The more removed we get from World War II, the more important it becomes to remember the war that shaped the modern world, and yet the harder it becomes to find fresh angles of remembrance. In a recent issue of the Journal of Historical Geography, researchers David Fedman of Stanford and Cary Karacas of CUNY-Staten Island present visual evidence of the systematic destruction of 65 Japanese cities by U.S. military bombers — a process of "urbicide" they call "one of the most striking gaps in ... U.S. public consciousness regarding the major events of World War II."
Shortly after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the American military mobilized several units of mapmakers that ultimately played a central role in the planning of air assaults on Japanese cities. The Map Division of the Office of Strategic Services alone produced some 8,000 maps throughout the conflict. In their work, Fedman and Karacas use this wartime cartography to show how U.S. bombing of Japanese cities shifted from military targets to urban populations in general after 1943.
Ten of these maps, which are in the public domain, are reproduced in the gallery below. (Karacas also keeps a bilingual digital archive of related resources.)
"Considered together, these maps reflect the evolution of American military strategy, and the eventual embrace of incendiary air raids on entire cities," Fedman and Karacas told Atlantic Cities in a joint email response. "As we spent more time with these maps, and began to consider the ways in which they strip urban space of its humanity, it occurred to us that they also stand as remarkable artifacts of — and windows into — total war."
As the war progressed, U.S. military maps were desensitized in a way that reflected a broader need to dehumanize the enemy. While maps are impersonal by nature, they nonetheless often convey very personal elements of a place: street names, government buildings, school zones, and the like. When the situation required, American military cartographers replaced the civilian, non-combatant markings of Japanese cities with the industrial sites and factory workers that represented a war machine deserving of destruction.
Fedman and Karacas believe the so-called "urbicide" of Japan has been overlooked, for starters, because the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki capture such a large share of American memory when it comes to incendiary raids. The intentional bombing of cities also creates what they describe as "unsettling moral questions" that are difficult to square with simplistic notions of the Good War. But it's precisely the complexity of global conflict — philosophical and practical alike — that stands as an enduring lesson of World War II.
"The key takeaway from our article, we hope, is that the abstraction of enemy space is part and parcel of modern warfare," Fedman and Karacas said. "In hindsight it is perhaps tempting to suggest that these mapmakers bear a share of responsibility for the burning of Japanese cities, but its important to realize that they, like so many other Americans, were simply doing their job, as was demanded by total war."
The occupation of Japan that followed its surrender required an immediate re-humanization of the Japanese people. Rather than celebrating the success of air raids, postwar maps removed "even the barest trace of destruction" — something of a "cartographic whitewash," Fedman and Karacas write. This general map of Japan's main Honshu island, included the the Army's "Guide to Japan," exchanges depictions of urban wastelands for what Fedman and Karacas call "a delicate, feminine landscape." (Source: "Guide to Japan," U.S. Army, September 1945)
Eric Jaffe is CityLab’s New York bureau chief. He writes about transportation, behavior, and history, and has a general interest in the science of city life. He's the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010), and lives in New York.