The Luckiest or Unluckiest Man in the World? Tsutomu Yamaguchi, double A-bomb victim

March 25 2009 09:03AM

[A NOTE ON COMMENTS: I encourage vigorous debate, and this is a subject which provokes strong and divergent views. My policy has been to post every comment, regardless of content. But from now on I’m not going to put up any which contain obscenity, racist language, and personal invective about other commenters. They will be deleted.]Nagasaki_afterbomb

[Kyodo reported yesterday that Tsutomu Yamaguchi, one of the handful of people to survive the atomic bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has finally been recognised as such by the Nagasaki local government. Four years ago, shortly before the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, I interviewed Mr Yamaguchi, and two of his fellow double-hibakusha, over the course of several days. Here is the long piece which I wrote about them for the Times Magazine. See below a photograph of Mr Yamaguchi next to a replica of the "Fat Man", by an outsanding photographer, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, who has also blogged on our assigment here.]

Tsutomu Yamaguchi, Akira Iwanaga and Kuniyoshi Sato are either the luckiest or the unluckiest men alive, and after three days in their company and long hours of conversation, I still had no idea which. It is sixty years since their monstrous ordeal and all three are well into their ninth decade. Mr Sato, who is 86, uses a wheelchair after injuring his back, and 89-year old Mr Yamaguchi is almost deaf in one ear. But all of them exude the dignified vigour of elderly Japanese, the world’s healthiest and longest living race. “I was a heavy smoker,” Mr Yamaguchi told me during our first meeting, “but I gave up smoking and drinking when I was 50. I didn’t expect to live to 80. And now I’m well over 80.” The miracle is not that he is alive now, but that he made it past the age of 29.

Mr Yamaguchi and his friends are freaks of history, victims of a fate so callous and improbable that it almost raises a smile. In 1945, they were working in Hiroshima where the world’s first atomic bomb exploded 60 years ago this morning, on 6 August 1945. 140,000 people died as a result of the explosion; by pure chance, Mr Yamaguchi, Mr Sato and Mr Iwanaga, were spared. Stunned and injured, reeling from the horrors around them, they left the city for the only place they could have gone – their home town, Nagasaki, 180 miles to the west. There, on 9th August, the second atomic bomb exploded over their heads.

In a century of mass killing, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the beginning of a new age. The end of the world was transformed from an imaginative notion, the fancy of poets and prophets, into a real and living possibility. Three men survived the beginning of the end of the world, not once, but twice. Sixty years later, all three of them are alive.


They still send one another New Year cards with news of friends and family, but until I met up with Mr Yamaguchi and Mr Iwanaga in the Nagasaki Peace Memorial Park, it was the first time they had seen one another since 1969. “We sat down by the fountain of peace with young Sato, and talked for a long time,” said Mr Yamaguchi. “That was more than thirty years ago now. But we always have a mental bond, no matter how much time passes.”

These days Nagasaki is famous in the west as a symbol of tragedy, but long before 1945 it had established itself as one of the most dynamic, cosmopolitan and romantic cities in Asia. For centuries, Western innovations, western learning and western technology flowed into Japan through Nagasaki’s beautiful and celebrated harbour, surrounded on three sides by green mountains. Japan’s first gun, its first telephone, its first metal type printing press and its first pumpkins made their appearance in Nagasaki. Christianity was introduced here in the 16th century before being brutally quashed by the shoguns 100 years later. And when Japan’s embarked on its long war, first against China in the 1930s and then against the United States, Nagasaki was a crucial military and industrial base.

It was a city dominated by one company, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and it was there that Yamaguchi, Iwanaga and Sato worked as technical draughtsmen designing oil tankers. The beginning of the war with the United States was as big a surprise to ordinary Japanese as it was to the US Navy in Pearl Harbour. But by the middle of 1942, the runaway military successes of the first six months of the war went into a grinding reverse, and the country was stricken by terrible shortages.

"I never thought Japan should start a war,” said Mr Yamaguchi. “It seemed so sudden – I was amazed. Soon we were running out of iron, steel and oil, but the tankers bringing in the oil were constantly being sunk by submarines. If ten tankers went out, and one of them came back, that was considered a success. At work, I could see the shortage of materials and the loss of personnel, but we couldn’t keep up with demand and quite soon thought that Japan couldn’t win.”

