A Forgotten Horror: The Great Tokyo Air Raid

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Buildings on fire in the Ginza shopping district. The tall structure at center has been restored and is now an upscale department store.

TOKYO – On a clear night in March 1945, more than 300 U.S. B-29 bombers launched one of the most devastating air raids in history. By dawn, more than 100,000 people were dead, a million were homeless, and 40 square kilometers of Tokyo were burned to the ground. More people were killed in the Tokyo firebombing of March 9-10 than in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki five months later.  Yet it remains one of the forgotten horrors of the Second World War. About 700 recently discovered photos of the attack and its aftermath are now on display at a small museum in Tokyo.

“Even in Japan, most people are not aware of the extent of the devastation,” says Masahiko Yamabe, chief researcher at the Tokyo Air Raid and War Damages Resource Center. “But it’s important that people remember this. Seeing the actual photos helps people understand that most of the victims were ordinary citizens. Most were not involved in war industry at all – they were just regular people going about their lives.” 

Few photos of the U.S. raids on Tokyo, which began in late 1944, were known to have survived the war. But recently several thousand negatives were discovered from the archives of Tohosha, a wartime agency that produced a quarterly periodical patterned after Life magazine.

After painstaking restoration, the photos were put on display for the first time this month.  Tohosha was organized to provide a bright and vibrant view of Japan, and photographers avoided showing much of the death and suffering from the raids; nonetheless, the new photos reveal much of the grim realities of the bombings and their aftermath.

During the March 9-10 raid, some 1,700 tons of incendiary bombs were scattered across Tokyo’s densely populated Shitamachi (downtown) district in an effort to disrupt war production and destroy Japanese morale. The firestorm boiled water in Tokyo’s rivers and canals, melted glass and towering columns of heat brought down nearly a dozen B-29s.

The exhibition continues through April 8. All photos below are courtesy of the Tokyo Air Raid and War Damages Resource Center (click for larger view).


There are no 'photos below.' Your web person did not complete his/her assignment. Which is a total shame. This is the 70th anniversary of the most destructive aerial bombardment in all of human history. 100,000 people burned to death in a 12 hour period. The planet has never seen anything like it, before or since. The two atomic blasts that ended the Pacific War pale in comparison.

I was a journalist in Tokyo in the 1980s. I indeed heard stories from survivors of the Sumida River boiling. That part of the city did not harbor war manufacturing plants. Yokohama did, Kawasaki and all of Kanagawa Prefecture did, but not that section of Tokyo. Curtis LeMay targeted it because he had been informed that most structures in the area were old wood frame and would incinerate quickly. He wanted bang for the buck, which he got.

To this day I consider LeMay an unindicted war criminal right up there with Japan's Tojo.

I'm plenty disgusted with Churchill's destruction of Dresden and its civilians, but that pales in comparison to what LeMay did to a huge civilian swath of Tokyo.

March 9-10 1945 was the first large-scale use of napalm against civilians, something that is now banned by international treaty.

A final word about LeMay: Had he had his way in October 1962, both Washington and Moscow would have been nuked.


It's only a war crime if it's up close and personal.


Many years ago I lived and worked in Tokyo for a time. Once, while waiting for a sumo tournament to start I killed a hour or two wandering around the Tokyo Edo Museum. It's dedicated to the "glory years" of Japan in the 1800s. 

i landed in front of a totally out-of-place exhibit in the corner of the museum, a giant illuminated wall chart showing, as each sector lit up, the extent of the firebombing in Tokyo in WW2. 

I was absolutely shocked. I never even knew it had happened to that extent - Western history managed to miss that chapter out. Tokyo was being totally obliterated in the most frightening way before my eyes on this map. I felt embarrassed standing there, realising for the first time that I had no clue whatsoever of the other, horrific side of the war story. 

I still bring that day up from time to time in conversation. It never left me.


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