The optics of urban ruination

Ishikawa Kōyō

News from David Fedman of a new article co-authored with Cary Karacas, ‘The optics of urban ruination‘, which complements their previous, vital work on the cartographic imaginary of bombing.  It’s published in the Journal of Urban History but you can access it here.

World War II yielded many photographs of bombed-out cities. In this paper we telescope between two sets and scales of images that represent the principal frames through which the American and Japanese publics have memorialized the incendiary bombings that laid waste to urban Japan: aerial photographs taken by the US Army Air Forces during its wartime planning, prosecution, and assessment of the raids; and the ground-level images captured by Ishikawa Kōyō, a photographer working on behalf of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. By means of a detailed examination of the production, circulation, and consumption of these photographs— what some scholars have called an “archaeological approach” to images of ruination—we explore not only the visual rhetoric and reality of the destruction of Japan’s cities, but also how that destruction is situated in history, memory, and visual culture.

As always with their work, it’s exquisitely written, intellectually savvy and a very powerful argument.  They juxtapose the photographic ‘view from above’ that was instrumental in the planning and execution of the American air raids with Ishikawa Kōyō’s ground-level perspective.  His work is virtual unknown outside Japan and yet, as they say, has become ‘the principal visual testimony in Japan for public memory of the incendiary air raids as they were experienced on the ground’:

What followed were, according to Ishikawa, scenes from hell. His detailed account of that evening indeed repeatedly invokes infernal metaphors to describe Tokyo’s destruction. The “demon’s wings”(akuma no tsubasa) rained fire that carbonized corpses which “flowed through the streets like rapids.”  The elements also conspired against the city to whip up the red winds (akakaze) that fanned the firestorms: “immense incandescent vortices,” he wrote, “rose in a number of places, swirling, flattening, sucking whole blocks of houses into a maelstrom of fire.”

Widespread chaos, intense heat, and the realization of the need to save his own life pre-vented Ishikawa from taking any photographs. His Chevrolet destroyed by flames, he slowly made his way on foot back to the Metropolitan Police Headquarters. After resting his fatigued body, at around 2 P.M. on March 10 Ishikawa set out to document the aftermath. He saw bodies “piled like mountains” (shitai no yama o kizuiteita) and corpses burnt to the point that “you could no longer discern the sex of the body” (danjyo no kubetsu mo tsukanai shitai).

Ishikawa first told himself not to photograph such upsetting images, but then, recalling his responsibilities to capture the “reality of the scenes,” he began to snap the shutter.That day Ishikawa took thirty-three photographs of the aftermath of what came to be called the Great Tokyo Air Raid.

You can find more at Japan Air Raids, a brilliant bilingual archive, and a (harrowing) selection of Ishikawa’s images here.  If you do click on that link, heed their warning:

While photographs such as [these] provide an intimate sense of the bodily pain that was inflicted by the firebombing, they also require much of the viewer. It is one thing to look at such photographs; it is another thing altogether to comprehend or attach meaning to the actual suffering it exposes.

And – do I have to say this? – it’s worth thinking about other scenes of urban ruination.

Bombing Japan

I’ve drawn attention to the remarkable work of Cary Karacas before, notably the mesmerising essay he co-authored with David Fedman, ‘A cartographic fade to black: mapping the destruction of urban Japan in World War II’ [Jnl. historical geography 38 (2012) 306-28], which quite rightly won the prize for the paper published in the journal that made ‘the greatest contribution to the advancement of scholarship in historical geography’ in 2012; it’s available here.  Bombing depends upon a whole series of cartographic visions, and there is something exquisite about using maps to expose rather than plan violence from the air like this.


You can also get a sense of their work from this beautifully illustrated essay by Eric Jaffe for the Atlantic last year, ‘Mapping urbicide in World War II’, and from this special (open-access) issue of Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus Cary edited with Bret Fisk on ‘The fire-bombing of Tokyo: views from the ground’.

Working with Bret and translator Eri Tsuji, Cary also launched a new website, Japan Air, which is a bilingual (hooray!) digital archive providing an extraordinary range of primary and secondary materials on the US bombing of Japan in the Second World War.

In Japan it took over twenty years following the end of the World War II before people began to make a concerted effort to remember the incendiary raids that destroyed a significant percentage of most of Japan’s cities, wiped out a quarter of all housing in the country, made nine million people homeless, killed at least 187,000 civilians, and injured 214,000 more (source). Thanks to the many Japanese citizens who over the last forty years have labored to write down survivor accounts, locate and preserve various records, and analyze the destruction of urban Japan (and the concurrent suffering and social upheaval that occurred), the history of the air raids has taken root in Japan in a variety of ways. Numerous books and articles have been published, resource centers and peace museums have been built, and both individuals and associations continue to carry out important research.

Outside of Japan, the lag time to look closely at the impacts of the air raids is even more pronounced. In 1977, historian Gordon Daniels lamented the fact that academics had largely ignored the air raids on Japan – and the so-called Great Tokyo Air Raid in particular – as a subject of inquiry. Little has changed since this observation. While a handful of important English-language books and articles have appeared since then, most deal with the topic strictly from the standpoint of examining, and on occasion criticizing, U.S. strategic bombing doctrines and campaigns. Analyses about what the air raids entailed for the Japanese civilians on the ground and the cities in which they lived have yet to be written. Consequently, interested citizens and intellectuals who cannot read Japanese have minimal access to materials that shed light on the devastating effects of the incendiary bombing campaign on Japanese communities, cities and society. Additionally, while considerable English-language primary and secondary source documents related to the air raids exist, to date they have been beyond the reach of most people save for a handful of individuals who possess the inclination, time and resources required to visit the physical archives holding them.

By taking advantage of technological developments that allow for digitization, storage, and global retrieval of documents, we hope that this digital archive will play an important role in encouraging people to learn about and further research this area, and in fostering collaboration among a variety of individuals and groups. Additionally, by democratizing archival access to materials related the Japan air raids, we hope to open this field to the general public, scholars, professional and lay researchers, university students, and even middle/secondary school educators and their pupils.

Japan Air screenshot

The project is ongoing, but it’s already clear that this is a stunning achievement – visually, intellectually and politically – and a truly generous and absolutely indispensable resource.