The Tokyo Year Zero project makes use of archival photographs captured in the months after the end of the war to offer a new perspective on the city’s postwar change and development. This exhibit presents photographs of the ruined landscape of the firebombed city taken by American occupation forces in 1945.
Fewer and fewer people remain who saw with their own eyes the Tokyo of more than seven decades ago—the city as a vast, ruined expanse. Some heard of this city from parents and grandparents, always as some variation of a story of revival from the ashes. But amid Tokyo’s incessant change, such stories are rarely told anymore.
What was Tokyo like after the defeat? Residents captured few photos of their ruined city, and I always struggled to picture the stories in my head. More than twenty years ago, I began searching for photographs taken by the American military at the U.S. National Archives, where I discovered a multitude of gazes upon the occupied city.
The fascination of the city lies in its temporal duality—present and past, destruction and creation layered atop one another. It is when we catch a glimpse through these layers that we encounter the true essence of the city—none other than the peculiar sensation of having touched the city itself.
Those who knew the landscape of the ruined city first-hand traced the constant changes of the postwar era upon these original outlines seared into their memory. They told us of Tokyo’s end, and its beginning. What can these photos tell us today? I hope that visitors are able to hear the stories contained within this scenery of 1945, and feel a trace of the city in this place that has witnessed the seven decades since.
Yoichi Sato | Born in Tokyo in 1966, Sato is an urban historian and professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences at Waseda University. The author of numerous books on urban history and occupation-era Tokyo, he began the Tokyo Year Zero project in 2014.