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The Great Tokyo Air Raid and the Bombing of Civilians in World War II  東京大空襲—「戦略爆撃」という狂気

The Asahi Shimbun Culture Research Center


The Great Tokyo Air Raid and the Bombing of Civilians in World War II

The Asahi Shimbun

The firebombing of Tokyo on the night of March 9-10, 1945 touched off the wave of firebombing that destroyed 64 Japanese cities and culminated in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been deeply engraved on the consciousness of humanity and commemorated in monuments, museums, films, novels and textbooks, the firebombing and napalming of civilians of many  other Japanese and Asian cities has largely disappeared from consciousness, except for the victims. The bombing of March 9-10 took the lives of 100,000 Tokyoites and leveled sixteen square miles of the city in the most devastating raid in human history to that time . . . according to Japanese and US Strategic Bombing Survey figures, and may have taken the lives of many more. In recent years commemorative efforts have begun to remember the events and the victims, and lawsuits have been filed seeking damages for victims. The Asia-Pacific Journal

Wednesday marked the 65th anniversary of the Great Tokyo Air Raid that obliterated neighborhoods of eastern Tokyo and killed 100,000 people, mainly civilians.

B-29s drop firebombs and napalm on Tokyo

U.S. bombers staged the raid at night and dropped 300,000 incendiary bombs so as to cut off all escape routes. Updrafts from the firestorms caused one B-29 bomber weighing 60 tons to be thrust upward by 600 meters.

Tokyo March 10, 1945 after the firebombing

The March 10 raid represented a switch in U.S. strategy. Instead of bombing military targets on the Japanese mainland, U.S. forces set out to destroy entire cities. Two days after the Tokyo raid, U.S. bombers targeted Nagoya. Osaka was bombed the next day and Kobe four days later. The death toll from the raids is estimated in the range of 300,000.

Charred remains in Tokyo March 10, 1945.

Civilian deaths due to war surged in the 20th century. Strategic bombings were a primary cause.

But it was not a tactic developed by the United States. The bombing of Guernica in which 1,600 people were killed by German forces during the Spanish Civil War in 1937 is well documented.

Air raids on urban areas were carried out on an even greater scale by Japanese forces on the Chinese city of Chongqing during the second Sino-Japanese War. In the five years from 1938, more than 10,000 people were killed.


Later, tactics aimed at dampening the enemy's will became the hallmark of air raids on urban areas in World War II. London experienced the Blitz. The German city of Dresden was reduced to rubble. A huge number of victims resulted from those actions.

And just before the end of the war, U.S. forces dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The scenes of devastation were beyond description.

Chongqing was the provisional capital of the Kuomintang government. The horrors of the bombings were reported to the world by American journalists such as Edgar Snow (1905-1972). However, in postwar China, it was difficult for survivors to speak out and it was only during recent years that their voices have been heard.

Survivors of the air raids on Tokyo and Chongqing have each filed a group action lawsuit against the Japanese government. Chongqing is seeking a judgment on Japan's responsibility, while the Tokyo plaintiffs are taking issue with the government's decision to give up claims for damages from the United States.

Survivors in Tokyo are members of an aggressor nation from the viewpoint of Chongqing. Even so, they have managed to transcend their differences. Among their complaints is that no thorough study has been made of the damage that occurred.

Last year-end, the Tokyo District Court rejected claims for damages incurred by the Great Tokyo Air Raid. It said any settlement must be achieved through legislation. Referring to a survey of actual conditions, the ruling stated that the state has "a moral duty to keep alive the memories of damage caused by war to pass on to future generations."

The ruling carries weight.

With the advancement of precision-guided weapons in recent years, it has become possible to pinpoint attacks on targets in urban areas from far away.

Large nuclear arsenals still exist and there is growing danger of proliferation. The grotesque thinking that gave rise to strategic bombing has yet to become obsolete.

What happened in Tokyo 65 years ago? Who were the victims? Squarely looking at what happened should surely cause us to think about the issue of war and peace in this current age.


This editorial appeared in The Asahi Shimbun, March 11, 2010.

Recommended citation: The Asahi Shimbun, "The Great Tokyo Air Raid and the Bombing of Civilians in World War II," The Asia-Pacific Journal, 11-2-10, March 15, 2010.


See the special issue on The Firebombing of Tokyo: Views from the Ground edited by Bret Fisk and Cary Karacas here.


See also Mark Selden, Bombs Bursting in Air: State and citizen responses to the US firebombing and Atomic bombing of Japan here.  

We welcome your comments on this and all other articles. More are available on our homepage. Please consider subscribing to our email newsletter or RSS feed, or following us via Twitter or Facebook.