In May 1945, Mr Yamaguchi’s first child, a boy named Katsutoshi, was born. “I thought about what I would do when we were defeated and the enemy would invade this country,” he said. “I thought about what to do with my wife and family when the enemy came. Rather than letting them be killed I should do something, give them sleeping pills and kill them, kill my wife and family. I was seriously considering such things.” As Mr Yamaguchi was preoccupied with these appalling thoughts came bad news. Along with Sato and Iwanaga, he was to be dispatched to work in another shipyard of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries – in Hiroshima.

For a new father, the timing could not have been worse, but there was no choice. From spring until summer, the three men worked long days in the southern outskirts of Hiroshima on the waters of the Seto Inland Sea. After three months the job was done and orders were given to return to Nagasaki on 7th August 1945. The day before they rose early, packed their bags, and set out from their lodgings to say goodbye to their colleagues.

On the bus, Mr Yamaguchi realised that he had forgotten something important – the personal name stamp which he needed to sign off on his departure documents. While his two colleagues went ahead of him, Mr Yamaguchi hurried back to the company dormitory, picked up the stamp, jumped back on the bus and got off at the last stop. Then he began the thirty minute walk to the Mitsubishi Shipyard.

We were sitting outside as Mr Yamaguchi described all of this, in the garden of his daughter’s house on a beautiful hillside outside Nagasaki. The hillside was covered with fruit trees; Mr Yamaguchi’s daughter, Toshiko, brought bowls of sweet loquats. “I was walking towards the shipyard,” said Mr Yamaguchi. “It was a flat, open spot with potato fields on either side. It was very clear, a really fine day, nothing unusual about it at all. I was in good spirits. As I was walking along I heard the sound of a plane, just one. I looked up into they sky and saw the B-29, and it dropped two parachutes. I was looking up into the sky at them, and suddenly … it was like a flash of magnesium, a great flash in the sky, and I was blown over.”

The American B-29 bomber ‘Enola Gay’ had flown from the Pacific island of Tinian 1500 miles away. It had dropped a 13 kiloton uranium atomic bomb, nicknamed ‘Little Boy’, which exploded 580 metres above the centre of Hiroshima at thirty seconds after 8.15am.

“I didn’t know what had happened,” Mr Yamaguchi went on. “I think I fainted for a while. When I opened my eyes, everything was dark, and I couldn’t see much. It was like the start of a film at the cinema, before the picture has begun when the blank frames are just flashing up without any sound. I saw my baby son, and I saw my wife and brothers – they all came to my eyes in a flash. I thought I might have died, but eventually the darkness cleared and I realised I was alive.’

“When the noise and the blast had subsided I saw a huge mushroom-shaped pillar of fire rising up high into the sky. It was like a tornado, although it didn’t move, but it rose and spread out horizontally at the top. There was prismatic light, which was changing in a complicated rhythm, like the patterns of a kaleidoscope. The first thing I did was to check that I still had my legs and whether I could move them. I thought, ‘If I stay here, I’ll die.’

“Two hundred yards ahead, there was a dugout bomb shelter, and when I climbed in there were two young students already sitting there. They said, ‘You’ve been badly cut, you’re seriously injured.’ And it was then I realised I had a bad burn on half my face, and that my arms were burned.”

After two hours in the shelter, Mr Yamaguchi set out again for the shipyard. He walked past a small hill which lay between it and the city centre. Anti-aircraft guns had been mounted there; the bodies of the gunners lay sprawled and motionless. But the shelter of the hill had saved the lives of Mr Iwanaga and Mr Sato and their colleagues in the shipyard.

They had been inside the works office at the moment of the explosion, saying their goodbyes. Glass and furniture had flown across the room, but apart from a few cuts and bruises no one had been seriously injured. They had gone out to look for Mr Yamaguchi, but returned in despair, beaten back by the fires and the broken bridges. “I was glad to see them, and they were glad to see me too,” he said. “The three of us were together again, and we had survived.”

