Review

When Tokyo Burned

“Paper City” explores the forgotten firebombing of Japan’s capital.

An aerial view of firebombed Tokyo in 1945.
An aerial view of firebombed Tokyo in 1945.
An aerial view of a firebombed area in Tokyo in 1945. Fotosearch/Getty Images
By , a journalist in New York, previously based in Tokyo.

In 1943, at Dugway Proving Ground, southwest of Salt Lake City, the U.S. Army built a Japanese village with rows of Japanese-styled homes, furnished with tatami mats and paper screens—targets to test bombs, alongside a German counterpart nearby. The goal was to understand which weapons burned the homes quickest and most effectively.

Two years later, on March 10, 1945, U.S. B-29 bombers raced above Tokyo. The pilots flew low, between 5,000 and 9,000 feet, dropping 1,665 tons of incendiary bombs on tightly packed wooden houses in the city’s eastern lowlands—areas selected for their high flammability and population density. A rancid smell crept into the planes, and a cloud of smoke covered the city, obscuring an estimated 100,000 people killed and nearly 16 square miles burned to the ground below. In June 1947, as U.S. forces assessed the damage on the ground, the United States Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that this was “[b]y far the most effective air attack against any Japanese city.” And, as the first low-flying U.S. raid of the war, it “resulted in a greater degree of death and destruction than that produced by any other single mission in any theater during World War II.”

Nearly 80 years later, there is still no large American outpouring of grief or criticism or moral reckoning with the destruction of Tokyo. The leveling of Dresden by U.S. and British bombs in February 1945, one month prior to the raid on Tokyo, is inseparable from controversy, with the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on the attack noting that it is “one of the most controversial Allied actions of the war.” And the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—sources of continued and bitter discourse within American society—are debated with great intensity on a near-fixed yearly calendar. But the March 10 raid, and the mass bombings carried out on other Japanese cities, is often heroic, necessary, successful, or outright absent from American memory, with discourse muffled and subdued.

In 1943, at Dugway Proving Ground, southwest of Salt Lake City, the U.S. Army built a Japanese village with rows of Japanese-styled homes, furnished with tatami mats and paper screens—targets to test bombs, alongside a German counterpart nearby. The goal was to understand which weapons burned the homes quickest and most effectively.

Two years later, on March 10, 1945, U.S. B-29 bombers raced above Tokyo. The pilots flew low, between 5,000 and 9,000 feet, dropping 1,665 tons of incendiary bombs on tightly packed wooden houses in the city’s eastern lowlands—areas selected for their high flammability and population density. A rancid smell crept into the planes, and a cloud of smoke covered the city, obscuring an estimated 100,000 people killed and nearly 16 square miles burned to the ground below. In June 1947, as U.S. forces assessed the damage on the ground, the United States Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that this was “[b]y far the most effective air attack against any Japanese city.” And, as the first low-flying U.S. raid of the war, it “resulted in a greater degree of death and destruction than that produced by any other single mission in any theater during World War II.”

Nearly 80 years later, there is still no large American outpouring of grief or criticism or moral reckoning with the destruction of Tokyo. The leveling of Dresden by U.S. and British bombs in February 1945, one month prior to the raid on Tokyo, is inseparable from controversy, with the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on the attack noting that it is “one of the most controversial Allied actions of the war.” And the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—sources of continued and bitter discourse within American society—are debated with great intensity on a near-fixed yearly calendar. But the March 10 raid, and the mass bombings carried out on other Japanese cities, is often heroic, necessary, successful, or outright absent from American memory, with discourse muffled and subdued.

Most books or films mentioning March 10 entangles the attack in the American myth of “the good war”—what Elizabeth Samet recently called a “versatile, durable myth.” Take Malcolm Gladwell’s The Bomber Mafia, a popular and recent example. Here, the raid is the climax to a heroic and daring epic of American military men, grappling with the responsibilities and perils of air power. He portrays that night through the eyes of American pilots and officers, with stories of bombs falling and Gen. Curtis LeMay puffing his cigar, anxiously waiting for his pilots to return. The civilian deaths below are tragic but necessary and given a few sentences: nameless mothers with babies burning in the night; collateral damage, forgotten, ignored.

But the amnesia may be lifting. The documentary Paper City—making its European debut at the Nippon Connection film festival in May, after the U.S. premiere in March—follows three civilian survivors of the March 10 inferno and their decades-long fight for people to remember. It gives a face and voice to the incalculable death and devastation, a look into the fires and winds on the ground.

In the tradition of John Hersey in Hiroshima in 1946, director Adrian Francis—a 47-year-old Australian expat living in Tokyo—presents the voices of survivors plainly, stripped of overbearing narration and moral platitudes. “I didn’t want to interview academics. I didn’t want to tell the American side of the story,” he told me on Zoom, sitting in front of a long piece of paper scrawled with the film’s Japanese title. “This film is about this voice that we haven’t heard before.”

And it is a voice that will soon go quiet. The film’s three protagonists——have died since filming. And Katsumoto Saotome, a leader of the movement to remember, died on May 10. But their work is not yet done. The firebombings are still largely forgotten in Japan. The voices of survivors are still cast aside, with no government compensation fund and no state-sponsored museum on the raids. In the film, Keima Shibata, a teenager at the time of the attacks, says, “Japan’s done nothing.” Tsukiyama adds, “Nothing at all.”

Though their hairs grayed and hands wrinkled, they never forgot. The bombs took their families, destroyed their homes, and sometimes scarred their bodies. And now, decades since the war’s end, the tactics and technology of aerial bombardment have changed. The bombs are smarter and more precise; the targets are less overtly civilian. But the human cost remains. And so, their stories, from the early days of napalm, remain as consequential today as they were in 1945.


Hiroshi Hoshino, Michiko Kiyooka, and Minoru Tsukiyama from the film “Paper City.”

From left: Hiroshi Hoshino, Michiko Kiyooka, and Minoru Tsukiyama in the film “Paper City.” Feather Films

After midnight, on March 10, 1945, Hoshino awoke to air raid sirens and a red sky, children crying among crowds running from wooden houses engulfed in flames. He was 14. That night, Kiyooka, 21 at the time, jumped into a river strewn with corpses, lifting water with her helmet to cool her head and shoulders. And Tsukiyama, who was 16 and lived in the small residential district of Morishita, discovered that the air raid shelter his sister and mother had taken refuge in had burned to the ground. His mother survived, her hair charred and face covered in soot. “Husband, I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” she said to his father. Tsukiyama never saw his sister again.

Soldiers forced Hoshino to lift bodies from canals snaking through Tokyo. Kiyooka discovered her sister’s and father’s bodies hastily buried among the dirt. Parks had become makeshift graves. Bodies were buried quickly. Others were cremated. And Tokyo lay in ruins.

“This was a savage attack,” Hoshino says in the film. “But I can’t say that too self-righteously because it was a war that Japan waged.”

In 1937, Japanese forces bombed the Chinese capital of Nanjing, killing hundreds of civilians. A few months later, in 1938, they began a long bombing campaign against Chongqing, where the Chinese government had fled to establish a new capital. Over the next five years, multiple raids would kill more than 10,000 Chinese civilians. It was one of many Japanese bombing campaigns during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The photograph of a Chinese child crying in the ruins of a Shanghai rail station, snapped in August 1937, was one of the most influential images in stirring U.S. sanctions against Japan. Though U.S. and European officials criticized the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, as they would German attacks, Allied forces soon adopted the tactic themselves.

The U.S. shift to targeting large areas of cities, wrote Cary Karacas, an associate professor at the College of Staten Island, part of the City University of New York, who researches the air raid, and David Fedman, an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine, was slow and steady. Before the United States’ entrance into the war, they argued, tacticians viewed Japanese cities as theoretical targets: large expanses of wood, easy to set on fire and burn to rubble. U.S. air strategists instead prioritized targeting military and industrial sites with high-flying daytime raids. These so-called precision-bombing tactics—which were never very precise, with bombs often falling far from their intended targets—dominated U.S. strategy in the first few years of the war.

