Incendiary Bombing in Japan

“It Doesn’t Seem Too Bad”

This image is a part of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey in Japan. This study sought to evaluate the effects and importance of air power. This photo depicts children playing in the remains of burned section of Tokyo. The caption reads: "Wide street in the burned area where the wind was blowing at right angles at the time of the attack."
(Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library, Special Collections & Archives, Walter H. Gardener Collection, MSS 57, Box 4, Book 44, pg. 113)

Although U.S. incendiary bombs had an enormous impact on Japanese cities, the bombs did not always damage morale. Instead, many people, including children, simply became desensitized to the destruction. As a young child, Shirai Naruo first witnessed the destruction of incendiary bombs while riding on a train passing the city of Kobe. When he looked out the window, he saw that the city was completely demolished. Despite his shock at the sight, he muttered “‘It doesn’t seem too bad.’”[2] Later in the account, he concluded that “war was what made a young boy say, ‘it doesn’t seem too bad’ when he saw a city turned into a scorched wasteland.”[3] 

Other youth were traumatized by the bombs. During a bombing raid in Tokyo, teenage Okubo Michiko encountered a sobbing five-year-old girl who had lost her parents in the chaos. Okubo grabbed the little girl’s hand and began to escort her out of the burning city. When Okubo saw an incendiary bomb descending from the sky towards her, she accidently dropped the child’s hand and ran into a nearby house. When she turned around, the little girl was bathed in flames. Okubo later recalled, “I have never been able to forget the feeling of her soft, little hand, like a maple leaf, in mine.”[4] Children’s morale may have been affected by the incendiary bombs, but youth did not have any power to stop the war. Instead, the United States Air Force exposed Japanese children to man-made hellfire in hopes that the Japanese leaders would give in. But the Japanese military—Japanese adults—would not surrender, so children died for decisions they did not make.   

Making Games Out of War

Faced with such violence, some Japanese youth attempted to be fearless, and at times foolish, when they encountered enemy airplanes. In an oral history, Satō Hideo describes how he and other sixth graders would watch for fighter planes while they harvested fodder for military horses. They assigned one student to watch the sky while the others worked. When a fighter plane spotted them, the plane would begin to descend. Satō recalls, “Even a child instinctively knew who their targets were.”[5] Some youth would run into the forest to take cover while the fighter planes strafed the ground. Others turned the strafing airplanes into a game of bravery. The youth coaxed one another to stand their ground while the airplane shot bullets at them, and they would wait until the last second to get out of the way.[6] This shows that U.S. fighter planes commonly targeted children, most likely because they could not identify their targets from a long distance, and strafing occurred often enough for youth to make a game out of it. 

[1] Mark Seldon, “A Forgotten Holocaust: U.S. Bombing Strategy, the Destruction of Japanese Cities, and the American Way of War from the Pacific War to Iraq,” in Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth Century History, ed. Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn B. Young (New York: The New Press, 2009), 83.
[2] Shirai Naruo, “Doesn’t Seem Too Bad,” in Sensō, 206.
[3] Shirai, “Doesn’t Seem Too Bad,” 207.
[4] Ōkubo Michiko, “Hand Like A Maple Leaf,” in Sensō, 207-208.
[5] Satō Hideo, “Playing at War,” in Japan at War: An Oral History, ed. Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook (New York: The New Press, 1992), 236-237.
[6] Satō Hideo, “Playing at War,” 238.