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  • Bombing the City: Civilian Accounts of the Air War in Britain and Japan, 1939–1945 by Aaron William Moore
  • Simon Partner (bio)
Bombing the City: Civilian Accounts of the Air War in Britain and Japan, 1939–1945. By Aaron William Moore. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2018. x, 259 pages. $74.99, cloth; $27.99, paper; $22.00, E-book.

This innovative book places the experiences of British and Japanese civilians side by side to develop a revealing comparison of civilian experiences of one of the most horrifying aspects of the World War II: mass bombing attacks on heavily populated urban targets.

At the heart of the book is a rich collection of primary sources: mostly diaries and memoirs, with some letters and media sources thrown in. There has been a revival of interest recently in firsthand accounts of Japanese civilian experiences of the war. Samuel Yamashita has been a pioneer in this field, with his wonderful collection of diary extracts and his more recent [End Page 195] Daily Life in Wartime Japan.1 While Aaron Moore draws in his book on some previously cited material, most of the material presented here is original. It is surprising that more scholars have not made use of the vast collections of war diaries and memoirs, many of them privately published in the early postwar decades, in both Japan and the United Kingdom. In the case of Japan, these sources (the memoirs in particular) have sometimes been criticized as contributing to a "victim mentality" that has hampered a full reckoning with Japanese war responsibility. While much of the book is indeed about the suffering of urban victims of the bombing campaigns, Moore is careful to portray also the ways in which the sources indicate civilians supported and indeed enabled the war effort.

The book's core sources are six diaries, three British and three Japanese. The authors (four female and two male) include three schoolchildren, two clerical workers, and a middle-class housewife. Moore selected them for their powers of observation, "not only regarding the effects of the war, but also for the moral implications of bombing" (p. 1). The voices of these diarists are a constant through all the chapters of the book. In addition to the core diaries, Moore selectively uses many other diaries, as well as memoirs, letters, and media commentary. Each genre has its own complexity—as Moore readily acknowledges. Even diaries, which might appear to be an unmediated window into the minds of wartime civilians, were often written under controlled conditions—for example, by schoolchildren whose teachers regularly checked the contents. But, Moore argues, diaries nevertheless represented "a site in which the authors 'negotiated' with the demands of others in order to delineate the boundaries of what was possible for the individual" (p. 18). I wished though that Moore indicated more consistently what type of material he was quoting (for example, diary or memoir) and how that might affect our interpretation.

The originality of this book is in its comparative treatment of two nations that might not normally be placed side by side. They were indeed bitter enemies, but Britain and Japan, Moore argues, "operated as mirrors of each other on opposite sides of the globe" (p. 11). Both were monarchies, both were island empires, both were politically centralized, and both were confronted with the growing might of the emerging American superpower. Moreover, they had been close allies earlier in the century. However, this book is less about the commonality of political alignments than it is about the commonality of civilian experience in the face of devastating, indiscriminate urban bombing campaigns. [End Page 196]

Moore embeds his comparative approach deep in the structure of the book. It effectively shows the community of suffering, resistance, and resentment by its use of juxtaposition—moving seamlessly in each paragraph from the experiences and reactions of the Japanese sources to those of the British. This back-and-forth between British and Japanese accounts is a little disconcerting at first, but as the reader gets to know the individual diarists from both countries, it makes more and more sense. In fact, the logic of placing these experiences side by side came to...


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pp. 195-199
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