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Despite familiar images of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan and the controversy over its fiftieth anniversary, the human impact of those horrific events often seems lost to view. In this uncommon memoir, Dr. James N. Yamazaki tells us in personal and moving terms of the human toll of nuclear warfare and the specific vulnerability of children to the effects of these weapons. Giving voice to the brutal ironies of racial and cultural conflict, of war and sacrifice, his story creates an inspiring and humbling portrait of events whose lessons remain difficult and troubling fifty years later.
Children of the Atomic Bomb is Dr. Yamazaki’s account of a lifelong effort to understand and document the impact of nuclear explosions on children, particularly the children conceived but not yet born at the time of the explosions. Assigned in 1949 as Physician-in-Charge of the United States Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Nagasaki, Yamazaki had served as a combat surgeon at the Battle of the Bulge where he had been captured and held as a prisoner of war by the Germans. In Japan he was confronted with violence of another dimension—the devastating impact of a nuclear blast and the particularly insidious effects of radiation on children.
Yamazaki’s story is also one of striking juxtapositions, an account of a Japanese-American’s encounter with racism, the story of a man who fought for his country while his parents were interned in a concentration camp in Arkansas. Once the object of discrimination at home, Yamazaki paradoxically found himself in Japan for the first time as an American, part of the Allied occupation forces, and again an outsider. This experience resonates through his work with the children of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and with the Marshallese people who bore the brunt of America’s postwar testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific.
Recalling a career that has spanned five decades, Dr. Yamazaki chronicles the discoveries that helped chart the dangers of nuclear radiation and presents powerful observations of both the medical and social effects of the bomb. He offers an indelible picture of human tragedy, a tale of unimaginable suffering, and a dedication to healing that is ultimately an unwavering, impassioned plea for peace.
About the Author
James N. Yamazaki is Clinical Professor of Pediatrics in the School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Louis B. Fleming is a former foreign correspondent and editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times.
Read an Excerpt
Children of the Atomic Bomb
An American Physician's Memoir of Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and the Marshall Islands
By James N. Yamazaki, Louis B. Fleming
Duke University PressCopyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
We were not prepared for the contrasts of Nagasaki.
An enormous military-industrial complex had been developed there before the outbreak of World War II, with factories stretching for miles in a valley that opens to the south where the rest of the city spreads around the head of a spacious protected harbor. Mountains rise sharply, some more than two thousand feet above the valley floor, dividing the city—separating, as the local inhabitants would discover in August 1945, the living from the dead. Some of Japan's largest battleships, including the dreadnought Musashi, were built here. Other makers of the tools of war lined the banks of the Urakami River as it flows to the beautiful harbor.
A second valley lies east of the main mountain spur, shielded by the mountains of Nishiyama and Nakagawa so that even this bomb, the most powerful ever unleashed on a living target, had only limited impact. The tranquil beauty of this valley and the graceful bridges that span the Nakashima River have long been celebrated by the artists of Japan.
And just to the southeast lies the place where we lived on the side of Atagoyama mountain. It was a world almost untouched by the bomb, a world still tied closely to its past, with roadside views of Mogi Bay below, where traditional fishermen worked as they had for centuries and seaside restaurants served the more affluent residents of Nagasaki.
There is a history of ties to the Western world unique to Nagasaki. This was the first port of entry for the Portuguese when Japan was opened to them in 1571. The Dutch maintained a foothold on Deshima in the bay when the rest of Japan was sealed off from the outside world by the Foreign Exclusion Act in 1636. The Dutch brought modern medicine to Japan through Nagasaki. Roman Catholic priests, despite persecution, maintained a Christian hold within the city, and their followers were among those who suffered the most in the bombing.
But this mixture of contrasts and historical contradictions only served to bewilder me when we arrived that January day in 1950. There had been no briefings. I was the only American doctor. My assignment as chief physician of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) in Nagasaki had been thrust on me after my arrival in Japan. I had accepted reluctantly, always suspecting that it was a form of exile because I had protested the racial discrimination my family and I had suffered from the British occupation officers in Hiroshima.
