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).