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Mapping 'Urbicide' in World War II

The more removed we get from World War II, the more important it becomes to remember the war that shaped the modern world, and yet the harder it becomes to find fresh angles of remembrance. In a recent issue of the Journal of Historical Geography, researchers David Fedman of Stanford and Cary Karacas of CUNY-Staten Island present visual evidence of the systematic destruction of 65 Japanese cities by U.S. military bombers — a process of "urbicide" they call "one of the most striking gaps in ... U.S. public consciousness regarding the major events of World War II."

Shortly after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the American military mobilized several units of mapmakers that ultimately played a central role in the planning of air assaults on Japanese cities. The Map Division of the Office of Strategic Services alone produced some 8,000 maps throughout the conflict. In their work, Fedman and Karacas use this wartime cartography to show how U.S. bombing of Japanese cities shifted from military targets to urban populations in general after 1943.

Ten of these maps, which are in the public domain, are reproduced in the gallery below. (Karacas also keeps a bilingual digital archive of related resources.)

"Considered together, these maps reflect the evolution of American military strategy, and the eventual embrace of incendiary air raids on entire cities," Fedman and Karacas told Atlantic Cities in a joint email response. "As we spent more time with these maps, and began to consider the ways in which they strip urban space of its humanity, it occurred to us that they also stand as remarkable artifacts of — and windows into — total war."

As the war progressed, U.S. military maps were desensitized in a way that reflected a broader need to dehumanize the enemy. While maps are impersonal by nature, they nonetheless often convey very personal elements of a place: street names, government buildings, school zones, and the like. When the situation required, American military cartographers replaced the civilian, non-combatant markings of Japanese cities with the industrial sites and factory workers that represented a war machine deserving of destruction.

Fedman and Karacas believe the so-called "urbicide" of Japan has been overlooked, for starters, because the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki capture such a large share of American memory when it comes to incendiary raids. The intentional bombing of cities also creates what they describe as "unsettling moral questions" that are difficult to square with simplistic notions of the Good War. But it's precisely the complexity of global conflict — philosophical and practical alike — that stands as an enduring lesson of World War II.

"The key takeaway from our article, we hope, is that the abstraction of enemy space is part and parcel of modern warfare," Fedman and Karacas said. "In hindsight it is perhaps tempting to suggest that these mapmakers bear a share of responsibility for the burning of Japanese cities, but its important to realize that they, like so many other Americans, were simply doing their job, as was demanded by total war."


The Map Division of the O.S.S. — a staff of 150 geographers, cartographers, draftsmen, and the like — produced about 8,000 maps during World War II. Often they relied on survey maps produce by the Japanese; that was the case in this map, the "City Plan of Tokyo, October 1944." In addition to general city maps, the O.S.S. division drew maps of urban roads, national urban networks, and specific city functions, such as manufacturing, trade, mining, fishing, and so on. (Source: U.S. National Archives)


To complement the O.S.S. work, the War Department, Army, and Army Air Force created their own maps of urban Japan. Early in the war the targets of these maps were military, Fedman and Karacas report. The concentric circles in this Air Force map from July of 1942, "AAF Target Japan No. 18 - Osaka," aim at crippling the Kawanishi Airplane Company and the fighter planes it produced. (Source: Branner Library, Stanford University)


In May of 1943 the Army Air Force investigated the possibility of "urban Japan's vulnerability to fire," write Fedman and Karacas, since Japanese architecture and furniture tended to be made of wood. The resulting report analyzed the flammability of 20 key cities and included overview maps of 10. One of these, "Tokyo - Inflammable Areas," produced by the O.S.S. in November 1942, notes the flammability of all 35 wards of the city. (Source: U.S. National Archives)


 By 1944, write Fedman and Karacas, the U.S. military was ready to exploit the combustibility of Japanese cities in practice. An intelligence report making the case for targeting Japan's six most-populated cities (Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama, Kawasaki, Nagoya, and Kobe; combined population: 15 million) estimated that destroying 70 percent of housing in these cities would decrease Japan's industrial output by 15 percent. The authors of the report might have consulted maps like "Tokyo: Density of Population, 1940," produced by the O.S.S. in October of 1942. (Source: U.S. National Archives)


In February of 1945 the XXI Bomber Command of the Army Air Force undertook trial bombings of Nagoya and Tokyo, and the following month its B-29s were unleashed on a number of urban areas. Whereas earlier maps had focused on military targets, now sights were set on entire neighborhoods. This XXI Bomber Command map, "Tokyo Area - Target 90.17 Urban," assigns drop zones indicated by large yellow circles. "The inclusion of 'Target Zone 1,' the densely populated Shitamachi district of the capital lying within these four points, stands as an ominous moment in the planning of urbicide," write Fedman and Karacas. (Source: U.S. National Archives)


On March 10, 1945, 279 B-29s released 1,665 tons of bombs over "Target Zone 1" on the previous map. The air raid killed roughly 84,000 people (if not more), injured 40,000, and left a million homeless, Fedman and Karacas report. This image of the bombed-out area, taken shortly after the raid, was published in Air Intelligence Digest. The accompanying text "all but erased the presence of civilians," write Fedman and Karacas, instead using military-related descriptions like "home factories" and "skilled workers." (Source: Library of Congress)


After the bombing of Tokyo on March 10, General Curtis LeMay, head of the XXI Bomber Command, decided to attack Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe as well. By month's end the U.S. military had incinerated 32 square miles of these four cites, inspiring even more raids on Japan's six major cities, which lasted through June. This map, "Tokyo No. 7 Mosaic Map," shows damage to the center of Tokyo up through this time. (Source: U.S. National Archives)


After hitting Japan's largest cities the U.S. Army Air Force turned its attention to medium and smaller urban areas — destroying some 65 cities in all. While larger cities contained enough nearby military targets to justify the raids, that wasn't always true of the smaller ones. The XXI Bomber Command map of Kofu City, "Target Chart 52A, Kofu Area," is a clear example: "no military targets within the entire urban area are listed, and the central focus of the map is on the built-up center of the city," write Fedman and Karacas. (Source: U.S. National Archives)


Following the attack on Kofu City, in July of 1945, the XXI Bomber Command produced this map of the damage (called, fittingly, "Damage Report Map of Kofu City, July 1945"). Featuring no military-related targets, the crude map portrayed a vague outline of Kofu, indicating destruction in black and transmitting no information beyond population. With the city emptied of all signs of lived space, the image stands as "is as clear a visual representation of urbicide ... as any," Fedman and Karacas conclude. (Source: U.S. National Archives)

 
The occupation of Japan that followed its surrender required an immediate re-humanization of the Japanese people. Rather than celebrating the success of air raids, postwar maps removed "even the barest trace of destruction" — something of a "cartographic whitewash," Fedman and Karacas write. This general map of Japan's main Honshu island, included the the Army's "Guide to Japan," exchanges depictions of urban wastelands for what Fedman and Karacas call "a delicate, feminine landscape." (Source: "Guide to Japan," U.S. Army, September 1945)

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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