Tokyo’s archaeology of World War II 東京の第二次世界大戦の考古学 (WW2 sites)

Updated March 2, 2023

In the greatest film ending of all time, Charlton Heston collapses in despair upon seeing the Statue of Liberty half-buried in sand, instantly realizing that the Planet of the Apes is, after all, Earth.  Imagine how less dramatic this climax would be had it taken place in the great ape library, Heston reading the troubling news in a dusty textbook. Words have power, but objects have objectivity.

I.  The shape of things (that don’t exist)

Seeing the physical remains of war provides a connection to the past that can strengthen our understanding of and emotional connection to history. I vividly recall my first glimpse of the half-destroyed Kaiser Wilhelm Church in Berlin as I peered out the window of the S-Bahn; or the blinding sun that accompanied my trip to Dachau concentration camp; and I’ll never forgot the stark contrast between modern, lively Hiroshima and its tragic past, forever memorialized by the iconic Atomic Bomb Dome 原爆ドーム…

In Tokyo, the physical remains of World War II are few and far between, largely because many of Tokyo’s wooden buildings were incinerated during the 100-plus firebombing attacks. During the attack of March 9-10, 1945, one million people were left homeless, and 100,000 perished. In total, the American raids would destroy roughly half of central Tokyo. How can you see the damage inflicted on things that cease to exist?

  • The Center of the Tokyo Raid and War Damages 東京大空襲・戦災資料センター
  • 5-4 1-chome, Koto-ku, Tokyo Kitasuna, 〒 136-0073, Google map
  • 東京都江東区北砂1丁目5-4, 〒 136-0073
  • TEL 03-5857-5631
  • Website

I visited the The Center of the Tokyo Raid and War Damages museum in Tokyo’s Koto-ku ward 江東区, located in the center of the fierce March 9-10 attack. The center’s mission is to promote peace through studying the horrors of war, with particular focus on the Tokyo firebombings (which are overshadowed by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima 広島 and Nagasaki 長崎).

English brochure for the museum:

One of the airplane’s that visited destruction upon Tokyo:

The museum is modest, but so is the admission fee, at just 300 yen, and its collection relating to the Tokyo firebombing includes maps and photographs of the damage, American military planning documents, and household items pulled from the fire’s ashes. The exhibits come across as very matter-of-fact, allowing the viewer to decide on the appropriate moral or emotional response.

The most memorable part of my visit is watching a video of the March 9-10 firebombing. A time-lapse map of the conflagration (see above and below) illustrates the incredible size of the fire, which would grow to 16 square miles (41 km2). Images of the aftermath include charred bodies and barren cityscapes. Meanwhile, I’m sitting next to an elderly couple who, by my math, would have been ten years old at the time of the attacks. The video includes footage of bombs spewing from shiny planes; the patriot in me cheers the Americans to victory until I realize I’m sitting directly where those bombs will land, just 68 years later.

A similar version of this video is available on YouTube, and is worth watching. In a moment of black comedy (at 4:25), the Japanese interviewer asks a B-29 pilot “what was in his mind” when he was dropping bombs, to which he replies, “happy, happy”.

(For further reading, see the excellent “A cartographic fade to black: mapping the destruction of urban Japan during World War II”: source, source 1-PDF, source 1-summary)

There is also an effective exhibit at the National Showa Memorial Museum, Showakan, 昭和館, that simulates the experience of hearing an approaching Tokyo air-raid:

II.  Guns don’t shoot power substations, F6F Hellcats and a P-51 Mustangs with air-cooled M2 Browning  machine guns shoot  power substations

If bombs don’t make you happy, happy, head west to Tamagawa-Jōsui 玉川上水駅, about 1 hour from Tokyo station, and count the bullet holes on the Hitachi Aircraft substation, which was strafed by American gunfire during the war. The building, which supplied power to an airplane engine factory, was attacked three times in 1945: February 2 by Grumman F6F Hellcats, April 19 by P-51 Mustangs, and April 24 by B-29 bombers. The adjacent factory was destroyed by the raids, but the substation, despite absorbing considerable machine-gun damage, supplied electricity to the rebuilt factory until 1993.

No structure in Tokyo bears the scars of war more visibly than this building, which makes a visit worthwhile for anyone moderately interested in WWII history. Additionally, the structure is situated on the northwest edge of Higashiyamato-Minami Kōen 都立東大和南公園, which is a particularly pleasant park. When I visited, the running track was full of traffic, children eagerly kicked soccer balls, and a boy played the French horn, all appropriate pursuits for a day without machine-gun strafing.

  • Former Hitachi Aircraft Tachikawa Factory Transformer Substation
  • Tōkyō-to, Higashiyamato-shi, Sakuragaoka
  • 2丁目, 旧日立航空機立川工場変電所, 日本東京都東大和市桜ヶ丘2丁目 (Google maps)
III.  I’ll fly away

(Model Kawasaki Ki-61 Hien “flying swallow”, a.k.a. Ki-61 “Tony”)

Eight miles southeast of the Hitachi substation is the last stop on our journey, home of two airplane bomb shelters, the Wartime Concrete Aircraft Hangars “OHSAWA 1 & 2” 掩体壕大沢1号、2号. The site, Tokyo Chofu Airfield 調布飛行場, opened in 1941 to provide air defense against B-29 attacks, equipped with Kawasaki Ki-61 Hien “flying swallow” fighters キ61三式戦闘機「飛燕」. As the end of the war drew closer, the Japanese increasing prepared their homeland for an expected invasion. Thirty concrete hangars were constructed in 1944 to protect the “flying swallows”. Short on manpower, construction was aided by a local gardening group and junior high students, according to signs at the park.


(Not in Tokyo, you can see more examples of the airplane hangars – one you can even drive through! See page: Kochi’s Pacific War 高知の太平洋戦争 / 前浜掩体群)

Too much war for you? On a clear day you can view Mt. Fuji, or walk east a few hundred yards to visit the late Edo-era Mitaka Osawa-no-sato Waterwheel farmhouse  大沢の里水車経営農家・新車(しんぐるま(map), located on the banks of the Nogawa (River) 野川, one of the greenest, wildest, and most relaxing rivers in Tokyo.  Furthermore, the Nogawa is one of the only rivers in Tokyo where you can climb down from the paved sidewalk and walk in the grassy riverbed. Not a bad place to go to forget about war.

IV. A bridge not too far

The final spot on this list goes to the most centrally-located: Kamakura-bashi (bridge) 鎌倉橋. This stone bridge in central Tokyo bears the scars of American air-raids carried out in November 1944. Although there are traces of about 30 bullets, the evidence can be confused for the natural wear and tear of an old structure; I wouldn’t have noticed the bullet marks had it not been for the historical marker that commemorates the site.

Due to the bridge’s proximity to Tokyo Station, any history buff with a few extra minutes to spare might find the Kamakura-bashi to be worth a visit. It’s about a  10-minute walk from Tokyo Station (~900 meters / half a mile), or a 1-minute walk from the A1 & A2 exits of Otemachi Station.

  • Kamakura-bashi (bridge) 鎌倉橋
  • Tokyo, Chiyoda-ku 〒101-0047, between Uchikanda 1-chome and Ōtemachi 2-chome
  • 千代田区内神田一丁目~大手町二丁目 (map)
V. Enmeiji Temple 延命寺

Temple with 250-kilogram bomb from Word War 2 on display. (Photo source)

See also:


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