The Tokyo Centre for Air Raid Damage

By Austin Smith

This post is an edited version of content found in the Japan Fieldwork Diary 2016.

The Tokyo Centre for Air Raid Damage.

The Tokyo Centre for Air Raid Damage  is an unassuming building located in Kōtō-ku (江東区) in an area identified as the epicentre of the firebombing of Tokyo (known as the “Doolittle Raid”) on 10th March 1945. This area of Tokyo is a world away from the internationalised districts of Ginza, Shibuya and Asakusa many foreign tourists will be familiar with and as I walked along the canal attracting curious glances in the baking heat I felt as if I had landed back in Tokushima rather than in one of the twenty-three wards of one of the world’s “Global Cities”. The centre, which opened in 2002, is open five days a week (closed Mondays and Tuesdays) and includes exhibits, a library of material relating to bombing and the broader wartime experience and space for public lectures about the event over three floors. There is also office space used for staff and researchers.

On entering the centre I got the impression that the staff were surprised to see a foreign visitor and it soon became clear that I was in fact the first visitor of the day, despite the fact it was almost lunchtime by the time I arrived. The second and third floors of the exhibit were opened for me and I was encouraged to watch a fifteen minute DVD titled “What is the Great Tokyo Air Raid?”/ 『東京大空襲ってなに?』(2016) before walking around. While the sections narrated by survivors had English subtitles provided there were long sections of film in Japanese language only. This included an extremely graphic clip from Imai Tadashi’s War and Youth『戦争と青春』(1991) in which scenes of firebombing had been remastered. The narration emphasises the importance of looking beyond the death toll and damage statistics to consider the individual experience. The death toll, which is estimated at close to 100,000 people is presented as being of a similar magnitude to that of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima despite the fewer efforts being made to publicly commemorate the event. The final message of the DVD is the need preserve and promote the memory of the Great Tokyo Air Raid to future generations in the name of peace.

After viewing the DVD I took in the two floors of exhibitions starting from the entrance by the television and working around in an anti-clockwise direction. The first section was a small display of images from other bombed cities such as Osaka, Nagoya, Kobe, Fukui, and Kawasaki. The next display was an interactive Tokyo Air Raids Oral History Map produced in 2014 by a team of researchers supported by the Japan Science and Technology Agency.

The next two displays placed the Great Tokyo Air Raid in context by including details of the war in Asia and the Pacific region and the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” followed by images of instances of civilian bombing from across the world such as Dresden, Guernica and Chongqing. This served to show that the Japanese were not the only victims of bombing in the period and that they were also perpetrators of bombing foreign cities during that period.

The second half of the room was filled with seating arranged for public speaking. The walls of this room were dominated by artwork, some were children’s impressions of bombing and others were done by professional artists. One artist that particularly caught the eye was Onozawa Sanichi (1917-2000) as his artwork looked very similar to the work of Iihara Kazuo, an artist who has painted scenes of the Great Tokushima Air Raid. Onozawa helped rescue victims of air raids during the war and his own house in Koishikawa District was burned to the ground during the Yamanote Air Raid. One of the most remarkable images showed the victims of the air raid as angels looking down on the prosperous modern cityscape along the Sumida River. The artwork was accompanied by a map showing the extent of damage done to Tokyo during the air raids with death tolls represented by circles of varying magnitude.

The third floor of the centre was an exhibition space broken down into sixteen sections which were introduced by both Japanese and English panels. The sections had an overwhelming focus on education and the wartime experience of civilians and children and I got the impression that this was because the exhibition was being pitched to an elementary school children audience.

The sections were as follows – 1. ‘The beginning of the expansion of the war’ including currencies and ration books introduced in countries occupied by the Japanese,  2. ‘Air Defence’ including air defence booklets, air defence uniforms, air defence hoods and gas masks, 3. ‘Early Air Raids’ including scorched statues of Ebisu and Buddha, 4. ‘The March 10th Raid’ including photos of the extent of damage and charred bodies, 5. ‘The Yamanote Raids’ included a scorched air defence hood, diaries, tactical mission reports and children’s clothing along with maps of war damage, 6. ‘Introduction of Kokumin Gakkō’ information about the education system which was introduced from April 1941, 7.’A new war begins’ were information is provided about the attack on Pearl Harbour (with the date given as 8th December 1941), 8. ‘I don’t need it till I win’ references to patriotic songs and slogans, 9. ‘Patriotic Media’, 10. ‘School Drills’ showed preparations made for air raids from 1935 to 1942, 11. ‘School Evacuation’, 12. ‘The War Ends’, 13. ‘Education Policies of New Japan’ showed changes made to the education system during the Occupation, 14. Kokumin Gakkō system ends’, 15. ‘War victim compensation campaign’ states that campaigns for compensation for war victims and pensions for veterans were rejected by GHQ, 16. ‘Message of Peace’ accompanied by a large print of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and a small collection of diaries, letters and books.

This concluded the exhibition. On leaving the centre I asked the staff which of the books on offer were the most popular amongst visitors and they introduced me to the Illustrated Great Tokyo Air Raid.

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