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Tokyo firebombing and unfinished U.S. business

by Jeff Kingston

Last week in this column, I suggested that Caroline Kennedy, the American ambassador to Japan, would be well advised to get the ball rolling on U.S. apologies for past misdeeds.

The anniversary of the Tokyo firebombing provides an opportunity to do so.

On the night of March 9-10, 1945, U.S. warplanes dropped incendiary bombs on eastern Tokyo, incinerating an estimated 100,000 civilians, injuring a million more and leaving a million homeless.

Leaving aside Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is the single most deadly bombing raid in history — far surpassing the Dresden or Hamburg firestorms in the nightmarish annals of urban infernos, leaving behind a 41-sq.-km swath of smoldering ruins and grimly panoramic vistas where vibrant communities had been suddenly obliterated.

The commander of the firebombing campaign that systematically razed 67 Japanese cities was U.S. Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay. He promoted the switch from conventional bombs to incendiaries and timed the Tokyo raid to coincide with windy weather, knowing the fires would spread more rapidly in the kindling of Tokyo’s wooden housing.

Firefighting capacity was so limited that authorities urged residents to dig their own air-raid shelters, with most being little more than foxholes covered by tatami mats soaked in water. Essentially, they were asking people to dig their own graves.

The firebombing was not solely a matter of damaging Japan’s factories and infrastructure.

This aerial terror was also vengeance, payback for Pearl Harbor and mistreatment of prisoners of war, and was intended to inflict maximum suffering on the populace. The line between military and civilian targets had been crossed well before this by both sides, but never on such a monstrous scale.

This “terror bombing” brought the war no closer to an end, though it did reduce war-related output and force the government to relocate production facilities to remote areas.

However, Japan’s military leaders were undaunted as they persisted in waging a war they knew they could not win. They were prepared to fight to the last dead Japanese civilian and were gambling on a great final battle in the hope that inflicting heavy casualties on invading American troops would improve the terms of surrender.

The Allies’ insistence on unconditional surrender raised worries about what would befall Emperor Hirohito, and military leaders were also mindful that they risked being held accountable for the horrors they inflicted throughout Asia unless they could secure a negotiated peace.

Prolonging the war meant there was a price to be paid and, as in most modern conflicts, civilians paid the highest price. The firebombing campaign left some 5 million people homeless throughout Japan, killing perhaps 500,000 civilians and wounding another 400,000 — excluding the Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims. LeMay also oversaw Operation Starvation, a strategy to mine Japan’s coastal waters and ports from the air, so disrupting shipping and the distribution of food. This supplemented a very effective submarine blockade.

Why are so few Americans aware of this grisly chapter of what U.S. historian John Dower has characterized as a race war waged without mercy?

Perhaps it’s because Allied war crimes were buried by the comforting narrative of the Good War (World War II) fought by the Greatest Generation that persisted long after it was discredited.

And which country, aside from Germany, has taken on board the full measure of its darkest chapters? Here, Japan and the U.S. share some common ground.

The ashes of more than 100,000 air-raid victims are interred at Yokoamicho Park in Sumida Ward, where there is a modest memorial. And in Koto Ward, documents and oral histories have been assembled at a private library/museum — but there is no publicly funded Tokyo Firebombing Museum or state memorial commensurate with the scale of this ghastly event.

In 1990, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government set up a committee to prepare plans for a memorial, but in his recent book “Tokyo Vernacular,” Jordan Sand, a professor at Georgetown University, states that “this was ultimately derailed by politicians on the right and the national bureaucracy.”

According to Sand, the firebombing of Tokyo has been swept under the national tatami mat because many in Japan held the Emperor responsible.

Yet bizarrely enough, on Dec. 7, 1964 — the 23rd anniversary of Pearl Harbor — Emperor Showa awarded LeMay a highly prestigious Order of the Rising Sun, First Class — this, for a man who acknowledged that if the United States had been on the losing side, he would have been tried for war crimes.