I did not have time to reflect on my anxieties, however. From the moment of my arrival, I sensed the need to get busy. The first thing to do was to deal with the inevitable hostility of people still overwhelmed with anger after the bombing. Many survivors thought we had come to use them simply as guinea pigs, and that our sole interest was to gain information to protect Americans in the United States in the event of an atomic attack. They were skeptical about our real concern for their well-being. They doubted that there would be any treatment for those suffering the long-term effects of radiation.
Somehow, urgently, I had to gain their confidence, assure them that we were genuinely concerned about their well-being and were not there to treat them as experimental laboratory animals.
But how to proceed?
Although I had never been in Japan before, I knew from my mother and father and grandmother of the respect for tradition and authority that is part of Japanese culture. I have a feeling that the assertiveness training I received as a youthful encyclopedia salesman in Los Angeles also facilitated my work, balancing my respect for the Japanese culture as I struggled to initiate our work.
Japan was then administered through forty-six regions, called prefectures, in addition to the three municipal administrations in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied powers (SCAP), who was overseeing the occupation, worked through the prefectural governors. If he did, I realized, then so should I.
Governor Sugiyama headed the Nagasaki prefectural government. I can only imagine the stresses he must have suffered, governing that ravaged people, rebuilding the shattered economy. But none of this showed in his friendly, charismatic personality, in the warmth with which he greeted me. He assured me of his support and assistance with one proviso: We would get along well only if we recognized that Americans and Japanese approached situations differently and expressed themselves in different ways. As soon as he said this, he broke out in hearty, disarming laughter. But he was certainly correct.
And he was true to his word. He was accessible when problems arose. He introduced me to his staff. It was particularly reassuring to have this good relationship, for he was also our landlord. The ABCC had taken over the lease on the Kaikan Building, owned by the prefecture, and it was there that we would establish the first clinics to examine children for the effects of bomb radiation.
The governor reached out in unofficial ways as well. He had been introducing me to his staff with stag parties in restaurants and geisha houses. The only women present on these occasions were the geishas, who helped serve and entertained with their traditional dances. I felt too insecure to suggest an alternative. Nor did I have the nerve to tell him of the understandable annoyance of my wife, Aki, with this men-only entertaining. But somehow he heard of Aki's displeasure. Thereupon Mrs. Sugiyama arrived at our home to visit Aki, and she and Aki were both included at the governor's next dinner party, to the evident astonishment of the ever-present geishas.
Who should I see next? I decided it should be the chief of police. What a fortuitous decision that proved to be, more useful than I could have imagined. For it was he who first taught me about the human impact of the bomb.
It is hard for me to believe today how little I knew then about the bomb and its devastation. There had already been a thorough and authoritative survey of the short-term medical impact of the two bombs on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the reports were all classified, and none of their contents had been made available to me.
Even though I had served as a combat officer in the U.S. Army in the European Theater, was on special assignment for the ABCC, and had security clearance from the Atomic Energy Commission, I was told nothing. I did not even know of the existence of these reports until shortly before I left Japan. Certainly no reference was made to them in the interviews I had with the principal scientists in the investigation before I came to Japan. It would have been immensely helpful to have had access to these findings as we groped our way toward establishing our research on the effects of the radiation.
There has never been an official explanation of the secrecy. I think it may have stemmed from a desire to avoid greater backlash from the Japanese themselves if the full story of the bombs' effects on people, especially children, had been told at that time. There certainly was a determination among the American authorities then to suppress most of the relevant information. Even the press coverage was severely censored under rules of the occupation.
So I first learned the human dimensions of the Nagasaki bomb from Chief of Police Deguchi. He had been an assistant chief of air raid defense for the prefectural police department when the bomb exploded.
"Tell me about it," I said, trying to conceal my vast ignorance of the bomb's impact on the population.
He was alive and able to tell the story only because the building where he was working at the time, Katsuyama Primary School, was protected by the mountain ridge that separates the Urakami and Nishiyama Valleys.