But the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in December 1941, sowed the seeds for a change in U.S. air strategy toward large-scale incendiary raids. There was “a really crucial shift in terms of saying, ‘OK, we’re going to attack only specific military installations or any kind of industry that might be directly contributing to Japan prosecuting the war,’ and all of a sudden cities are put [onto the list],” said Karacas. “This was a really profound shift that certainly enabled the United States to actually begin to carry out the destruction of Japan’s cities from early 1945.” This was further influenced by British doctrine—which called for area bombing, or the destruction of large tracts of land with incendiary bombs, damaging industry and morale in the process—and a small number of joint U.S.-British raids in the European theater, which mirrored later raids on Japan.

“The principal product of an incendiary area attack is housing destruction,” reads a September 1944 report titled “Economic Effects of Successful Area Attacks on Six Japanese Cities,” prepared for the U.S. Committee of Operations Analysts. “This destruction, with attendant casualties, and the disruption of municipal services and administration, has military significance only insofar as—directly or indirectly—it reduces the output of military equipment or impairs the enemy’s will to fight.”

Tokyo was not the only city to be firebombed. The attacks decimated cityscapes, killed tens of thousands of people, hampered industry, and dampened morale. And the atomic bombs were the final act, killing many in blinding flashes on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945; Japan surrendered days later, on Aug. 15.

Tokyo residents who lost their homes as a result of the U.S. firebombings in 1945.

Tokyo residents who lost their homes as a result of the U.S. firebombings in 1945.Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images

Soon after, U.S. forces arrived in Tokyo. The heavy hand of U.S. occupation authorities, under Gen. Douglas MacArthur, censored most writings on the air raids and atomic bombs, fearing opposition to its authority and comparisons between U.S. and Japanese wartime acts, the latter on trial in Tokyo from 1946. The atomic trauma came to light anyway, even before the occupation ended, in 1952. This was, in part, because of the writings of the physician Takashi Nagai, before he died of radiation exposure caused by his research and aggravated by the blast; the grotesque and epic Hiroshima Panels by Iri and Toshi Maruki; and other visual and written accounts of atomic devastation. Stories of bombs falling on Tokyo, of the city in flames—already cast aside by U.S. censorship—were further overshadowed by this atomic trauma, which also helped form the basis of Japan’s postwar “victim consciousness,” or higaisha ishiki.

Though victims of atomic bombs, the nation’s wartime leaders, and war itself, the people in Japan were not victims of firebombings—or so the victim consciousness seemed to say. And the air raid on March 10, Karacas wrote in a 2006 paper, “was confined to a working class and artisan section of the city,” meaning that the victims did not wield the influence necessary to put the attacks on the map, beyond small and uneven neighborhood commemorations. It took decades for the firebombings of Tokyo and elsewhere in the country to find even a marginal foothold in the rocky terrain of Japan’s postwar memoryscape.

As documented in Paper City, the movement to remember has been grassroots and local. It began in earnest, expanding beyond neighborhood-level commemoration, in the 1960s and 1970s during the Tokyo governorship of socialist Ryokichi Minobe—a liberal in a line of successive conservative governors. In Tokyo, newly formed citizen groups were “starting from scratch,” said Karacas, who studied and collected survivor testimony while reconstructing the events of the March 10 raid. He added: “You begin to see the flowering of the movement among citizens in many cities throughout Japan to recover this traumatic experience that had not really been discussed for many decades.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, times of rich historical introspection in Japan and a boom of new peace museums across the country, the movement to remember focused on counting and recording the names of the dead, with Hoshino playing an outsized role. He petitioned the government and led unsuccessful lawsuits seeking compensation. The film follows the recent fight gathering 300,000 signatures on a petition, which survivors ceremoniously hand to National Diet members of a cross-party caucus. They still seek compensation, a museum, an apology, and a memorial for the ashes, which are currently interred in Tokyo Metropolitan Memorial Hall, built for the remains of victims from the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake.

“We will continue to talk about our horrific experiences, to appeal on the streets, to collect signatures, and to join together with all civilian victims of war,” Hoshino says in the film while standing on stage. “Won’t you join us in the fight for peace?”

