JAPANESE CIVIL DEFENSE IN WORLD WAR II: Japan. 1939-1945. The development of Japanese civil defense measures in World War II reflected two key elements. First, the emergency services in Japan were not as well developed as they were in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States at the War's start. Second, the military leadership denied the possibility of air attacks by United States forces on the Japanese homeland, even after the Doolittle raid of 1942, a position that continued to be the official government position until 1944.
Japanese fire departments were not well staffed, with only 8000 firefighters for all of Tokyo, were poorly trained even by the standards of the day, and fire fighting equipment was limited in both quantity and sophistication, especially when considered against the range of equipment fielded by Britain's National Fire Service. Contemporary photographic evidence shows that some cities were still served by hand drawn, cart mounted fire engines and hose reels. The dearth of resources was clearly demonstrated by the assignment of a single unit to provide emergency medical services for Tokyo, Army Hospital Rescue Unit No. 1.
However, in the aftermath of the Doolittle raid, consideration was given to developing sheltering for city populations. The subway systems were considered and rejected because they were believed to be too shallow to provide protection against high explosive bombs. However, other population protections were put in place. To fight fires, civil defense distributed buckets, flails, and shovels, and recommended that families construct water cisterns on their property. Individual protective equipment included the zukin, an air raid hood designed to protect the person's head. Plans were announced to spray a fire retardant on wooden houses, but this program appears to have never been carried out. Training for the general population was instituted on a district basis, daily from 0500 to 0700. Newspapers printed plans for simple bomb shelters, and families were encouraged to construct these. Those shelters that were built consisted on little more than a trench or pit excavated in the soil and provided with a cover that could be pulled over the shelter when in use to protect against bomb splinters. Evacuation was used to reduce the number of people living in potential target areas; by March 1945 approximately 1.7 million people had been evacuated from Tokyo, out of 6 million residents.
Industrial plant protection programs were not much more advanced. Although plants were supposed to construct air raid shelters on the premises, reports indicated that most did not do so. In 1944 industrial plant dispersion out of target areas was ordered, eventually becoming mandatory, and resulting in significant disruption in the production of war materials.
Air raid response including a warning siren system and neighborhood air raid wardens. Citizens were urged to show a warrior spirit and attack fires with their shovels and flails and form bucket brigades to suppress them with water.
Nagoya may have been the city with the best air raid precautions in Japan. Fire breaks had been constructed throughout the city. An active block association system was designed for defense, providing residents with flails, buckets, and mats for fire fighting, and actively encouraging construction and filling of cisterns. To reduce vulnerability to fire, families were instructed to take down partition screens and other potential fuel sources when the air raid siren sounded. Incipient fire fighting was to be done by smothering the fire with mats. However, if that did not work, families were encouraged to work in teams of threes to control the fire with buckets of water until fire engines could arrive.
The firebreak model was eventually standardized in other cities, with 150 foot wide lanes being cleared of buildings. In Tokyo this required demolition of approximately 10 percent of the city's buildings to create lanes covering 26 linear miles.
The inadequacy of this program created significant vulnerabilities to air raids in densely populated cities. Japanese construction at the time, even in older industrial facilities, depended heavily on wood and other flammable materials, and most homes depended on open fires for cooking.
Sources: Hoyt, Edwin P. Inferno: The Firebombing of Japan, March 9-August 15, 1945, Lanham, Maryland, United States of America, Madison Books, 2000. Werrell, Kenneth P., Blankets of Fire: U. S. Bombers over Japan during World War II, Washington, District of Columbia, United States of America, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996. Goldstein, Donald M., Katherine V. Dillon, and J. Michael Wenger, Rain of Ruin: A Photographic History of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Washington, District of Columbia, United States of America, Brassey's, 1995.
Entry 0390 - posted 16 August 2003