Kobe 1945, the Unnatural History of Restoration

Dr. Hiroki Ogasawara

This presentation was a part of Session one: Law, Violence, Legitimacy, From 10:00 am until 12:00 pm on Friday 11th November, 2011, Lower Ground 02, New Academic Building, Goldsmiths


Leon Trotsky once observed that ‘all the distinctive traits of the races fade before the internal combustion engine, not to speak of the machine-gun’. This may be true if we see air raid from above. It seems to kill indiscriminately and rationalises casualty as a matter of statistics. However, ‘traits of races’ could become distinctive if we see it from below, particularly from the ground where race and ethnicity are constructed not at the moment of instant explosion of a bomb, but its aftermath and the period of ‘restoration’.  Differences are mobilized as to decide who’s saved or who’s left forgotten in a period of longer time length than the navigating duration of a bomber-craft.

Trotsky’s remark is not to be overturned, though, because mass killing from the above surely generated the victim as faceless ‘mass’. The ‘mass’ are in fact a little more complicated than Trotsky might have imagined, particularly in the case of Kobe Air Raid on 17th March and 5th June in 1945. Industrial aerial bombing on Japanese cities towards the end of WW2 is apparently subdued by the impact and historical significance of atomic-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kobe, the then largest industrial and trading port in the country, is one of those cities and its uniqueness is examined from the following three angles. First, its severity. With the total death toll of 8000, the death rate of civilian par square miles in urban area was severest among any other cities. ‘Civilian’ must have included a variety of nationalities, Koreans and Chinese in particular. I’ve strolled around the city and their unremarkable traces. Second, the discourse of ‘restoration’.

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 6300 people dead. The air raid was then remembered not as the outcome of the war but as the beginning of restoration. The city has embraced itself with the discourse of victimisation under the name of ‘restoration’. I wonder at whom this ‘restoration’ was aimed. Patterns of suffering on the soil vary. I work on ways in which the hastening discourse of ‘restoration’ functions as oblivion to bury the complex after-effect of aerial bombing into the city’s multicultural outlook by concealing the fact that the city had been the host of a variety of arms factories, including Mitsubishi, Kawasaki and Kawanishi heavy industry plants, that were the work places for those colonial minorities killed too. Third, literary descriptions. Unlike the post-war German literature estimated by S.G.Sebald as lacking significant description of air raid by the allies on German soil, we find many stories of bombing on Japan, on Kobe in particular. They provide more details and realities. Relying on Akiyuki Nosaka, Sanki Saito and Osamu Teduka among others, I pose a question as to how ‘industrial’ air raid could not be legitimatised. However, those literary narratives on Kobe bombing rarely touch upon the assailant history of Japanese Empire. This is the same aspect as Sebald is critical of German literature too.