Back in 2007, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe published an essay apologizing for Japan’s bombing of Chinese cities and civilians. He also suggested that the Japanese government, knowing defeat was inevitable, should have surrendered sooner, presumably to spare civilians the subsequent horrors inflicted throughout 1945, including the decimation of Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

More recently, in 2013 the Abe Cabinet declared that the Tokyo firebombing violated humanitarian principles of international law, although it was not illegal. Also in 2013, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by plaintiffs who demanded an apology and compensation from the Japanese government for prolonging the war and subjecting them to the conflagration.

I asked three leading historians of Japan for their observations about the Tokyo firebombing.

Sven Saaler at Sophia University explained that the Tokyo blitz “always stood in the shadow of the nuclear bombs. Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened in August and were linked to the end of the war. Since the commemoration of World War II in Japan mostly is related to the end of the war and focused on the first half of August, the Tokyo bombing never played an important role in memory.”

Laura Hein from Northwestern University observed: “One of the things that makes it difficult to discuss indiscriminate firebombing of urban areas full of civilians on both sides of the Pacific is that all major combatants in World War II engaged in that practice. Anyone who wants to highlight the tragedy of one’s own side has to be prepared to acknowledge causing similar tragedy to others.”

She added that “destroying the enemy population’s morale is nearly always the only goal when the target is ordinary homes and small shops — and it very rarely works. It seems that people fight harder after their children or parents or friends die cruelly, rather than simply giving up.”

Yuki Tanaka, a researcher at the Hiroshima Peace Institute at Hiroshima City University — who coedited “Bombing Civilians” (2009) — noted that “the U.S. government has never expressed any sorrow or apology for the firebombings they conducted on Japanese cites. This is quite natural. It is because if they apologize for firebombings, they would have to apologize for the atomic bombings as well.” Indeed.

President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize for an April 2009 speech in Prague where he voiced support for nuclear disarmament. During his upcoming visit here, perhaps he can follow up by making an apology for the atomic bombings — one that many Japanese have been waiting a long time to hear.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • GBR48

    Many in the West would readily agree that the wilful slaughter of civilians that took place in the Tokyo firebombings and in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic blasts, are as much war crimes as the programme of enforced sexual slavery perpetrated by the Japanese military, the Rape of Nanking, the German blitz, the Allies’ bombing of Dresden or the Holocaust itself.

    In the case of the indiscriminate attacks upon Japanese civilians, to be blunt, the Americans were on the winning side, so they got away with it.

    Wars are usually started by politicians, enjoyed by military leaders and suffered by everybody else. And everyone goes on suffering afterwards because the politicians and the military leaders simply cannot bring themselves to be honest about their past.

    Given tensions in the area, this dishonesty could well lead to further conflict. Atrocity denial is a truly shameful thing, desecrating the memory of those who have suffered so much. It should stop. It should be replaced by humility and honesty. In Washington, in the Yūshūkan War Museum and in the board room at NHK.

    It would be beneficial for everyone if the politicians, diplomats and figures in the shadows that pull their strings, could behave like mature and responsible adults for long enough to finally cleanse the bitter aftertaste of the wars of the last century, with a candid acceptance of past misdeeds by all of their nations. Young people deserve to grow up free from the prejudices and grudges of the past, reading an honest appraisal of the sins of their own nation and of other nations in their text books, if they are to make a better world than past generations have done.

    Do politicians, diplomats and officials refuse to acknowledge past misdeeds for fear of losing face? Then they are arrant cowards. The victims of past war crimes lost so much more. No nation emerged from the twentieth century innocent and smelling of roses. Be honest and make a peaceful general settlement. All else is shame and failure.

  • Andy

    “Perhaps it’s because Allied war crimes were buried by the comforting
    narrative of the Good War (World War II) fought by the Greatest
    Generation that persisted long after it was discredited.”

