Bodies and Structures


To trace Ishikawa’s movements on the night of the raid is to track the “endless stream” of Japanese civilians in reverse. While to Ishikawa the ensuing “congestion and confusion defy easy description,” one can discern from his account a number of key factors shaping the exit arteries from the flames. In this sense, we can discern how the exigencies of war and civil defense shaped, and were shaped by, historical patterns of movement. Longstanding sites of exchange, public transportation, and the structures that grew around them all figure into his account, offering a sense of how the historical growth of the capital shaped the possibilities and means of survival. Of particular importance in this respect were the bridges straddling the Sumida River: the roughly 25 escape routes offering passage to the relative safety of Western Tokyo.

Among the most fluid nodes of escape were the Asakusa, Kototoi, and Ryogoku Bridges: major thoroughfares that offered passage to neighborhoods well known to have been spared destruction following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. If this catastrophic precedent informed decisions made by Tokyoites as they desperately navigated the flames, it steered many astray. One of the great clusters of mass death were the grounds of the Sensoji Kannon Temple—an area sought out by many precisely because it had withstood, some thought preternaturally, the great conflagration that swept across the same part of Tokyo just twenty years prior.

That bridges were often the last best hope for survival bespeaks the critical role that the physical topography of Tokyo played in shaping the contours of the ruins. As natural firebreaks, these canals often shaped the actual contours of the ruins themselves. As sources of bodily relief and modes of transportation, they also often provided means of treatment and escape. Like many other accounts, Ishikawa draws attention to the fact that barges, boats, and floating material was often the last life-line afforded to survivors, who in great numbers threw themselves into these waterways as a last ditch survival strategy. Some were lucky to be pulled aboard; countless others were washed out to sea, making it that much more difficult to ascertain the casualties of the raid. Such references provide a potent reminded that, however built up the urban environment, it was still structured by the physical topography and terrain that lay at the foundation of the capital.

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