In the early hours of March 10, 1945, some 300 B-29 heavy bombers of the U.S. Army Air Force dropped roughly 1,700 tons of incendiary bombs on the eastern half of Tokyo, killing an estimated 100,000 Tokyoites. The raging fires caused by the bombs, including napalm bombs, made about 1 million people homeless.
The Great Tokyo Air Raid should not be blotted out of people’s memory as it was a cruel wartime act that testifies to the great suffering the Pacific War brought to Japanese civilians, along with the Battle of Okinawa and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The air raid, code-named the Operation Meetinghouse, represented a turning point in the United States’ approach to air raids on Japanese cities. Until then, the U.S. employed high-altitude precision bombing, mainly targeting munitions factories with the aim of avoiding civilian casualties as much as possible. But convinced that high-altitude bombings were ineffective, Curtis LeMay, who became commander of the XXI Bomber Command in the Marianas in January 1945, adopted a policy of indiscriminate “low-altitude” bombings against Japan’s urban areas. He thought that since Japan didn’t have many anti-aircraft guns, flying at low altitude would not result in great losses of U.S. bombers. In addition, low-altitude flights consumed less fuel than high-altitude flights, thereby allowing bombers to carry more bombs. LeMay thought that since most buildings in Japan, even in urban areas, were made of “wood and paper,” using incendiary bombs would be effective. To increase the air raid’s effectiveness, the March 10 air raid was carried out at night. He justified the indiscriminate bombing by noting that many households in Japan’s cities were producing small parts that were used in armaments and should therefore be regarded as weapons factories.
The air raid caused a burning hell. Seasonal wintry winds spread fires over wide areas. Fire tornados formed in many places. Massive numbers of people were burned to death while many others who evacuated to what they thought were safe places, such as air-raid shelters, suffocated. Others were killed or injured when they were directly hit by incendiary bombs. Charred bodies were strewn across many places. A number of spots in the Sumida and other rivers were filled with corpses. Two wards — then called Fukagawa and Honjo wards — were almost completely destroyed by fire. Among the victims were Koreans being used for forced labor in Tokyo.
The air raid, commanded by LeMay, marked the first of the large-scale indiscriminate bombings carried out against Japanese cities, embodying his idea for more effective bombing campaigns. The exact number of casualties of the U.S. bombings against Japan is hard to ascertain.
Statistics from an association of 113 municipalities that suffered air raids during World War II say that a total of 509,734 people were killed in them. The number includes victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for which LeMay was also responsible. Despite his key role in these bombings, the Japanese government decorated LeMay in 1964 for helping to establish Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force.
Air raids, and other military attacks for that matter, are not one-off events. Even after the war was over, the effects of the Great Tokyo Air Raid continued to torment survivors. It had produced large numbers of orphans who went through hard times trying to survive in the postwar years. Many survivors also suffered from disabilities and post-traumatic stress.
Some 130 survivors and bereaved family members filed damages suits against the Japanese government in 2007 and 2008, saying that if Japan had not started the war, the air raid would not have happened. They argued that civilians should be compensated for war damage just as former soldiers were. They especially wanted the state to acknowledge their suffering and to apologize. The Supreme Court rejected the lawsuits in 2013. The lower court rulings stated that all people should equally accept war-related suffering and that the Diet has discretionary power to determine what relief measures to take. While Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Austria have relief measures to cover civilian war victims, Japan does not.
In his booklet “Kushu ni Owareta Higaisha-tachi no Sengo” (The Postwar Years of Victims Driven Away by Air Raids), former Mainichi Shimbun reporter Takeshi Sawada points out that although Japan in February 1942 enacted a law to provide compensation for citizens who suffered from air raids and other war damage, it became difficult to implement the law as the air raids on Japan intensified. The law was abolished in September 1946. He also points out that although opposition lawmakers have proposed similar legislation to the Diet 14 times since 1973, all of them were scrapped.
Time is running out for the surviving victims of war damage. The government should seriously consider legal relief measures. It also should make serious efforts to keep detailed records of the air raids in Japan.
In the lawsuits, the plaintiffs argued that a series of bombings by the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army against Chongqing, the provisional seat of the Kuomintang government of China, and its vicinity from December 1938 to August 1943 was followed by a chain of indiscriminate bombings by all parties in World War II that led to the planning and implementation of the Tokyo air raid by U.S. forces. Tetsuo Maeda, a military affairs commentator, in his book “Senryaku Bakugeki no Shiso” (The Idea of Strategic Bombings) says that 11,889 Chongqing residents were killed in the bombings. Nearly 200 survivors of the bombings and bereaved family members filed damages suits against the Japanese government in 2006, 2008 and 2009, arguing that indiscriminate bombings of city areas violated international law. The Tokyo District Court turned down the suits in February, on the grounds that no treaties and international law in those days granted individuals the right to directly sue a government for damages.
The Great Tokyo Air Raid should be looked at in the historical context of a series of strategic bombings, including those against Guernica, Chongqing, Hamburg and Dresden. Maeda calls Japan’s bombings of Chongqing the first attempt in the history of air battles to knock out an enemy purely by means of attacks from the air. He adds that the U.S. strategic bombings against Japan represented a “reproduction of the Chongqing bombings on an enlarged scale.” He also writes that the basic idea Japan used in bombing Chongqing was adopted by the U.S. in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War, and in the nuclear attack strategy of taking an enemy population hostage.
At a time when the Abe administration is making a concerted effort to undermine the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9, end the ban on weapons exports and involve the Self-Defense Forces in conflicts overseas, it must be remembered that large-scale modern war entails strategic bombings and that civilians pay the highest price in suffering and death.
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