Maurice O'Brien
You forgot to mention the German Zeppelin raids on London, 1916-17
LM Shea
Unfortunately war is a bloody business. If your going to start one, you can't very well complain about getting stomped on. And if you are going to start one you'd best win it least those who you stomped on return the favor. Moral of the story? Peace is best.
Elizabeth van Kampen
My Japanese friend Keiko told me about the cruel and scaring Great Tokyo Air Raid and the Bombing of Civilians in World War II. Those Japanese civilians were burnt alive! And although the Kempeitai killed my father and killed my uncle while we lived in the former Dutch East Indies occupied by Japan during World War Two, I still feel honestly sorry for all those Japanese people. It wasn't them who killed my father and uncle. It was the Japanse government and the Japanese army who refused to stop that war. And it is the Japanese government that still denies all their committed war crimes during WWII.
Nguyen van Huy
In 1945, before the World War ended, Japanese Army in Vietnam got hold all the harvested rice and let at least one million Vietnamese died of hunger. Thus this sole action killed more people than all the bombings in Japan, England and Chongqing put together. But perhaps most people have never heard about that event, because Vietnamese considered it was dark history and rarely mentioned. In this case we easily forgave and forgot, because Japanese had endured the worse end results than us: they had to beg their enemy to spare their life. Later we defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu and the colonial power must get out of Vietnam. Then we forgave and forgot the French. Has anyone heard about any lawsuits by Vietnamese against France or Japan on war crimes? In contrast Chinese are not so good, they are still keen to find some way to humiliate Japan in these days. In Vietnam war, though they lost 53 thousand soldiers, Americans spared bombing the dykes and populated areas in North Vietnam, and even let the bad guys win the war :(. I believe that the Law of Karma did exert its power and right judgment in the sparing of so many Northern Vietnamese lives: they were bad, but not so bad. But, wait, though the war was over but our internal conflict is not over yet. Until the Communists have met their fate, the freedom-minded Vietnamese will not rest.
Michael Everett
Even with the defeat of Japanese forces on Okinawa, the defeat of it's Naval forces, the degrading of it's Air Force, and the choking off of its ports and supply lines for food and oil, and the intensive B-29 bombing campaign, it was more than clear to FDR and U.S. war planners, that Japan was preparing a fight to the death, and a high-casualty invasion would be required to destroy the military. A vast naval force would be required to move into range of Kamakazi attack to support the invasion while remaining Japanese aircraft were dispersed and hidden with enough fuel for a one-way Kamakize attack. Up to a million U.S. casualties were anticipated to force a surrender. The great worry of war planners was that Americans were war-weary after the surrender of Germany, and in the event the Japanese military rulers offered a peace plan in which they would offer to withdraw their military forces back to Japan, (therefore leaving their control of Japan intact) would create demand from the American people to accept their offer and save up to a million American lives. The two nuclear attacks almost instantly averted any possibility other than surrender, and no doubt saved the lives of an equally huge number of Japanese civilians who were preparing to resist invasion inch by bloody inch. The apocalyptic destruction of Japan's industrial cities never broke the resistance of a people following the orders of a god/king, but it did destroy the bulk of it's war industry. Japan refused to accept that enemy aircraft would ever be able to attack them, and never bothered to build shelters for their population. Their factories were surrounded by countless small sub-contractors, and their structures of wood and paper were never fireproofed, nor did they have a robust fire-fighting program. They started an Imperialist race-based war of conquest and rape, first against China and Korea then spreading across the Pacific and down to Southeast Asia. With Japan's plan for every man woman and child to fight to the death, what choice did the world have? And if there was a better option, what would it have been? PS: This is my view of history and not in any way a criticism of the Post-War accomplishments of Japan or the continuing contribution to our culture and economy of our Japanese-American community.
Eric Chan
The US fire bombed 67 cities and nuked 2. Tokyo at the time of the first raid had an estimated population of 3 million people. By McNamera's and LeMay's estimates 40% of Tokyo was utterly destroyed. The casualty figures for Dresdan, a much more built up city and much less densely populated city whose citizens were much better prepped for ariel bombardment suffered 40,0000 death. It is not even remotely reasonable to peg the death toll of the Tokyo raid at 100,000. The true casualty toll of US bombing of Japan is the biggest coverup of WWII history. Rather then the 300,000 as quoted above to 500,000 as highest figure I have seen, I think a truer conjecture can be had when you look at reported census data for Japan in Feb of 1944 - 78 million and census date in late 1945 - 72 million. That difference of 6 million give or take a few hundred thousand would seem to be a much more reasonable estimation of Japanese civilian casualties for 67 fire bomb attacks and 2 nuclear bombs. If you read LeMay's and McNamara and accounts of the devastation of napalm on wood housing in densely populated cities then this number does not seem so fantastic. It is obvious war time Japanese and post war Japanese govt had an adgenda to cover this up and even more evident why US govt wanted to suppress this info. They were the good guys after all right? Good guys don't practice genocide..only those nasty Nazi who killed how many Jews....6 million?
sid fujinari
The matter of the fire bombings of the urban targets in Japan, which was made basically of wood and paper in the densest populated areas of Japan was a military decision that was so "fabulously successful" according to the US Military command, it became the textbook attack near the end of the war. Mr. Eric Chan's case in point is very much on the mark. Major coverup of the figures of civilian deaths were made by both sides for reasons well known as on who grew up on US Military Bases From the fifties until the pull out of most US bases. There just could not possibly be a mere 100,000 civilians casualties. Even the first Japanese target of Okinawa, which was a territory and stepping stone to the main lands of the Japanese volcanic archipelago was considered one of the bloodiest in the war was totally lopsided in the loss of thousand US soldiers to 20 thousand Japanese soldiers and 100,000 Okinawan citizens which composed of half fully Japanese and all civilian. The population in Tokyo far out reaches the population of the island of Okinawa over 10 fold. So much coverup has happened, it's a cause to happen again. Wars cause massive deaths. Only truth will prevail or we are bound to the same mistakes.
Nicholas Louis Burton
For my money, the whole "we had to nuke them or we'd have lost a lot more people" argument, as regurgitated by Mr. Everett, is a crock. The fire bombings had already proved effective. A siege would have worked rather quickly on a tiny war-depleted island nation. No, unbeknownst to most people, the cold war with the USSR had already begun by then and the Russians, who laughed at American claims of an atomic bomb, had to be shown who was boss. The vaporized citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were collateral damage in the first cold war public relations exercise.
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