Razed to the ground – mapping and drawing the destruction of Tokyo, 1945

It’s a strange expression, ‘razed to the ground’. Heard (rather than read) it seems an oxymoron. Through a confusion of ‘raised’ and ‘razed’ two opposite directions of elevation are conflated and we have to pause to get our bearings. In this short post I’m reflecting on something that has caused me to pause for thought this week as I stumbled on an event that didn’t fit the version of recent history handed down to me.

The stumble-point has been an article in The Atlantic Cities by Eric Jaffe, which in turn points to a recent research article published by Fedman and Karacas in the Journal of Historical Geography. The theme of both is the ‘forgotten’ systematic erasure of 65 Japanese cities by US incendiaries in the six months prior to the dropping of the Atom bombs in August 1945, and the role that map-making played in that destruction.

Jaffe reports that Fedman and Karacas’ work aims to restore this campaign  to US public memory, for whilst the dropping of a new type of bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has lodged in public discourse, the preceding campaign has largely been ignored. Whilst the London Blitz has a rich resonance, the Allied air campaign against Germany has provoked some debate in recent years, the ‘conventional’ bombing of Japan in the closing phase of WWII has not.

Why does this matter? Well, the scale of the destruction wrought on those Japanese cities is mind-boggling. Measured by civilian air raid casualties (all stats from Hewitt 1997: 297) the scale is shocking:

Britain – 60, 595 killed, >86,000 severley injured

Germany – 600,000 killed, c. 800,000 severely injured

Japan – >450,000 killed, > 1,500,00 severely injured

But what really distinguishes the raids on Japan is the concentration of destruction within a relatively short period (six months) and its focus upon destruction of Japan’s built environment – an urban erasure, for if we look at the statistics on the proportion of urbanised areas destroyed:

Britain –   3%

Germany – 39%

Japan – 62%

Coming at the end of a long war in which so much destruction had already been tested out and refined, the attack on Japan became a technocratic anti-planning (in the sense of a ‘town planning’ that normally aspires to grow and improve cities): something that Fedman and Karacas call ‘Urbicide‘. WWII had increasingly become a war of technology and industrial application. Science, engineering, medicine all found inverted expression in wartime. In the case of the raids on Japan (as Fedman and Karacas wish to remind us), planners and geographers were co-opted into the destructive schema.

And fire fighters too, for Vanderbilt (2002) cites a book, published in 1946, which (along with having perhaps the longest title ever), says it all: Fire and the Air War: A compilation of expert observations on fire of the war set by incendiaries and the Atomic Bombs, wartime fire fighting, and the work of the fire protection engineers who helped plan and the destruction of enemy cities and industrial plants (National Fire Protection Association International: Boston, Bond, H. ed.). In attacking Japanese cities, the knowledge of how to fight fires – learnt through bitter experience elsewhere earlier in the war, was inverted: employed as knowledge that would maximise destruction.

Indeed, a wide range of technical expertise was applied by the raids’ planners to maximise the urbicide, including architecture. Fedman and Karacas point to the methodical trialling of incendiary technologies in desert test ranges where townships of vernacular Japanese (and German) houses were built and then methodically destroyed. And by some grim irony Japanese housing was especially suited to incendiaries, due to its widespread use of wood (a material good for earthquake resilience, but also great for man-made firestorms).

Soon after, the planners checked their sums and tests and – as Fedman and Karacas show – a US Committee of Operational Analysis report produced in September 1944 concluded that a massed aerial incendiaries attack on Tokyo could leave 7.75million homeless and “should the attack have the favourable circumstances of high winds conducive the rapid spread of flames…should a regular bombing pattern occur with full saturation of the attack area, should exit arterials be quickly blocked by conflagrations, should mass entrapment of people occur, the resulting casualties will probably be substantially higher.” (Quote is from that 1944 report)

Once a supply chain of vast quantities of napalm had been secured through the good offices of war procurement departments and contractors, the destruction was unleashed and Japan’s 65 largest cities were systematically burnt-down between March and July 1945. Thereafter, as Lindquvist recounts:

“For lack of bigger game, the United States now bombed cities with only 100,000 inhabitants, scarcely worth the cost of the bombs. By the beginning of August they were down in the 50,000 range, [then] there were only four reserved targets left. One of them was called Hiroshima, another Nagasaki.” (para 232)

Like many educated Westerners the incendiary bombing campaign in Japan is not something I was aware of until I started looking into it this week. I thus claim no special knowledge or insight: other than a feeling of unease that I didn’t know.

This sense increased when I follwed an internet trail set for me by Fedman and Karacas. Their bilingual  www.japanairraids.org site seeks to address this Western memory-deficit. Their trail leads me through the “trophy” maps and other abstractions of the dehumanised process of (what Gregory 2011 has called) ‘the kill chain’ and then onward to web sites in which Japanese eye witnesses give written and pictoral testimony to the human reality of experiencing the onslaught of these raids. That journey ultimately led me to a feature entitled That Unforgettable Day – The Great Tokyo Air Raid Through Drawings (http://www.japanfocus.org/site/view/3470). Assembled there are paintings, produced in later years, by eye witnesses who had lived through the destruction of Tokyo as children.

These paintings serve very strong testimony to the power of marks on paper to communicate emotion and human experience, just as the military maps show the ability of marks on paper to aid destruction by rendering human lives and homes as abstract targets (a process Fedman and Karacas capture in their article’s title: ‘A cartographic fade to black’).

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The survivor’s pictures resaturate the event-picture with visceral colour and human affect. The paintings that I have reproduced here are the most muted ones. I do not want to sully the energy of the most visceral testimonies by pasting them into my ‘passer-by’ blog. They deserve to be seen in context on that site, if used here they might imply a voyeuristic ‘bomb porn’ (in the sense that a notion of ‘ruin porn’ seems to be coallescing in some quarters). That’s not where I’m wanting to end up. Elsewhere I’ve tried to explain my reasons for recently venturing into this bleak topic of air raids and urbicide. My gaze has been alerted to the brutal dehumanizing effects of objectifying cities as systems devoid of the citizens who seek to enact their lives within them, I’d like to help re-populating those empty representations, but I need to be mindful of a risk of separating a survivor’s visual testimony from it’s direct linkage to lived human experience.

I therefore commend the links and sources presented above and below.


Fedman, D. & Karacas, C. (2012) ‘A cartographic fade to black: mapping destruction of urban Japan during World War II’, Journal of Historical Geography available at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/89739986/A-Cartographic-Fade-to-Black-Mapping-the-Destruction-of-Urban-Japan

Gregory, D. (2011) ‘Above the dead cities’ in Daniels, DeLyser, Entrikin and Richardson, Envisioning Landscapes., Making Worlds – Geography and the Humanties, Routledge: London

Hewitt, K. (1997) ‘Place annihilation: air war and the vulnerability of cities’ in Regions of Risk: a geographical introduction to disasters, Longman: Harrow.

Jaffe, E. (2012) ‘Mapping ‘urbicide’ in World War II’, The Atlantic Cities, 28 May at: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/politics/2012/05/mapping-urbicide-world-war-ii/2121/

Lindqvist, S. (2001) A History of Bombing, Granta; London.

Vanderbilt, T. (2002) Survival City – adventures among the ruins of atomic America, Princeton Architectural Press: New York


About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

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