspiration in the story: “Do not despair ever; live with hope along with the people around us.” Horie-san is currently researching the issues of sexual slavery including the highly controversial topic of “comfort women” victims of the Japanese military in the Second World War.

Strong women still undertake important work in Toyama.

On a bookshelf in my home sits a small plaque, given to me by the Toyama Prefectural Government in 2003, along with the title of ‘Honorary Toyama Friendly Envoy’. The intent was for foreigners who had taken part in the local community to continue to forge connections with Toyama after their return to their home country. For over a decade I have occasionally looked at that plaque and wondered how I could do such a thing. Between the lives of different women, across time and geography, I finally found a way.


  • The Chronopages gratefully acknowledges the research, photography, time and information given by Ueno Masami, Horie Setsuke, Okuhara Nozomi, Ueda Yuya and Ueda Nanako towards the creation of this article.
  • Toyama Prefectural Tourism Association
  • Amazing Toyama