Remembering the bombing of Tokyo on March 9-10, 1945

While I wish not to harp on the aspect of bombing since my last post on Dresden, the bombing of Tokyo in March of 1945 is certainly worthy of remembrance. In a relatively recent article by Henry I. Miller with Forbes in 2012, Mr. Miller noted: “The nighttime fire-bombing of Tokyo on March 9–10, 1945, was, in fact, the most destructive bombing raid of the war. In a three-hour period, the main bombing force dropped 1,665 tons of incendiary bombs which caused a firestorm that killed some 100,000 civilians, destroyed a quarter of a million buildings and incinerated 16 square miles of the city.” The bombing of Tokyo therefore was in many ways similar in terms of the cost life as the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but has been largely forgotten as an historical event.

As inheritors of a very different century to that of the 20th century, we must look at events such as these as parts of a timeline in a world of turmoil – against odds unfamiliar and contrasting to those of today. It becomes easy for us to equate 21st century standards to the debates of another time when we should be concentrating on human experiences. While this allows us to compare and contrast, it neither contributes to national healing nor historical understanding. The debate around the bombing of Tokyo – and indeed the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – centre around fighting an enemy that would stop at nothing to inflict hundreds of  thousands, if not millions, of additional lost lives and destruction to survive. For the United States the barbarity of Japan’s attack against Pearl Harbour in 1941 was still fresh in the American psyche, not to mention the almost 350,000 US soldiers killed, missing or wounded in the Pacific theater of war alone. In remembering these events we remember collectively what we became when all was on the line. Japan would rebuild – largely with American money and investment – and by August of 1945 WWII was truly over when Japan surrendered. The burgeoning US-Japan relationship in the post-war period and beyond is now as much strategic as a bond built on the memories of shared misery and conflict.

Our job is to remember these events: because as soon as we forget, we find it easier to repeat them. History also allows us to arm future generations with the evidence to protect what is good – not cower from a world they don’t or can’t understand. History is the exercise of collective memory, and often when you re-open a wound you remember the pain. The bombing of Tokyo can be justified, argued away or fingers can be pointed from a wide array of perspectives; but placing too much of a moral distance into the narrative ultimately negates our ability to understand how history works. That is to say that the many horrors of our collective past must be acknowledged, but at the same time the idea of the different and progressive (perhaps better) society is reinforced. These two ideas must work in tandem. That is what I hope this and other events in history can teach us all. 

For more information on the bombing of Tokyo, please consult some of the links below.

Behind the World War II Fire Bombing Attack of Tokyo

The Centre of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage

This Day in History –

Daily Mail pictures of Tokyo then and now

And, if you are interested in primary documents that eventually led to the use of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Truman Library has some amazing sources:


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