But the movement is fading. The survivors are old. Each meeting of survivors, Francis said, was a “sea of gray hair.” He and his crew were often the youngest in attendance. “There are very few of us left,” Kiyooka says in the film at a meeting. She is in her early 90s and wears glasses and silver earrings, her hair short and white. “If we don’t talk about it while we’re alive, young people will never know,” she says, pursing her lips tightly together. Her face tightens as a wave of emotion floods her face. Kiyooka fights back tears and adds: “I look forward to working with you.”

Many of the survivors quickly welcomed Francis and his crew into their lives, homes, and meetings. “It’s really their life’s work to pass on this story,” he said. They carried pieces of paper: a map, photograph, document; physical evidence of the tragedy, artifacts against forgetting, held with their worn and wrinkled hands. The paper told their story: proof that they were there, an antidote to amnesia.


The floral arrangement at Yokoamichō Park in Tokyo

The floral arrangement at Tokyo’s Yokoamicho Park, shown here in May 2018, is a memorial to the victims of the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake as well as the Tokyo firebombings. It is the only state-run memorial to honor the victims of the firebombings. John S Lander/LightRocket via Getty Images

When I lived in Tokyo, I often walked along the banks of the Sumida River, near where the bombs had fallen. At night, the river was black, and the currents were calm, moving up and down with the passing of each boat. In Yokoamicho Park, just off the far bank, past a hospital and school, a large stone structure stood covered in flowers, the only state-run memorial to the victims of the Tokyo firebombings. But the Tokyo Metropolitan Government built the monument among the Tokyo Metropolitan Memorial Hall and other structures commemorating the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, pushing the air raids into a hidden position among the memory of other disasters.

In Tokyo today, traces of the bombings remain. Small neighborhood memorials dot bridges and roads, some with bottles of water for the souls of the dead. On Nihon-bashi, a historic bridge in the center of the city, burn marks endure. Bullet holes from a November 1944 raid riddle a small bridge called Kamakura-bashi, with a small green sign detailing the night placed among tall, wild grass. And the casing of a 250-kilogram bomb is enclosed in glass at a Buddhist temple, near the site of a wartime aircraft factory, in the city’s western reaches.

But the effects extend beyond memorials and bullet holes. A recent study found quantitative evidence—marginal but statistically significant—that the bombings “left long-lasting negative [socioeconomic] effects” on parts of the city. Today, neighborhoods most heavily damaged in the raids are less likely to have an authorized neighborhood association, the successors of organizations that formed the bedrock of prewar and wartime social unity. And the neighborhoods have relativity “lower socioeconomic performance on average,” including higher rates of unemployment, higher residential turnover, and lower levels of education among residents.

In the bombings, the prewar and wartime “social capital was erased, creating an institutional and social vacuum,” said Daniel M. Smith, an associate professor at Columbia University and one of the study’s authors alongside Gaku Ito, an associate professor at Osaka Metropolitan University, and Masataka Harada, an associate professor at Fukuoka University. And this possibly led to “conditions for long-term inequality or disadvantage in those neighborhoods relative to the neighborhoods that were left intact or weren’t damaged in the bombing,” Harada added. “The existence of social cohesion at the community level is really very important for the recovery.” Social cohesion is also important for memory. The wartime destruction of community ties and groups, key vectors of postwar remembrance for the bombing, may also help explain why the story remained buried for decades.

Even so, neighborhoods have persevered—and remembered. In one scene in Paper City, Tsukiyama wears a dark suit over a white shirt and black tie—funeral attire—and walks up a narrow staircase to a small, bright room in the Morishita District 5 neighborhood center. A long scroll, inscribed with the names of those who died in the raid, is unraveled on a table in front of a wall. Tsukiyama says Morishita District 5 is the only area to collect the names of the dead, a campaign led by his uncle.

Sitting on a thin pillow on tatami mats, he points to the names of his brother and sister. “I wondered if they had survived by leaping into a river,” he asks. “But in the end, we couldn’t find their bodies.” He pauses before adding, “Isn’t it the duty of the living to tend to the graves of the dead?”

Spencer Cohen is a journalist in New York, previously based in Tokyo. He is on staff at The Asahi Shimbun, reporting for from its New York bureau. The article is his own work and not associated with The Asahi Shimbun.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.