Voice for the children
Pediatrician continues work he began in Japan on medical effects of atomic bomb
Classes represented in this story: ’43
Miya was eight weeks pregnant when the atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki, less than a mile away from her home. Knocked unconscious by the blast, she later learned her husband had been killed at his place of work. Her two older children and her pregnancy appeared unaffected, but within a month, she suffered a spontaneous abortion, and her other children began showing the weakness and wasting associated with radiation sickness. They died in a matter of weeks.
Such are the real stories of pain and loss that James N. Yamazaki, MD ’43, heard regularly while charged with studying the medical effects of the bomb in post-war Japan. As an American of Japanese descent who experienced personal discrimination, a former prisoner of war in Hitler’s Germany and a witness to the aftermath of nuclear destruction, Dr. Yamazaki has seen humanity at its least human. These experiences, however, have motivated him throughout his life to help others through medical study and to advocate for a more peaceful world.
Times of conflict
When Dr. Yamazaki entered Marquette University School of Medicine in 1939, most institutions were not accepting Asian students unless they were in the upper 5 percent of applicants. Marquette (the Medical College of Wisconsin’s predecessor), enrolled him under a more open-minded admissions policy, for which he remains grateful. His medical training would serve him as he twice traveled halfway around the world and endured the consequences of war in two entirely different theaters.
James N. Yamazaki, MD ’43, at UCLA present day (top) and at the time of his enlistment in the U.S. Army (above).
As tensions rose in the U.S. with entry into World War II seeming increasingly likely, Dr. Yamazaki sought enlistment in the U.S. Army, not a given considering his heritage. Patriotism, and his hopes of securing a better future for his family in America, made him persistent.
“In the event war did break out, the only way we were going to have a home to come back to with the anti-Asian sentiment during that period was to do the same as the rest of the Jones and Smith boys, which is to say, join the Armed Services,” he said.
Dr. Yamazaki received his Reserves commission a week before Pearl Harbor was attacked, though he was able to finish medical school before reporting for active duty. As it turns out, this delay placed the young doctor on the front lines in one of the defining conflicts in the war – the Battle of the Bulge.
Serving as a battalion surgeon, Dr. Yamazaki saw his 106th Infantry Division lose 7,000 of its approximately 10,000 men to combat. After three days under siege, his outfit was captured by German forces in the Ardennes Forest, and he became a prisoner of war. The POW camps he encountered in the ensuing march into Germany instantly triggered memories of visiting the interment camp in Jerome, Ark., where his parents had been sequestered. His father, a minister, had been beaten the day before his arrival by other interred Japanese Americans who were angry at the senior Yamazaki for translating “loyalty questionnaires” at the government’s behest. The compounds he saw now, enclosed in barbed wire, were eerily similar to that which held his family back home.
Dr. Yamazaki was eventually liberated by Gen. Patton’s army near Moosburg, Germany, but his homecoming was less than cordial. He found housing was near impossible for him and his wife, as Japanese Americans, to obtain. This he overcame, however, and he was able to complete his pediatric residency training at the Children’s Hospitals of Philadelphia and Cincinnati. During this time, he faced another life-changing decision that would take him across the ocean.
At 33 years old, Dr. Yamazaki made the choice to move his family to Japan as the lead physician for the United States’ Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) in Nagasaki. He was intrigued by the opportunity to study the long-term effects of the atomic bomb on children of the region. Specifically, his work attempted to assess the effects of radiation on survivors and the genetic impact of the bombs. Namely, he studied the consequences to children who were exposed to radiation while still in the womb.
“At the time, I was wondering what to do with a life that was spared from the Battle of the Bulge and two bombings in Germany,” he said. “Dr. (Ashley) Weech (who had suggested the assignment) thought it would give me some direction for my career.”
