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 Raids.org 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.”