Awareness of the atomic bombing of Japan and the firebombing of Japan in popular histories—histories held by the public itself—vary largely based on both the myths of public histories (histories produced by state agencies) and the public's reception of these. While the public of Japan is a peculiar exception, generally, the publics of the world have been more interested in the atomic bombings for reasons explored below.
To dismiss the public of Japan, they are very aware of the firebombing of Japan, and it plays a role in the imaginary nation's role as the victim of horrific suffering that exculpates the Japanese population from responsibility for war crimes. In Japan, the role of the vast and immense suffering of Japanese people from aerial bombardment, either conventionally, by firestorm, or by atomic bombing, is used to preserve a right with nationalist narrative and to separate the Japanese civilian population from the Japanese war-time government. Counter-myths also exist, for example, Barefoot Gen makes it clear that the military Junta and Emperor were responsible for making the Japanese civilian population a target by extending the war beyond feasibility. Barefoot Gen also makes it clear that the large Korean population in Japan were doubly victims of this era, being both ethno-racially persecuted and also the civilian victims of the aerial bombardment of Japan. Japan aside, let us explore two other popular histories, the US popular history, and the global popular history.
First, the global popular history is far more interested in the role of the atomic bombardment of Japan because of the immanent threat of the atomic or thermo-nuclear bombardment of civil populations after 1945. While states maintained their capacity for abhorrent aerial bombardment by fire or conventional means—the US bombardments of the DPRK; and DRVN, Laos and Cambodia being both masterpieces of aerial bombardment and horrific war-crimes—it was the atom bomb in general that animated the global civil population. The atom bomb played a unique role in state ideology at the time. It was the defender of Socialism or Democracy. It could destroy entire cities with one bomb. The horrors of surviving atomic bombardment were considered unique, and portrayed as such. The threat of atomic bombardment was the form in which war as terror manifested itself in the imagination of the global population. This is despite, for example, the successful dehousing and deindustrialisation of the DPRK during the Korean war. The Atom Bomb played a unique role in the fear of populations, and so the atomic bombardment of Japan played a unique role in the history of the war. The bomb ended the war. The bomb meant the next war would end all wars. Such a narrative was greatly important in US public and popular history.
US public history, the state history of museums, educational films, and textbooks, focused on the role of the atom bomb in ending the war on Japan for a number of reasons. The atom bomb was seen as "clean." It is alleged that atomic bombardment "saved millions of GI and Japanese lives." This is regardless of whether US policy makers decided to invade Japan or systematically starve by blockade and aerially bombard Japan in a great siege. The "atom bomb ended the war" conveniently removes Japanese volition, the idea that Japan's state had eventually had enough and surrendered. It also removes Soviet involvement in Manchuria, threatening and terrifying the Japanese Army with its focus on China and anti-communism. The Atom Bomb ending the war reduces the role of the United States ostensible rivals and enemies in ending the war. The Atom Bomb ending the war reduces the role of the US as a potential or actual war criminal. The Atom Bomb ending the war distracts from the continuous and horrific aerial bombardment by other means than atomic, which was not argued successfully to be a war crime in the European war crimes trials, but has become an element of the law of war against the wanton destruction of civilian targets.[footnote 1] The relative glut of attention paid to two relatively small bombardments, which killed relatively few people, is greatly convenient for the US state and the population of the United States. It cleans the hands of the United States, it reduces the power of its enemies and rivals, and it focuses on a narrative of US power intelligence and ingenuity in producing a new method of war.
For these reasons, the aerial bombardment by fire, conventional bombs, the US blockade of Japan, the Soviet invasion of central Japanese territory on the mainland, and the role of fatigue within the Japanese war-government itself are ignored in favour of a nice clean story about a new kind of horrific bomb.
Readers should be assured that while I deem the US government to have been war criminals for their actions, I am very happy to deem any government so, all governments that meet those simple criteria.
1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aerial_bombardment_and_international_law (I thank Andrew Grimm for correcting me on this error)