Tokyo Fire Raids Mock Trial

Guiding Question:

Was the American firebombing campaign at the end of World War II in Japan necessary to destroy vital Japanese war industries?


This is an interactive activity based around the rules and concepts common to mock trials. Students will take on the roles of judges, attorneys, and witnesses. Both the judges and attorneys will learn basic rules of evidence so that they are able to make objections to each other's questions and rule upon those objections. This court case concerns the March 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, which killed over 100,000 civilians. The trial is a simulated lawsuit in 1970 by Japan against the United States in the International Court of Justice, the judicial branch of the United Nations.


Historical Context

In 1945, the United States was preparing for an all-out assault on Japan. The Allied leaders stated at both the Cairo and Potsdam Conferences that the Allies would accept nothing less than the unconditional surrender of Japan. American land and sea forces experienced incredibly savage fighting on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. General Curtis LeMay sought to damage Japanese war production using the new B-29 Superfortress bombers. He shifted his tactics in March 1945 from daylight raids to the use of incendiary bombs on major cities where military industries and residential neighborhoods were interspersed. Political leaders approved this plan to help bring the war to a speedy conclusion and avoid an invasion of mainland Japan.


At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Understand the key events of World War II history in the Pacific including total war, the savage nature of the Pacific campaigns, and the decisions that culminated in the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945;
  • Understand how the firebombing and the atomic bombs brought about a Japanese surrender without a land invasion of the home islands; and
  • Apply basic legal principles and practice in a simulation of the International Court of Justice.

Standards Connections

Connections to Common Core
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.1.B Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly, supplying evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience's knowledge level and concerns.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.9-10.1.C Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that relate the current discussion to broader themes or larger ideas; actively incorporate others into the discussion; and clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.9-10.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.

Connections to C3 Framework
D2.His.3.9-12. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to assess how the significance of their actions changes over time and is shaped by the historical context.
D2.His.13.9-12. Critique the appropriateness of the historical sources used in a secondary interpretation.

Lesson Preparation


Activity One: Introduction and Trial Preparation (60 minutes)

  • Distribute the General Historical Background Handout for students to read.
  • Project the World War II: A Visual History Interactive Timeline. Click “enter,” “1945,” and use the timeline to provide context. The Ryukyus Campaign and the Air Offensive Japan Campaign will be the most relevant. Review and provide context for the state of the war in the Pacific in spring 1945.
    • Teacher Tip: Address the firebombing as well as the tactics used by the Japanese both in military combat and in dealing with civilians during World War II.
  • Lead a discussion of the firebombing of Tokyo. Suggested questions:
    • Describe the Japanese philosophy towards treatment of civilians and enemy prisoners during the war up to this point. Describe the American philosophy towards treatment of civilians and enemy prisoners during the war up to this point. Was there a difference? How did one affect the other?
    • What does "total war" mean? How does this apply to Japan's war effort? How does it apply to America's war effort? Is there a marked difference between the two?
    • How would the war in the Pacific change if the Soviet Union entered the fight against Japan?
    • Why was the United States eager to force a Japanese surrender without having to invade the home islands?
  • Distribute the General Legal Background and Pertinent Law Handout for students to read.
  • Lead a discussion of the International Court of Justice and international agreements like the Hague Rules for Aerial Warfare. Suggested questions:
    • How should the phrase "human rights" be defined?
    • How careful do you think military planners should be regarding civilian lives when bombing?
    • How should a country balance the "need to win" versus the protection of human rights?
    • What matters more, enemy civilian lives, or the lives of a country's own soldiers, when planning military strikes? Defend your position.
  • Assign students roles in the mock trial simulation (judge, defendant’s lawyers, plaintiff’s lawyers, witness, etc.).
  • Distribute (or make available electronically) needed materials to each group of students:
  • Allow students to begin preparing. Circulate to the groups of students and review the Pre-Trial Assignment homework assignments posted on the role sheets.

Activity Two: Trial (60 minutes)

  • Collect student assignments from the previous night.
  • Lead students through the simulation, inserting yourself as needed. Use the Trial Procedure Teacher Guide to assist.
    • Teacher Tip: Consider using a timer visible to the whole class to help keep the simulation running on time. Also consider projecting the evidence when it is presented so that all students can see what the lawyers have.
  • Debrief the assignment at the end to have students analyze the major arguments presented.

Assessment Materials

Methods for Extension

  • Students can bring in more witnesses – each with their own pieces of evidence.
  • Teachers can apply this style of mock trial to other issues in history.


  • Teachers can allow more class time for pre-trial preparation if more support is needed.
  • Teachers can adapt this project for younger learners by having them read opening and closing arguments that have already been created and by creating some questions over the pieces of evidence for them.
  • Teachers can adapt the reading portions by making audio recordings of the readings for students with special needs or English Language Learners.
  • Teachers can use grouping strategies to pair stronger students with students who are struggling a little more in order to help all students have an equitable and positive experience.


Return to Activity

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