Children of the Atomic Bomb: An American Physician's Memoir of Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and the Marshall Islands

Pediatrician fights for worldwide disarmament

James Yamazaki’s years of studying the effects of nuclear arms inform his advocacy against them
John Guigayoma, Daily Bruin senior staff
Published: Monday, May 5, 2008

It has been 10 years since an elderly Japanese-American man sat in the back of David Yamamoto’s computer workshop.

At 81 years old, the man stuck out among the college-aged students in the Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library classroom. Yamamoto, a programmer analyst for UCLA General Services, recalls extra visits to the man’s home to teach him basic tasks such as logging on to the Internet and checking his e-mail.

But as Yamamoto saw the piles of books about nuclear testing, public policy and Japanese history that crowded Professor James Yamazaki’s home, he learned that Yamazaki was more than a curious man in a computer class. He was a UCLA pediatrician, a World War II prisoner of war and a published memoirist who is currently a leading advocate for worldwide nuclear disarmament.

Yamazaki will receive the 2008 Socially Responsible Medicine Award on June 8 from the Los Angeles chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility for his “lifelong work on the effects of radiation and public health,” according to the organization’s Web site.

Physicians for Social Responsibility is a public health organization that works toward reducing threats from nuclear weaponry and environmental degradation.

Yamamoto eventually volunteered his computer programming knowledge for Yamazaki’s latest project, “Children of the Atomic Bomb,” a Web site about the survivors of the 1945 U.S. nuclear attacks on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima that left generations of families with genetic deformities.

“My mind just boggles at the thought of this man,” Yamamoto said. “What motivates him every morning is to get the message out there and really spread the word of peace. That’s what he’s devoted his life to – to peace.”

The Web site is under the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and was launched in 2006, more than 60 years after the bombs were dropped.

For Yamazaki, time has not been a hindrance in his fight for nuclear disarmament; rather, it has supplied more fuel for his cause. He has seen the growing risks of war and nuclear weaponry through the decades, he said.

“Our future really is at risk,” Yamazaki said. “When you compare that one submarine has more firepower than all the TNT that we used in World War II, it’s a new era of destruction and annihilation.”

Yamazaki encountered war firsthand as a U.S. field doctor in Europe during World War II. The year was 1941, and he was 28 years old and fresh out of Marquette University’s medical school, heading toward a career in pediatrics.

Yamazaki said he felt especially pushed to sign up for the draft because of the national stigma against his Japanese heritage. His family was sent to internment camps across the country.

“The only way that we were going to have a home when we got back is to do what the Jones and Smith boys do, and that meant going to war,” Yamazaki said.

In December 1944, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the largest land battle in the war’s history, involving more than 1 million Allied and German combatants. According to the Children of the Atomic Bomb Web site, 7,000 men from Yamazaki’s division were captured and made an 800-mile journey through Europe for the rest of the war. Yamazaki said the Germans allowed them to fill up 28 truckloads of wounded soldiers.

“On the day that we got captured, the Germans brought us into this valley, and it was like a turkey shoot,” Yamazaki said. “The wounded were just everywhere, and you just have to do the best you can to stop the bleeding.

“(As a doctor), you’re more concerned with the guys that really get hit. You somehow don’t think about yourself. You’re there to help the other guy,” he said.

Yamazaki survived his time as a prisoner of war and was discharged in 1946. After the war, he took a residency in pediatrics at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, where he researched the effects of radiation on fetuses.

In 1949, the U.S. government called on a 33-year-old Yamazaki to be the physician in charge of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Nagasaki, a program that investigated the impact of the bomb on the target areas and the effects of the attack on survivors.

Yamazaki focused his research on newborn babies that were still in the womb when the bomb hit. His team searched for expecting mothers through decimated hospitals and homes. Many of the pregnant women they found lost their children to stillbirths and miscarriages.

When they examined the babies who were born, the researchers’ predictions were confirmed. Among those infants, they found significant numbers with stunted growth and eye problems. The most important discovery was cases of abnormally small heads and mental retardation.

“The most sensitive part of the human body was the fetal nervous system. With a certain amount of radiation, you could predict that the brain could have extensive malformation,” Yamazaki said.

Yamazaki also continued to research the effects of nuclear radiation on survivors in Hiroshima and after U.S. test bombings in the Marshall Islands.

Since his initial research, the doctor has continued to testify to government commissions to promote nuclear disarmament while tracing the effects of nuclear radiation on generations of families in Japan.

He also became a clinical professor of pediatrics at UCLA.

In 2006, the Children of the Atomic Bomb Web site began as another effort to spread the word about the condition of the survivors in Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Yamazaki’s original plan was to create a documentary version of his 1995 book “Children of the Atomic Bomb: An American Physician’s Memoir of Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and the Marshall Islands,” which he cowrote with Louis B. Fleming. The documentary would have included testimony from atomic bomb attack survivors, but his plans were put to a halt when he could not raise enough funds for the film.

The project was placed on the back burner until 2000 when Yamazaki befriended Russell Leong, a professor of English and Asian American studies at UCLA.

Yamazaki eventually offered to write an article for a special issue of Amerasia Journal commemorating Sept. 11, 2001. Leong is the editor of the journal, a publication produced by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

The article was called “Why Does a Pediatrician Worry about Nuclear Weapons?” and drew parallels between the nuclear attacks in Japan and the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City.

Leong joined Yamazaki’s team, and they decided that a Web site would be a better plan.

“I thought that nowadays if you do a documentary film, it might only be seen by a few people, maybe at a few film festivals. But a Web site can go around the world in one minute, and also it can be linked very easily to other Web sites: nuclear Web sites, research Web sites, and so on. And I thought this was the way to go,” Leong said. He continues to work as the Web site’s editor.

The site now features video of Yamazaki discussing nuclear disarmament, drawings from survivors of the bombing and links to other Web sites with similar goals.

The developers plan to add message boards and blogs to increase interactivity and to continue a discussion about nuclear disarmament around the world.

“I’ve built a lot of Web sites in my life, but this is by far the most important thing I’ve ever worked on,” Yamamoto said.

For Yamazaki, “Children of the Atomic Bomb” is just another part of a never-ending effort to stop nuclear war.

“It’s a new world with these new weapons,” Yamazaki said. “Human beings must find a way to reconcile their differences, and if they do it through nuclear war, it will be a real sad day.”