Photos

What Tokyo Looked Like in 1945

The March 10 air raids were among the deadliest, most destructive attacks of World War II.

Media near and far will be focused this week on the three-year anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that shook Japan on March 11, 2011. Without diminishing the conversation in Fukushima, it's worth shifting our cultural gaze for a few moments to the March 10 commemoration in Tokyo of an event of equal or greater proportion. That would be the U.S. air raids that annihilated the city back in 1945 — among the deadliest attacks of World War II.

This aerial photo of Tokyo, taken a day after the March 10, 1945, air raid, ran in the New York Times on March 14. (U.S. National Archives.)
By September 1945 Tokyo had been almost completely destroyed. (U.S. National Archives.)

Researchers Cary Karacas and David Fedman study aerial maps and photographs like the above to understand the "urbicide" inflicted on Japanese cities during the war. But what such documents offer in scope they lose in detail, so recently Karacas and Fedman turned to the ground-level photographs taken by Ishikawa Koyo. You have to consider both scales of visual evidence, says Fedman, to appreciate the event's full gravity.

"It can be difficult to know what to make of the vast swatches of burnt-out urban fabric when viewed from 30,000 feet," he says. "In this sense, aerial photographs confirm the wartime rhetoric that Japanese cities were 'bombed into nothingness' by obscuring or denying altogether the presence of civilians below."

Ishikawa was a photographer for the Tokyo Metropolitan Police in the years leading up to war. After the U.S. air raids of 1944, Ishikawa was told by a superior to document subsequent raids so the department could have "lasting images" of the destruction. His orders: "we want you to hasten to the scenes of bombings in order to take photos that compellingly capture their reality." (Karacas and Fedman report these and other details in an upcoming talk and an issue of Journal of Urban History.)

Ishikawa did hasten to the scenes (in a Chevrolet, no less) whenever sirens sounded in Tokyo. He knew immediately the magnitude of the March 9, 1945 bombing was greater than those that preceded it, and was too busy trying to survive — at one point his Chevy was destroyed by flames — to capture shots from that night. But on March 10 he took 33 photographs documenting the carnage of life and city.

What Ishikawa found stands in sharp emotional contrast to the remote vision of destruction seen through aerial maps and photographs. Curtis LeMay, who orchestrated the raids, said a day after the great Tokyo bombing that it "left nothing but twisted, tumbled down rubble in its path." In contrast, Ishikawa's photos show it also left a trail of suffering: survivors wandering the streets, corpses pulled from canals they'd entered to avoid the heat, a mother and child charred side by side.

(U.S. National Archives)
(U.S. National Archives)

Karacas says Ishikawa's photographs failed to generate much discussion in Japan until the late 1960s. That's no doubt because so much post-war attention centered on the atomic bombs, but shedding light on civilians killed during traditional air raids also would have forced the Japanese to confront their own air raids on Chinese cities and civilians. Even less discussion of Ishikawa's work has occurred in the United States.

"There has been little incentive to look at such photographs," says Karacas, "as the representation of the conflict as The Good War is immediately challenged by images that include incinerated women and children."

Part of the incentive to look at them today is to feel the complex emotions that even a necessary and just war must arouse. But another part is to recognize the incredible rebound Tokyo has made — rising from the ashes to reestablish its place as one of the world's great cities. So great that it's all too easy to forget what happened there not long ago. 

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