Bombing Kobe

The city of Kobe died twice: once through being bombed in 1945, and subsequently by earthquake in 1995. As a result of both this and the hasty ‘restoration’ process, you can only see in a few bullet marks on one pier of the Owada Bridge, crossing over Hyogo Canal in downtown Kobe, the real legacy of the Kobe bombing. The author is speaking at this week’s Shock and Awe conference.
Hiroki Ogasawara
6 November 2011


Kobe was heavily bombed particularly in the final stages of the Pacific War. With a total death toll of more than 8000, the death rate of civilians par square mile in urban areas was more severe than any other city in Japan including Hiroshima and Tokyo. From February 4 to August 6 in 1945, the total amount of dropped bomb was 8000 tons and more than 1200 bombers in total crossed the skies over Kobe.

Jack Ramsbottom, an Australian soldier captured in Singapore and sent to Wakihama POW camp in Kobe, was among those who experienced the devastating air raid on June 5, 1945, but managed to survive. He was born in England, brought up in a Dr. Barnardo’s Home, and then emigrated to Australia. After the war, he changed his name to John Lane and wrote a memoir.

Apart from the POWs, many immigrants from Europe were among the residents and their lives too were damaged. They consisted mainly of Jews, Germans, Russians and Scandinavians. In addition, many members of the Indian diaspora had already become an essential part of Kobe’s social and economic structure. There were colonial emigrants and dwellers too among those civilian casualties, but we have yet to know exactly how many Koreans and Chinese were killed. Most of them were forced labourers on heavy industrial sites and factories along the bay area. Someone whose name is still unknown brought a wooden box into Tofukuji Temple, just south-east of the city centre, claiming that the box contained the ashes of 50 Korean bodies burned to death by the raid. The then chief priest built a Pagoda style tombstone in the garden and buried them with other Japanese bodies.

Yoshiko Kawatani was nearly killed by firebombing on June 5 when a bomb was dropped on a shelter which she had tried to enter with her mother and younger sister, only to find that it was already full of people when she arrived there. She was about to take refuge elsewhere when the shelter was hit. She found her neighours among the dead bodies. She remembers, clearly, the spotless face of a baby girl whose body was decked out in a colourful kimono. Then, the next scene she can recall is somewhere in Mie Prefecture, a hundred and some kilometers away from her home. Her memory was blank for a few days straight after the moment when she saw the baby girl, although she herself was uninjured. She is currently active as a speaker, lecturing the public about her experiences.   

Kobe, then the sixth largest city, with its population of one million, experienced 84 air raids between April 18 in 1942 to August 15 in 1945. On July 24 in 1945, a B29 bomber craft dropped 4 ‘pumpkin bombs’ which were experimental ‘mock’ atomic bombs with the same scale and weight as the ‘Little Boy’. On August 6, 261 B29 crafts bombed Kobe just after midnight. Some 8 hours later, the ‘Little Boy’ was dropped and instantly killed off the city of Hiroshima.

‘Industrial bombing’, is the term used to designate the bombing of industrial sites such as factories. I wonder if it could be applied as well to public transport systems mainly used by ordinary civilians. 4 main road crossings and five railway stations of Kobe’s main railway line were also targeted as points of impact on March 17 and on June 5 respectively. 

The most striking image of the aftermath of the Kobe Air Raid was the one that showed a Muslim Mosque standing alone surrounded by burnt debris. The Mosque was constructed in 1936 and partly funded by Great-Asianists, who later proposed to construct a ‘Great East Asian Co-Prosperous Sphere’. It is still the largest Islamic institution in Japan.

Toyohiko Kagawa, prominent Christian socialist and three times Nobel Prize nominee, was invited to take the position of chief counselor for the Head Quarters of Restoration. Although he was a champion of union movements and a renowned social reformer, his eager support for the Imperial Family during the war and his attempt to promote eugenicist reformation for leprosy patients cast a long shadow over his dubious humanitarian legacy.

It was June 23 this year, 2011, when the Mayor of Kobe announced that the city office would start publishing the full list of those killed by the bombing on Kobe. It has taken 66 years to raise the public funding to make this available. 

Why I want to speak at the Shock and Awe conference

I am not an expert on aerial bombing and my academic appetite for war issues is also extremely limited – in fact to those aspects of war studies where race and racism play their part in the re-ordering of human kind. My desire to contribute to this event perhaps stems from a somewhat weird feeling that I often find myself in thrall to while strolling around Kobe City with my students. In my class, students regularly go city strolling, earning the description, ‘Kobe city flaneurs’. By transferring our bodies to the streets of Kobe, we discover and rediscover the ordinariness of a multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-class city, behind the grossly engineered reputation of the city’s not-so-ordinary modern history. Although it is always difficult to actually recognise marks and traces of the past, except monuments built to commemorate and other official tourist spots, it is not difficult to see why. The history of Kobe as a destroyed port city re-incarnated itself in 1995 when the magnitude 7.3 earthquake hit the area and left more than 6,300 people dead. The scratchmarks and stains of the previous war in these urban areas were erased by this earthquake. Kobe died twice, once through being bombed, and once by earthquake. 

As a result of this, and also as a result of the hasty subsequent ‘restoration’, you can only see in a few bullet marks on one pier of the Owada Bridge, crossing over Hyogo Canal in downtown Kobe, the real legacy of the Kobe bombing. Old buildings, halls, walls and bridges that had survived the war were now destroyed. Some were partly damaged while others were completely ruined. The map was re-written. It is extremely hard, if not impossible, to witness other notable ‘real’ wounds that were caused by the bombing. 

So then we started to wonder whether ‘restoration’ actually means erasing the past? Is it oblivion rather than remembrance that is really promoted under this banner of ‘restoration’? History repeats itself here, but in both cases, as tragedy. 

After the war, the city cocooned itself in the discourse of victimhood under the name of ‘restoration’. I wonder who this ‘restoration’ was designed to serve. Patterns of suffering on the soil vary. I work on ways in which the urgent discourse of ‘restoration’ functions as a form of oblivion to bury the complex after-effect of aerial bombing on the city’s multicultural outlook, by concealing the fact that the city had played host to a variety of arms factories, including Mitsubishi, Kawasaki and Kawanishi steel and machine plants, that were also the workplaces of colonised ethnic minorities. However, the narrative about the Kobe bombing rarely touches upon the aggressive history of the Japanese Empire whose air forces, equipped with aircrafts manufactured in those factories, bombed Chongqing and Darwin. 

After the earthquake, the city embraced itself in the discourse of ‘restoration’ once again. The project wiped out all the debris along with the historical memory to which the city itself was supposed to bear witness.

The intense firebombing in 1945 of Japanese cities across the board required approximately 150,000 tons of bombs, and destroyed 40% of the 66 cities targeted. Historian Mark Selden has remarked that the scale of civilian casualties in Japanese cities ‘had no parallel in the history of bombing’ (2009: 86). Perhaps I will start my talk with acknowledging this simple, but apparently forgotten aspect of the history of bombing. This bombing, however, could also be regarded as part of the foundation work for ‘restoration’, at the expense of many lives within Japan as well as in ‘enemy’ countries. 



Selden, Mark. (2009) ‘A Forgotten Holocaust: US Bombing Strategy, the Destruction of Japanese Cities and the American Way of War from the Pacific War to Iraq’ in Tanaka & Young (eds.) Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth Century History, The New Press.



Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData