Maps reveal how Japan’s cities were destroyed during World War II

Essay on incendiary bombings awarded 2012 Best Paper Prize by the Journal of Historical Geography

David FedmanDavid Fedman was doing research at Stanford University's Branner Library when he stumbled across some maps that left him confounded. They were produced by the US Army Air Forces during World War II.

A target chart dated July 1942 has concentric circles over the coastal city of Osaka, with small dots marking targets sprinkled throughout the map.

[pullquote align="right"]It neatly reveals the doctrine of precision bombing ...[/pullquote]

"It neatly reveals the doctrine of precision bombing — high altitude strategic bombing of military and industrial targets," explained Fedman, a doctoral candidate in history at Stanford who studies Japan's cartographic history. "The idea was to surgically take out only those targets."

AAF Target Japan No 18 (Source: Branner Library, Stanford University)

'A striking gap between the rhetoric and the reality'

As Fedman soon discovered, however, "there was a striking gap between the rhetoric and the reality of these bombings."

This gap was thrown into focus by other maps stashed away in the U.S. National archives. One such map was of Tokyo in early July, 1945.

OSS Map no. 877, Tokyo – Inflammable Areas, November 1942. (Source: US National Archives, Cartographic and Architectural Section, Record Group 226: 330/20/8)

Cary Karacas, PhDFedman was struck by the "big black blob overtaking the image," as though a bottle of ink had spilled on it. The black mass represents the parts of Tokyo that had been burned to the ground.

"I wanted to know more," he said. So he sought out a leading expert on the Japan air raids: geographer Cary Karacas, a professor in the Department of Political Science, Economics, and Philosophy at The City University of New York in Staten Island. He maintains the website, digitizing maps and primary sources to make them publically available.

Fedman emailed him scans of the target charts, and Dr. Karacas quickly wrote back that he, too, was intrigued.

"We both realized there was a lot more to this story," Fedman said. "What's really intriguing … is how you get from the precise dots of the target maps to these huge swaths of destruction that encompassed whole cities."

'A cartographic fade to black'

Taken together, what these maps reveal is the "shift to the strategic doctrine of area incendiary bombing," he said, pointing out that the black represents "huge areas that were burned to the ground; the destruction of entire cities, described by some scholars as urbicide."

Figure 12. Tokyo No. 7 Mosaic Map showing damage to center of the city after multiple fire bombings up to early July 1945. (Source: U.S. National Archives, Record Group 243, Series 59, Box 6)

The blackened maps would inspire the title of the paper they collaborated on: 'A cartographic fade to black: mapping the destruction of urban Japan during World War II.

Frustrated with the results of precision bombing, the US Air Forces turned to a technique that was pioneered by the Allies, especially the British Royal Air Force, over the skies of Germany. "They lowered their bombing altitude and loaded their B-29s with incendiary bombs, which they released with the hope the fire would grow and spread," he said. Some of these bombs contained napalm, and others a jellied-petroleum formula.

Still other maps reveal the extent to which the Air Force went to maximize this destruction.

This map was produced by geographers in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the US intelligence agency formed during the war that would become the CIA. It shows the extent to which war planners sought out information about the vulnerability and inflammability of Japanese urban spaces. They used black to indicate the most flammable areas, which happened to correspond to the most densely populated and working-class neighborhoods of Tokyo, Fedman explained.

"They did a lot of research into the nature of Japanese urban spaces so they could understand how to best burn them to the ground," Fedman said. "And I think this map reveals that mentality."But it was a later map the researchers found even more striking.

'Trophy map'

Damage Report Map of Kofu City, July 1945, XXI Bomber Command (US National Archives, Record Group 243, Series 59, Box 5)This is a damage report map of Kofu, assessing the extent to which this small city was decimated. It shows how the Air Force turned its attention to smaller areas after destroying the larger cities with more military and industrial significance.

Beyond that, Fedman thinks it reveals still another transformation when compared with earlier maps, which appear "precise and professional."

"We call this a trophy map," he said. "It's meant to convey, quite crudely, only the destruction of this city – and the absolute dominance of the Army Air Forces by the end of firebombing campaign. It's a way of capturing the might of American air power that emerged out of this conflict."

'Letting the maps speak for themselves'

The nature of total warfare that these maps reveal often leads people to ask whether all this destruction was necessary or ethical. But Fedman said their intention was not to pass moral judgment on those involved but to draw attention to this largely forgotten incendiary campaign.

"In this article, we made a concerted effort to be as dispassionate as possible and to let the evidence and the maps speak for themselves," he said. "We want our paper to stimulate a broader discussion of a topic we think not a lot people know or think about."

"Americans tend to focus on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; as a result of that we have forgotten largely in the public realm the fact that a total of 66 Japanese cities were targeted and destroyed during World War II."

Both he and Dr. Karacas are Japan scholars who have lived in Japan and studied at Japanese universities. But while Fedman is a historian, Karacas is a geographer. "It's no accident that this essay is published in the Journal of Historical Geography," Fedman said. "For us this was the perfect place to feature this work. We're drawing from research produced by both disciplines and, I think, weaving together a lot of different strands of scholarship."

The editorial board of the journal agreed when they selected this for the 2012 Journal of Historical Geography Best Paper Prize Prize. "The standard of submissions for this newly-established Prize was remarkably high," said Editor-in-Chief Felix Driver, Professor of Human Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. "In the 21st century, a historical perspective on geographical issues is more important than ever."

Read the article

'A cartographic fade to black: mapping the destruction of urban Japan during World War II, by David Fedman and Cary Karacas, was awarded the 2012 Best Paper Prize by the Journal of Historical Geography.

It is freely available on ScienceDirect.

The judges said it made the greatest contribution to the advancement of scholarship in historical geography in 2012, primarily on the basis of the significance and originality of the research.

The essay traces the history, production and uses of maps created by the US government during World War II as part of the programs of aerial bombing in Japan. Drawing from a wide range of documentary sources in US archives, the authors argue that maps provide an important and long-neglected means to trace the history of the incendiary bombing of Japan's cities. They show how maps — along with the men who made and used them — played a central role in the aerial campaign. They also raise more general questions about the relationships between the geographical profession, the intelligence community and the role of cartography in the context of total war.

The shortlisted papers were also based on high-quality research in very different contexts: the rise and fall of a department store in London's west end, and the politics of cotton cultivation and climate change in colonial India:

Read the press release about the winners here.

The journal

An international quarterly, the Journal of HisJournal of Historical Geographytorical Geography publishes articles on all aspects of historical geography and related fields, including environmental history. Themes  include:

  • The geographies of places and environments in the past
  • The dynamics of place, space and landscape
  • Historiography and philosophy of historical geography
  • Methodological challenges and problems in historical geography
  • Landscape, memory and environment

Read more on the journal home page, and visit the Geography, Planning and Development portal to access articles online.

Elsevier Connect Contributor

Alison Bert (@AlisonBert) is Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier Connect. She Alison Bert, DMAjoined Elsevier in 2007 from the world of journalism, where she was a business reporter and blogger for The Journal News, a Gannett daily newspaper in New York. In the previous century, she was a classical guitarist on the music faculty of Syracuse University. She holds a doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, was a Fulbright Scholar in Spain and performed in the 1986 master class of Andres Segovia.

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1 Archived Comment

W. Hess January 3, 2014 at 11:51 am

Excellent insights into the bombing campaign over Japan and the shift from precision bombing to area bombing.


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