There had been an air raid alarm earlier that morning, but no bombs fell. Some people had come out of shelters as eleven o'clock approached, only to hear the distant throb of bomber engines. Before many could take cover again, there was a flash of extremely bright light, blinding even on the far side of the mountain ridge, then a thunderous blast that shook the school building for a full minute, followed by terrifying darkness as the atomic cloud eclipsed the sun.
Deguchi ordered a police patrol to find out what had happened on the other side of the ridge. The policemen were back in minutes. The industrial area was engulfed in flames, they said, thousands appeared dead, and the survivors were running in panic, many of them left with only burning shreds of their clothing. The railroad station, a quarter of a mile away, was destroyed. Health services were paralyzed with the destruction of the University Medical Center. The new prefectural offices had burned to the ground. The fires were spreading.
Three hours later, the first refugees from the Urakami Valley struggled around and over the ridge to reach the Katsuyama School where Deguchi was working. They collapsed in utter shock. No organized rescue effort had been possible in the first hours. Rescue teams from the navy hospitals that tried to enter the Urakami Valley on the first day were driven back by a wall of flame. Trucks and trains were able to transport those escaping to the north, but many died in the crowded vehicles before they ever reached neighboring towns.
On the second day, rescue workers were able to enter the city even though huge fires continued to burn. They found some survivors in the smoldering ruins and brought them to emergency centers.
Dealing with families proved the hardest task, Chief Deguchi told me. Parents and children, separated at the time of the bomb, struggled to find survivors in their families. They had no way to know who had survived. Days would pass before they could find out.
Over the next three days, the police began to gather the dead. The bodies of those who could be identified were turned over to relatives, who had joined the search. Those who could not be identified were cremated, the ashes buried in common graves. Two weeks were required to remove all of the dead from the Urakami Valley.
"The first reports to Tokyo were that there had been no serious damage," Chief Deguchi told me. In fact, every part of the city had suffered some damage, ranging from broken windows in outlying areas to incineration at the hypocenter. From the minute the bomb detonated, there was general despair, he said. As the hours passed and the extent of the damage of that single bomb became clearer, there was a growing realization that resistance to the Western Allies by Japan was no longer possible.
As I heard this report I began to question whether we would ever find survivors who could help us discover the medical lessons of this incredible exposure to radiation. The trauma, both physical and psychological, obviously had been universal.
The experience of the chief of police filled enormous gaps in my knowledge and showed me how much more I had to learn. The time obviously had come to make contact with the medical community. But before that, I knew I must see what the bomb had done. I asked our staff driver to take me in the commission's Jeep to the places most affected by the bomb—places that would enable me to match the stories of the survivors with the remains of their city.
We started at the northern extremity of the industrial complex, where torpedoes were manufactured, and then worked our way south to visit the shattered Roman Catholic church, the University Medical School, and the University Hospital.
Nothing had been done to restore the industrial plants. At the Mitsubishi torpedo works, on the west bank of the Urakami River, I left the Jeep and walked alone on the vast concrete slab floors. There were no walls, no roofs. But rows of machine tools remained bolted to the flooring, and skeletal structures twisted almost beyond recognition above, where once workers had thronged.
Casting shop at the Mitsubishi steel and arms works, three quarters of a mile from the hypocenter. Photo by Shigeo Hayashi.
We crossed the river to get a closer look at the Catholic church, which overlooked the valley from the foothills just east of the factory belt. And we drove past the University Medical Center, now etched on the hillside like a fortress ravaged in an unimaginable battle.
There was, of course, a missing dimension. The dead, the dying, the blistered survivors, and the victims in frantic flight were long since gone. There remained only the backdrop of a macabre stage set. Yet I could almost see the desperate people so vividly described by the police chief as I looked over the scene that afternoon, knowing how much clearer it would become as I continued to hear the stories of those who had been here.
Finally, with a deep sense of anxiety, I asked the driver to take me to the hypocenter. We descended from the higher land, where the university and hospital stand, to the flat area immediately east of the river. A small tributary joins the Urakami River just beyond that point. There we came to a small garden with a bench for visitors, a small berm at the center. Shrubs had been neatly planted on the periphery, but it was a cold winter day and no flowers bloomed.