The sole American physician affiliated with the ABCC in Nagasaki, Dr. Yamazaki became deeply immersed in the lives and experiences of the bomb survivors, not only in terms of epidemiological study, but also in treatment, as his involvement expanded to include the establishment of a clinic capable of caring for mothers and children with unique medical needs.
There, he made many of the observations and collected much of the data that would lay the foundation for future research upon his return to the United States. Significant numbers of the children he examined presented with abnormally small heads and mental retardation in addition to vision problems and stunted growth.
Meanwhile, Japanese physicians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki observed that leukemia developed among surviving children with high incidence within the 10 years after the bombing. Leukemia appeared in adults as well, albeit later in life. Subsequent observations revealed that cancer is a major health effect of exposure to ionizing radiation, with children being more susceptible than adults.
By the end of his assignment, Dr. Yamazaki felt personally committed to the children who were in utero when the bomb detonated. Despite all of his work up to that time, very little was yet known about radiation’s effect on adults and children, let alone the unborn, he said. Dr. Yamazaki returned to the U.S. determined to discover some of the answers that eluded him in Japan because of either lack of time or resources. He accepted a faculty position at University of California-Los Angeles and made research a priority, even as he opened a general pediatric practice in the area.
In June, James N. Yamazaki, MD ’43, was honored by the Los Angeles chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. He received the Socially Responsible Medicine Award for his lifelong work on the effects of radiation on public health.
Over the six ensuing decades, international teams of scientists and physicians made great strides in understanding the consequences of radiological exposure, and Dr. Yamazaki was central to some of that work, making good on his commitment. At UCLA, his team demonstrated the vulnerability of the developing brain to radiation damage using a rat model. This confirmed his suspicions that unborn children were in particular danger from the bomb’s radiation.
Whether or not there is a legacy of genetic injury from the atomic bombs remains an unanswered question, but time and further study may provide that knowledge, said Dr. Yamazaki, who has continued to research the effects of nuclear radiation on survivors in Hiroshima and after the U.S. test bombings in the Marshall Islands. He has also taken on the role of advocate by providing testimony to government commissions to relate his experiences and by promoting nuclear disarmament through his writing in various media.
Sharing his story
In 1995, Dr. Yamazaki authored “Children of the Atomic Bomb: An American Physician’s Memoir of Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and the Marshall Islands,” published by Duke University Press. The book details his youth and entry into medicine, but specifically details his experience in World War II and his efforts to understand the medical consequences of atomic warfare. He was also a contributing writer for the 2002 “Asian Americans on War & Peace,” published out of UCLA, and “The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime: Prospects for the 21st Century,” published in 1998 by Macmillan Press LTD.
Dr. James Yamazaki’s latest project is a Web site that raises awareness of the destructive capabilities and medical impact of nuclear weapons. It includes a gallery of art by survivors of the atomic bombings of Japan. Above is a painting from the gallery by Takahashi Akihiro, who was 14 at the time of the blast.
Dr. Yamazaki’s continuing ties to UCLA, where he remains Clinical Professor Emeritus, enabled him to launch his latest project – a Web site dedicated to telling the stories of atomic bomb survivors and warning of the dangers that nuclear weaponry still pose, especially as technology has advanced destructive capability. The Web site, www.childrenoftheatomicbomb.com, which is housed in the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, includes a gallery of poignant artwork created by atomic bomb survivors, many of whom were children at the time of the war.
Keeping the issue of nuclear proliferation in the minds of the public and attempting to show the human toll of nuclear warfare drive Dr. Yamazaki’s activities. He would even like to see medical schools include a course on the medical aspects of nuclear weapons.
“I would like to see students or the public create a dialogue to exchange medical information about weaponry,” said Dr. Yamazaki, who points to the U.S.’s nuclear stockpile totaling 2,400 megatons, the equivalent of 159,000 Hiroshima blasts. “If we get people talking and informed, we’ll have a citizenry that realizes what the world now requires in these days of tremendous annihilative weapons. That type of thinking may help make it a more peaceful world.”