Bodies and Structures

Place Annihilation

That Japanese cities were bombed into nothingness was a common refrain of the immediate postwar period. Although countless observers lamented the difficulty of faithfully describing the nature of these urban ruinscapes, many attempted to convey the totality of destruction. “Tokio [sic] is twisted, torn and gutted,” wrote Deton Brooks, one of the first American journalists to survey the capital in 1945. “Buildings and landmarks have disintegrated into a sea of blasted wreckage. In their place hangs a deathlike pall. It seemed as if we were visiting a ghost city.” To travel through one of Japan’s dozens of ghost cities was to behold a panorama of seemingly unqualified destruction. Whereas by late 1945 German cities had been dubbed “rubble capitals” (Reichstrümmerstadt), urban Japan was described simply as horizons of “torched fields” (yakenohara).

Yet while the scope of destruction surely necessitated a new vocabulary of ruination, such commentary belies a geo-spatial logic that shaped the strategic bombing of urban Japan from its outset. Indeed, etched into this “scorched earth” lay particular patterns of urban erasure and social vulnerability that informed the bombing of Japan at every stage of the planning and prosecution of these raids. In other words, contrary to the notion that the firebombing of urban Japan was indiscriminate, it adhered to a social geography of bomb destruction that disproportionately targeted vulnerable working class neighborhoods of the city.

This module attempts to excavate this social geography from Tokyo's ruinscapes using two different types of sources. First, it turns to the diary of Ishikawa Kōyō—a Tokyo Metropolitan Police photographer who witnessed the firebombing firsthand—to elucidate the ground level experience of the raid. It pays particular attention to Ishikawa's diary entries for the evening of March 9-10, 1945, translations of which can be read here. Second, it draws upon a range of documents produced by the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) to plan and prosecute the firebombing of urban Japan, a campaign that laid waste to large portions of 66 different Japanese cities. Considered together, these sources enable us to examine the process through which American war planners and bombardiers set their sights on Tokyo’s Shitamachi: the capital’s “low city”—plebian flatlands that were, as Ken Hewitt puts it, "socially, not just topographically, low" (Hewitt 2009, 364).

In keeping with the goal of reading the bombardier's view against that of the civilian below, this module is comprised of two principal pathways. For a look at the militarized vision of the USAAF and its representations of Tokyo continue on to the next pathway. For an analysis of how Ishikawa and his photographs captured the ground level experience click here.

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