    It was the right war to fight and the good war. Some people don’t seem to recognize the operative war in all this WAR!!!! War is not humane and it never has been it is people killing other people.

    While the firebombing was bad there is no argument about that, yet all the other countries engaged in similar behavior on varying scales and would have done the same in the others position. Yet some special guilt is to be set aside?

    I think the primary there should be a thankfulness that it was not necessary to obtain a surrender from an invasion. If that were the case many more would have died. They are still using the purple hearts for U.S. service men that they minted for the impending invasion of Japan. Which is nothing to say of the Japanese, Russian, British, Chinese and French casualties that would have occurred. An agreement had also been with the Russians in exchange for help with an invasion how about if there had been 45 years of an East and West Japan like in Germany that sounds rather fetching it turned out so well for them.

    Yes the bombing was bad and I don’t agree with some of the things that happened but take a second before claiming it wasn’t the good war and the right war to fight because it was. And the people who fought it good people thrown into the maelstrom of war sometimes doing barbaric things but that is often the outcome of war and no one is above it.

    • disqus_Gvs3G32z1K

      Precisely. In what war have innocent people not been killed? The film Grave of the Fireflies perfectly illustrates the affect the war had on Japan’s general populace and how the government completely failed to protect them.

    • Steve Novosel

      There’s no such thing as a “good war”. All war is bad – perhaps necessary at times, but never good. War should be avoided if any other possible method of conflict resolution is an option, and if war cannot be avoided it should never be celebrated.

      Defending the wholesale slaughter of civilians as anything other than awful is quite repugnant to me, especially when it is the chosen course of action merely because it is expedient.

  • Tando

    Curtis Le May was the mastermind of strategic bombing. The strategy behind it was to kill as many people as possible, often in several waves of attacks, with the first wave droping incendiary bombs and then attack the fleeing hordes.
    To quote Le May: “There are no innocent civilians. It is their government and you are
    fighting a people, you are not trying to fight an armed force anymore.
    So it doesn’t bother me so much to be killing the so-called innocent
    bystanders.”
    It shows a mindset of dehumanising the enemy often found in Amercan warfare. Todays drone attacks prove that this way of thinking is very much alife.
    While Japan could be branded as the aggressors, Vietnam defended itself first against the French and then the US. But just the same, by declaring every Vietnamese a comunist and therefore evil, the civil population became the target of heavy carpet bombings. It was called “War of atrition”, what an ugly euphemism. Quote Le May: “We should bomb Vietnam to the stone age”.

  • Hans Rutzigen

    Why didn’t the writer ask historians in China, Australia, or the Phillipines, countries where civilians were killed by Japanese aerial bombardment, for their view of the bombing of Tokyo?

    • Steve Novosel

      It’s not relevant, that’s why.

      • Lee Cowan

        Of course the atrocities Japan had perpetrated in China are relevant. While the Americans are still responsible for their own misdeeds, there is a higher principle that: we are all brought into judgement ‘according to what we have done’ and there can be no sweeping aside of what was done and witnessed by many in Nanking: en.m.wikipedi.org/wiki/Nanking_Massacre

  • Geoff Botting

    Part of the Allies’ strategy – which people today don’t seem to realize — was to bring the war to the countries that started it. Until the bombings, the Japanese public, living on their island, saw the war as something distant, taking place overseas, and were enthusiastic supporters of it.
    After WW1, Germany was able and willing to launch a second war, a “sequel,” largely because Germany was left intact after WW1, as the fighting took place outside its borders (like Japan until the aerial bombings). The Allies were intent that something similar wouldn’t occur post WW2. The strategy succeeded. Upon surrender, Imperial Japan died a quick death, just as National Socialism did in Germany.
    If Japan’s institutions and infrastructure left intact and the Americans had settled for a negotiated peace, Japan’s post WW2 could easily have been shambles and a strategic threat of the highest order….post WW1 Germany all over again. .