The Anniversary of the Bombing of Tokyo

By Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ, 10 March 2020
Japanese photo depicting the aftermath of American air raids near Hisamatsu, part of what is now the Tokyo Metropolis during World War II. Image: US Army Signal Corps/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.


March 10 is the 75th Anniversary of the Bombing of Tokyo.

When we think of the horrors of war, our minds often turn to the nuclear bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Each of these bombs caused tens of thousands of casualties. Beside the destructive power of those two bombs, the horror of other weapons seems to fall into insignificance.

On March 10, however, we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Tokyo in which over 170 planes stacked with incendiary weapons killed an estimated 100,000 people – more than those killed by either of the nuclear weapons. So large a number of people died because the bombing targeted a very highly populated residential section of Tokyo in which workers and their families lived in flimsy and flammable houses highly vulnerable to firestorms. It was technically a very successful operation, causing many deaths, many casualties and massive homelessness, with the loss of only a few planes.

As we reflect on the bombing today it is hard not to be overwhelmed by sadness at the wound to our common humanity that is exposed in it. That so much human planning, such ingeniousness in the making and deploying of weapons, such careful calculation of the effect of napalm and phosphorous on wood, paper and human flesh, and so much relentlessness in the starting, feeding and renewing of fires, should be expended for the destruction of women, children and men and as a demonstration of the power to kill, makes us ask what kind of human beings could do such things.

It is easy today to avert our eyes from the wars in which we are indirectly involved and from the human suffering that they cause. The killing and displacement of people in Syria and Libya and the refusal of nations whose proxies fight the war to take responsibility for the victims, don’t pass the fence of our attention. Contemplating the sadness of war threatens our peace of mind. Accepting the horrors of war as strategically necessary or as none of our business, however, risks corroding our humanity. As we recall the Bombing of Tokyo, we are invited to ask if we would have as readily dedicated ourselves to the killing and devastation of so many people, and would as carelessly have accepted its necessity.

Recognising the ability of war to dull our moral sensitivity might also make us reflect on how we allow the metaphor of war to shape our thinking about other aspects of human life. War presupposes that we have enemies, face a dire threat to our own lives, and are ready to damage our enemy. It also invites a fascination with the weapons of war, the willingness to do what it takes to win and to allow the goal to justify any means to achieve it. It silences moral reflection.

For this reason, governments are always tempted to militarise their policies – to wage war against asylum seekers, to turn immigration officials into a Border Force, fishermen into pirates, and to cite operational reasons as the excuse for keeping secret the shameful things that are done in the name of the nation.

The Bombing of Tokyo took place 75 years ago. But in remembering it, we are drawn back to consider our own society and to ask how far we respect the humanity of each person, including those we have come to see as enemies.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.


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