Legacy of the Great Tokyo Air Raid

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.

  • Newfirelock

    This was a horrible thing, but when Japan writes about these things, it should also be willing to write about the hundreds of thousands killed by it’s soldiers in China, Korea, the Philippines, etc.

    My father survived the Bataan Death March and over three years in a Japanese POW camp. He was witness to Japanese atrocities, and he had the scars to prove it. But, despite what he went through, my father never hated the Japanese.

    When he went to Korea, during the Korean War, my mother and sister and I stayed in Japan. Later, when I served in the US Army, during the Viet Nam War, I was stationed in Okinawa.

    I think Japan is a wonderful country, with admirable traditions. I think the Japanese are a generous and honorable people.

    But, as Germany has come clean about what it did before and during the war, so should Japan. This would help to remove the one blot that remains to be removed from the fabric of the flag of the rising sun.

    • Richard Solomon

      Not only Japan should ‘come clean’ about the atrocities it committed during the Great Pacific War. So should the USA for doing these fire bombings and for the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps if the USA took the lead in this regard Japan might be more willing to come out and take more responsibility for its actions during the war. Yes, countries do terrible things because ‘war is hell.’ But those that can admit the horror of their actions, even 70 years later, can move on to a more peaceful way of engaging with others in the future.

      • Newfirelock

        How has the US not admitted to what it did during the war? What the US did is common knowledge – no one has denied it. Some may refuse to see it as a bad thing, or continue to feel that it was necessary, but I don’t recall any denial.
        I knew about it as a child – my father had photos of the results and we discussed it and wether or not it was the right thing to do.
        By the way, when my father was a prisoner, he was told by the guards that if the US invaded mainland Japan, he and the other prisoners would be killed. When the A – Bomb was dropped, those guards deserted the camp and he and the other prisoners took over.
        How ironic that the bomb saved my father’s life – a life that, having been saved, meant that I would be born.
        Am I sorry about the bomb? Yes. I’m I sorry that I am here? No. How does one reconcile these things? By being honest about all of the verities involved.
        This is all I’m saying that Japan should do.

      • JimmyJM

        The fire bombings were an atrocity that no one (including Curtis LeMay) denies. But the atomic bombings were a necessity. I recommend your reading Dower’s and Frank’s histories of the war, particularly on “Ketsu-Go”. Without the atomic bombings, Japan would not have surrendered. The military government’s plan was to make an invasion of the main islands so expensive in terms of lives to the Allies that they would sue for peace leaving the government and Emperor in place and possibly avoiding an invasion. Without the atomic bombings, that scenario might actually have happened.

    • yulia okost

      its the opposite. i understand why you are shouting japan’s crimes in asia. it’s to justify the genocide by the US. in spite this article is about the crimes the US did, you want to avoid touching it? you dont face the truth at all. then you gonna justify Vietnam, Korea,Afghan, Iraq next? in that case, say loudly to the world in official. the US would be recognized the biggest threat to global peace for another 50 years. Be aware japan was tried as a war criminal already, apologized and compensated unlike the US.

      • Newfirelock

        In the US, unlike in Japan, we openly discuss all of these issues. And Americans openly protested all of the wars you mention, while they were happening. The same cannot be said for Japan during WW2, or even today.

      • yulia okost

        you have to learn the truth. dont justify the murder US did, otherwise enjoy the biggest threat foreve.

    • Binky

      Without the dropping of the two atomic bombs, millions of both Japanese and Americans would have died. The Emperor would never have surrendered and that would have taken the war into the next two years with the almost total destruction of Japan. The United States, after world wars one and two did not occupy the countries other than to help rebuild. Would Germany or Japan had done the same had they won either World War 1 or 2? I suggest not. The peoples in the three countries have come very close and now there is another war on the horizon, be it with Russia of Iran by proxy, everyone in the world will suffer this time.

  • Chongqing was not the only Chinese city that suffered heavy bombings from the Japanese Army. Shanghai (the Chinese rsidents zone) was already bombed indiscrimately in 1932 and 1936. The Zero-fighters attacked Kunming repeatedly during the WWII. Indeed it was Japan that created this inhumane strategy: Jinzho was her first experiment soon after the Mugdan Incident in 1931 and long before Hitler follower suit. Surpringly – or not surprisingly -, JT is perhaps the only Japanese newspaper that connects the Tokyo Air Raid with the aforementioned atrocities.

  • Newfirelock

    This is nonsense that does not even deserve a reply.

    • yulia okost

      americans denied sex slaves for US troops.
      they insist that these women are telling lies.
      in spite north, china, russia claim one million were forced into sex slavery by the US.

      • left nut

        Please share a reliable source for your point “russia claim one million were forced into sex slavery by the US”. I am honestly curious and willing to ask my Russian friends about this.

      • yulia okost

        before you beg me for the source, why dont you touch the link i attached ahead? you think the women sexslaves? prostitutes? or no responsibility?
        reply me then i’ll search it again. Face the truth without switching the subject.

      • left nut

        What is this???

        I asked you about a point you made… “russia claim one million were forced into sex slavery by the US” and you respond with something different and accuse me of changing the topic? This article is about the Tokyo Firebombing, you turned the discussion on to the sex salve issue for the US and then made some bold statements.

        Beg? No one is begging you for anything… please climb down off or your high horse. I honestly was looking forward to an interesting read, but you are so filled with spite that now I know you made it up, with nothing to backup this claim (about Russia)… rather pathetic what you are trying to do here, but that is your prerogative.

        Good day

      • yulia okost

        are you a crying baby?
        even your friend replied me admitted lol.
        use this sentence first for example. atomic weapons were not needed to end the war.
        rightwing who is afraid of revealing historical truths like you have to refer articles by Gary G. Kohls as well. america has no free speech.
        but i think its waste time. as far as you believe that all the crimes victors did are justified.

      • left nut

        Why would I be a crying baby? I asked you for a source so I have a discussion about this with you and my friends… and you respond with this? My question was based on honest curiosity, but I am suspecting you don’t anything to back up your statement… “russia claim one million were forced into sex slavery by the US”

        All I wanted is to know the Russian version, not yours…. do you comprehend? No need to respond if you are going to act childish.

  • Newfirelock

    Some do, some don’t, it is a controversy that may never be resolved.

    • JimmyJM

      Much of this history has only come into public awareness since the 1980’s The Ketsu-go plan in particular and the attitudes of the leading military figures of that time now make it pretty obvious that without the atomic bombings, the invasion would have resulted in millions (no exaggeration there) of deaths on both sides. As a little girl, my wife remembers watching neighbors practicing stabbing “Allied soldiers” (straw dummies) with bamboo spears. We can blame Hirohito on much of the tragedy of WWII but his issuing the imperial rescript to “bear the unbearable” because the the “cruel bomb” the enemy was using was, perhaps, the wisest thing he ever did.

  • JimmyJM

    Name one historian who has claimed that. John Dower and Richard Frank have documented the Ketsu-go plan. There would be no surrender. The Emperor initiated the surrender in the Imperial rescript that said “the enemy, for the first time, has used cruel bombs to kill and maim….” that was the justification for surrender though the Emperor never said that explicitly. With the military government believing that Japan could not exist in a state of surrender, the atomic bombs were the only recourse the Emperor had to getting Japan out of the war without annihilation. Do you have evidence to the contrary?

    • yulia okost

      right wing revisionist, i could find some historians, scientists, american presidents, and even a name list who deny you within 5minutes. the world never be fooled.

      • JimmyJM

        Go Ahead, I’ll wait.

      • left nut

        Please do share, would be interesting to read.