On the small rise was a wooden column, simply marked "Hypo-center." Five hundred and fifty yards overhead, the bomb had exploded. The toll was tallied on a placard at the side: 76,796 killed.
No one was there when I made my visit. There was silence, the distant throb of city life somehow erased. I felt as if I were attending a gigantic wake, alone. It was not easy to pull myself away. But I knew it was time to go home, to the other world to which I returned each evening.
So we turned our backs on the gutted industrial area and left behind the shattered hillside buildings, retreating to the solace of the house where Aki and I lived, screened by a mountain from this horror.
At the end of that short drive there was no sign of the war. Our house had been requisitioned from a wealthy businessman for our use. It was a gem of a house sitting within a pristine, carefully manicured garden that screened out any signs of the atomic destruction. We did not look out on desolation or war damage. On the contrary, our view was of the verdant garden, rich in color even in its winter foliage, with a delicate bridge arching over a quiet pond, neatly trimmed grass, and beds where azaleas, lilies, irises, and camellias soon would bloom.
We lived, in effect, on an island that had escaped the ferocity of the explosion because it was hidden behind the ridge of the mountains that border the valley—mountains that arbitrated who would survive in the milliseconds after the detonation. I returned there each evening, grateful for the seclusion. But Aki and I never overcame the unease of occupying someone else's dwelling, of seeing the owner come, from time to time, to look at his garden. We knew in very personal ways the pain a family feels when it is displaced.
That evening, after seeing for the first time the physical damage caused by the bomb, I felt a new urgency to establish ties with the doctors of Nagasaki, and through them, with the children of Nagasaki.
My anxiety at the time would have been eased had I known of the total cooperation I would receive in the months ahead from physicians, from parents, from the children themselves. And I would learn that being a Japanese American would make no difference.CHAPTER 2
BORN IN AMERICA
My father and mother were born in Japan, but I was a native Californian with a total sense of belonging to America. My brothers and sister and I always thought of ourselves as Americans. I recited the Pledge of Allegiance with commitment and fervor as I worked my way up to Eagle Scout. I sang "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty." Our family celebrated Thanksgiving with turkey and all the fixings, even if we felt a little distant from the culture of the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock.
Yet, through all those years of growing up, when I had no doubt that I was indeed an American, I was inevitably called a Japanese by the population at large. Ironically, when I came to Japan for the first time at the age of thirty-three, the Japanese had no doubt about who I was. I was not one of them. I was an American.
That paradox touched the lives of everyone in my family. My father had been denied citizenship under the racist American immigration laws, but his love and support for the United States did not flag, even when he was forced into a relocation camp during World War II. Such was his patriotic fervor that he was beaten in the relocation camp by frustrated parents because he urged their Japanese-American sons to enlist in the U.S. Army.
My military service would have been in jeopardy had not my army commission arrived a week before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. My application for military service had been filed shortly after beginning my medical studies, but there was a long delay while the War Department sought to verify my citizenship.
As a child, because of my father's citizenship, I had been given dual Japanese and American citizenship. But my father had clarified my status as an American citizen by renouncing the Japanese citizenship of his children in 1932. He never explained his decision. I am sure that, essentially, he wanted to demonstrate his commitment to raise his children as American citizens; it may also have reflected his misgivings about the growing militarism in Japan.
Excerpted from Children of the Atomic Bomb by James N. Yamazaki, Louis B. Fleming. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsForeword / John W. Dower vii
1. Nagasaki 1
2. Born in America 12
3. Pearl Harbor's Impact 21
4. Love and War in 1944 30
5. Homecoming and the Bomb 42
6. To Japan at Last 51
7. Getting Organized 59
8. The Thunderbolt 69
9. Expanding Research 76
10. Through Guileless Eyes 86
11. Lobbying and Researching 94
12. Emerging Answers 104
13. The Genetic Puzzle 118
14. Farewell in Hiroshima 126
"The Peacemaker" 145