60 years ago tonight: The Firebombing of Tokyo

Sixty years ago tonight, American forces bombed Tokyo.

This is an attack that is rarely discussed, at least in comparison to the debate and controversy the bombings of Dresden and Hamburg engendered, even though the firebombing of Tokyo killed far more people in one night than both of those bombings combined, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000. The attack on Tokyo is also rarely discussed even in the context of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even though more people died 60 years ago tonight in Tokyo than died as a result of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. In 2005, as for several decades before, the firebombing of Tokyo, indeed, the entire bombing campaign against the Japanese mainland, remains obscure in comparison to the bombing campaigns against Germany. Few Americans are even aware that it occurred, or of the magnitude of the bombing, and most Japanese don't want to discuss it.

Just after midnight on the night of March 9-10, 1945, 334 heavy B-29 bombers began dropping 1,665 tons of incendiary bombs on Tokyo, where the vast majority of buildings were made of wood and easily flammable materials. By the time the bombing was complete, over 15 square kilometers of Tokyo were leveled, and over 1 million were left homeless. This was just the opening salvo in a bombing campaign that equalled or rivaled the campaign against Germany.

Witness Saotome Katsumoto was 12 at the time of the raid and later reported:
It was a midnight air raid, but unlike anything we had experienced before. The planes flew in very low, so low you could see the fires reflected in their undercarriages, and they dropped mostly incendiaries. The fires started everywhere and we tried to fight them, but there was a strong, northerly wind fanning the flames. All around me people were on fire, writhing in agony.
Although I've tried to debunk a lot of the myths about the Dresden bombing, putting it into historical context and explaining that Dresden was indeed a military target, I have a harder time explaining our firebombing of Tokyo. For one thing, as much as one could question the morality of the bombing of Dresden, it was not done with primarily incendiaries and was targeted at railway stations, industrial targets, and infrastructure, not primarily at civilians. Dresden was to be a strongpoing in the defense against the advancing Soviet Army. True, Tokyo was the capital and therefore the nerve center of the Japanese war machine, and, by the logic that had prevailed by the end of the war, certainly the governmental and military complexes in the city were legitimate targets. However, the very design of the bombing was morally worrisome. Major General Curtis LeMay, the architect of the attack, intentionally targeted civilians with incendiaries in an attack plan designed to cause the maximum possible destruction and casualties. As he himself later said, victims were "scorched, boiled, and baked to death," and as victims themselves described, even the river was no protection from the wall of fire that engulfed the city. The rationale of the bombing campaign was to destroy Japanese industry, but more importantly to break the will of its people. It is hard not to speculate that the punishment meted out to Tokyo and then to other Japanese cities in the final months of the war was not at least in some measure revenge for Pearl Harbor and the atrocities committed by the Japanese during its invasion of the Phillipines (such as the Bataan Death March) and in the Rape of Nanjing and the relentless bombing of Shanghai. (Indeed, there was a widespread belief among the American military and public that the Japanese "deserved" what they were getting.) It is also true that nowadays it is very hard indeed to imagine a time of "total war" against a foe that was clearly fanatically committed to winning at all costs or dying in the attempt, who launched suicidal Kamikaze attacks against the U.S. Navy. (Al Qaeda, as fanatically dedicated to harming the U.S. as its members are, does not pose the same threat. Certainly, given that we have not even instituted a draft or in any real way mobilized the civilian population for this conflict, the present "war against terror" is by no means a "total war.") One also has to remember that there was a great fear of up to a half-million American casualties predicted for an invasion of the Japanese mainland, which was another reason used to justify "softening them up." Nonetheless, even at the time, there were those who hesitated at the magnitude of the payback, those who feared we were losing the moral high ground. They had a point.

Today, there is little evidence in Tokyo of the destruction visited upon the city 60 years ago. Gleaming skyscrapers rise from what once were ashes, and Japan is now one of our closest allies. Of more concern is that the generation who can remember firsthand the horrors of the last World War, including the Holocaust and the Rape of Nanjing, as well as the bombings of Dresden, Hamburg, London, Coventry, Shanghai, Stalingrad, and Tokyo, are rapidly aging and dying off. As that happens, I have to be concerned that it will once again become possible for such carnage to be inflicted in a future war. As Jonathan Rauch put it three years ago:
It is true that the United States in 1945, in marked and important contrast with, say, al Qaeda in 2001, viewed the targeting of civilians as a last rather than a first resort; and it is true that throughout history even the virtuous have wound up fighting dirty if fighting clean failed; and it is true that sometimes the good must do terrible things to destroy a great evil. But it is also true that if the good find themselves driven to barbarism, they own up afterward and search their souls.

America is better at reforming than at repenting, which is probably just as well. Perhaps America's quiet way of paying its debt to the dead of Tokyo has been to take unprecedented pains, far beyond anything done by any other great power, to design and deploy weapons and tactics that spare civilian lives. A lot of innocent people in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan are alive today as a result. Still, the erasure of the Tokyo firebombing from Americans' collective memory is not a noble thing.
Indeed, it is not. But it is, unfortunately, inevitable, given our inevitable mortality. Even now, some have criticized America's great reluctance to inflict civilian casualties as "tying our hands" (see the discussions that preceded our incursion into Fallujah last year), but I, like Mr. Rauch, view this reluctance to kill civilians and great effort to develop "smart weapons" and tactics that minimize "collateral damage" as a noble thing. Perhaps it is a result of the massive destruction and killing we inflicted to win the last World War. If true, it would show that, to some extent at least, we have learned from our previous conflicts. However, we must also still remember that even the "smartest" weapon is a blunt instrument that, when used in war, will inevitably result in the deaths of those who were no its target.

More on this topic:

The night hell fell from the sky
100,000 people perished, but who remembers?
Firebombs over Tokyo
Museum recalls Tokyo firebombing


  1. Good discussion.

    You might be interested in this essay by Eric Muller on historical judgement. I had some thoughts on the matter here, but basically it comes down to, in my opinion, there's nothing wrong with making judgements based on relevant facts....

  2. I didn't know much about the firebombing until I read James Brady's Flyboys. The passages detailing survivor's accounts are worth reading and rereading as accounts of an almost-forgotten atrocity.

  3. A good linkage is made between the Tokyo firebombing (and other atrocities) as a slippery slope to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in "Humanity" by Jonathan Glover.

    Glover, Jonathan, Humanity, A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, Random House, London, 2001.

  4. Thanks for the reference...


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