New map shines light on Tokyo air raid horrors

Scholars record wartime history politicians would rather forget


Staff Writer

In an attempt to preserve people’s fading memories of the World War II air raids on Tokyo, scholars and citizens have drawn up what is considered the most comprehensive map so far of their efforts to escape from U.S. bombs.

In the largest air raid, the Operation Meetinghouse firebombing on March 10, 1945, an estimated 100,000 Tokyo residents, mostly civilians, were killed in a single night.

By connecting dots linking people’s addresses with the places where they died, the map at the Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage in Koto Ward shows the directions in which they presumably tried to flee.

“We had much information from the oral history but few data offered a comprehensive understanding of the air raids,” said Tadahito Yamamoto, a lecturer at Tokyo’s Seikei University who was involved in the project.

Yamamoto said the map validates the testimony given by many survivors who say that more people died at schools and near bridges.

“We’d like to research on why the raids resulted in such a high number of victims, from the testimony and the map,” he said.

The 2.5-by-2.5-meter map, titled Great Tokyo Air Raids Life of Victims Map, was created based on data about some 10,000 people whose addresses and death locations were recorded in a ledger of victims.

The ledger, compiled by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government after the war, lists details on some 30,000 victims of the raids, including names, addresses, gender, location of death and where they were temporarily buried.

According to the map, 38 percent of the victims were under 19 years old and more than twice as many women between 20 and 29 died than men in that age bracket from the multitude of incendiary bombs.

In 2005, when Tokyo marked the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, museum curators and scholars drew up a similar map focused only on those killed by the catastrophic March 10 firebombing in the Shitamachi area, comprising modern-day Koto, Taito and Sumida wards, which had the highest death tolls.

The Life of Victims Map is the most comprehensive effort to visualize the overall effect of the raids because it includes those killed by raids other than Operation Meetinghouse. Over 100 air raids were carried out on the capital after November 1944.

The U.S. military allegedly targeted the densely populated area because it was home to many small factories that supplied the Imperial Japanese Army.

Operation Meetinghouse, the deadliest air raid of the war, was an extension of the indiscriminate bombing of civilians Japan had conducted on Shanghai and Chongqing in the second Sino-Japanese War in the late 1930s.

It also killed more people than the devastating bombing of Dresden, Germany, by the U.S. Air Force and British Royal Air Force.

U.S. forces went on to conduct air raids on 66 Japanese cities in the final months the war. Over a 10-day period beginning on March 9, 1945, the strikes destroyed 40 percent of those 66 cities, according to scholar Mark Seldon’s research paper “Bombs Bursting in Air: State and Citizen Responses to the U.S. Firebombing and Atomic Bombing of Japan.”

Yet the central government has conducted little research on the air raids, even the ones on Tokyo, despite their gravity.

“In a sense, over-concentration on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has overshadowed the dozens of cities attacked by firebombing,” said Cary Karacas, assistant professor of geography at the College of Staten Island, who with author Bret Fisk launched the bilingual historical archive Japan Air in 2010.

It was not until 1970 that the impact of the Tokyo air raids would begin to be scrutinized by a citizens’ group led by Katsumoto Saotome, director of the Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage, with the support of then-Tokyo Gov. Ryokichi Minobe.

“The central government didn’t want to recognize the fact that much damage was caused in Japan’s capital city, Tokyo, and they did not want to compensate non-military Japanese people who suffered from the bombing,” said the 81-year-old Saotome, who was 12 when the bombs began dropping.

“I was most agog when the government decorated Lemay with the Grand Cordon Order of the Rising Sun in 1964,” he said, referring to Gen. Curtis LeMay, the architect of Operation Meetinghouse who commanded the fleet of 334 B-29 “Superfortress” bombers that set Tokyo ablaze.

Saotome is alarmed that many junior high school students nowadays do not even know about the Tokyo air raids or about how Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to reinterpret war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution to allow Japan to come to the aid of allies under armed attack.

“Japanese democracy is on the edge and Japan is facing a very dangerous time,” said Saotome. “Those who were born after the war don’t understand what wars can do.”

  • Max Erimo

    Having read this article I found nothing surprising in it at all.

    As Mr. Katsumoto Saotome noted most junior high scholl students in Japan have no idea that Tokyo was so devastated by bombings during World War II.
    The reason is that the focus is on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is no balance in the curriculum pushed at schools. By this I mean that the education system portrays Japan as the helpless victim.
    We in Australia however, studied the war in more depth. We learnt about how the atomic bomb was concieved, the moral implications of using such a bomb on the civilian population etc. We were encouraged to debate the issue, from both sides.
    Japan however only pushes its victimisation. Teach about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, the Burma Railway, Japan’s bombing of Darwin, which virtually destroyed the city with the majority of victims being civilians not involved in the war. Sounds alot like what happened to Japan, doesn’t it.
    I in no way condone the use of the atomic bomb, and can sympathise with Japan to a point, but Japan did cruel and atrocious things during the war that deserve to be talked about as well. When I tell my students about the things that the Japanese army did during the war the are shocked, because they are lead to believe that Japan was only the victim.
    Trust in the younger generation. They have bigger hearts and minds than the older people who rule the sway now.
    Face up to the past and give the young a chance of an unblighted future, by letting them know what baggae the history of their country contains.

    • Gordon Graham

      So, bombing civilians in Japan is something to be debated from both sides while what Japan did in the war amounts to cruel and atrocious things. How about we debate the merits of bombing Darwin?

      • Max Erimo

        Obviously my English skills have deteriorated while living in Japan. I didn’t mean to imply that there wer merits in bombing Darwin. I don’t think there were.
        However the above comeent aimed at me may just be a case of what has come to be know as “trolling”.

      • Gordon Graham

        What you call trolling I call calling out hypocrisy when I see it. Try this, my fair-minded elucidator of young minds…Tell your students to suppose there is a nation at war with another nation and that one nation has a strategic air raid against its enemy to take out shipping and air capability…In the raid some 250 enemy military and a few citizens are killed in the destruction of two airfields and some 10 key vessels in the harbour. Now, let’s compare that with two nations at war and one nation carries out a raid over a city with no military targets, they use incendiary bombs that are meant specifically to burn people alive which is what they did, 150,000 men, women and children incinerated in a single raid. Now, students which of these two incidents do you feel is more heinous and deserves to be called a war crime?…Go ahead, Max, give it a shot. Trust the younger generation. Let me know what they conclude

  • topes78

    It is definitely worth discussing the bombings and the merits or lack thereof, but I have to wonder how many of these junior high students are actually aware of the atrocities committed by the Japanese during WWII? How many are aware of the estimated 3 to 10 million that were murdered, or of the other horrible acts committed? These are not secrets anymore. This is not to say that Japan was the only country that committed horrible acts… it was a war, and there is nothing nice about it at all, but before we start talking about victims it is important to be sure we are also aware of the other victims too, and not glaze over the hell they went through also… but just my opinion.

    • Gordon Graham

      Yeah, let’s discuss the “merits” of obliterating two Japanese cities and incinerating another while discussing the atrocities Japan committed in the war…Then we can hear YOUR opinion