City-dwelling Japanese were well used to being bombed by this stage in the war, but everyone immediately recognised that this was something new. “We had no idea what kind of bomb it was, of course,” said Mr Yamaguchi. “All we knew was that it had been just a single bomb, but it had done all this.” The one thing that everyone remembered was that the explosion had two distinct components. First came the soundless flash of blinding magnesium light, and fractionally later the blast wave and the roar. It was this observation that gave the bomb its earliest name in Japanese, based on the onomatopoeic expressions for a flash and boom: pika-don.

The three took a motor launch to try to find a way back in to the city and to their lodgings. “From the boat we could see the city burning,” said Mr Yamaguchi. “Every branch of the delta was burning. The sky was dark, so you could clearly see these pillars of flame. I thought that all of Hiroshima was finished.” But it was only after they disembarked and began the walk back to their lodgings that they understood what this new kind of bomb had done to people. These are the scenes that every survivor of Hiroshima or Nagasaki remembers, the images that crawl through their dreams and wake them up in the middle of the night.

To Mr Yamaguchi, there seemed to be children everywhere, some running, many limping along the side of the road. “They didn’t cry,” he said. “I saw no tears at all. Their hair was burned, and they were completely naked. I saw so many of these children. Behind them big fires burned. Miyuki Bridge, next to our dormitory, was still standing, but all over it there were burned people, children as well as adults, some of them dead, some of them on the verge of death. They were the ones who couldn’t walk any more, who had just lain down. None of them spoke, none of them had the strength to say a word. It’s funny that during that time, I didn’t hear human speech, or shouts, just the sound of the city burning. Under the bridge there were many more bodies, bobbing in the water like blocks of wood.”

After a sleepless night in an air raid shelter, they retrieved their bags from the ruins of their dormitory and made for the west of the city, where a single railway station was operating. They passed more scenes of human agony: blinded people, people with their faces so swollen it was impossible to tell if they were men or women, people with their skins hanging off their bodies. “We saw a mother with a baby on her back,” said Mr Iwanaga. “She looked as if she had lost her mind. The child on her back was dead and I don’t know if she even realised. There were some things I couldn’t look at – internal organs hanging out, the tongue or the eyes hanging loose. If you have a normal set of nerves it’s very difficult to look at something like that.”

They were corpses along every road and in all the rivers, as well as the corpses of horses. At one downed bridge, the three men had to wade through a river, parting before them a floating carpet of dead bodies. They reached the station, and forced their way through the crowds which were pressing to get on the train for the overnight journey to Nagasaki. Mr Sato got separated from his two friends and it was he who witnessed the final horror.

A young man sat opposite him in the carriage clasping on his knees an awkward bundle wrapped in a cloth. An appalling smell issued from the bundle; with every bump and lurch of the train, the young man gripped it tightly. “I asked him what it was,” remembered Mr Sato, “and he said, ‘I married a month ago, but my wife died yesterday. I want to take her home to her parents.’” He lifted the cloth and showed Mr Sato what lay beneath: it was an upturned helmet containing the severed head of the young man’s wife.

At the distance of 60 years it seems incredible, a cosmic joke, that anyone should be exposed to two atomic bombs, but at the time that was exactly what Mr Yamaguchi and his friends expected. They had no way of knowing that the United States possessed only two of the weapons, or that Hiroshima was the only city to have been attacked with them. When they got home all three men thought the same thing: that it could only be a matter of time before the same thing happened in Nagasaki, and that urgent preparations needed to be made.

Mr Sato and Mr Iwanaga went to their homes on the outskirts of the city and set about removing the glass from their windows and deepening their dug out air raid shelters. Mr Yamaguchi went straight to the hospital where his burns were treated and bandaged – it is this prompt treatment, he believes, which saved him from the appalling keloid scars which disfigured other victims of the bomb. Other men might have used exposure to an atomic bomb as an excuse to take a few days off work. But the next day, as perhaps only a Japanese worker would, he reported for work at the shipyard.

“I was covered in bandages,” he said. “People could only see my eyes, lips and nose. Until I opened my mouth, my own mother didn’t recognise me. I reported to the director who had sent me to Hiroshima and he asked me what was going on there. I said that I didn’t know what kind of bomb it was but that a single one had destroyed the entire city. I told him that I had come back with Iwanaga, but that I failed to come back with Sato, although I knew he was alive.

“Well, the director was angry. He reproached me for losing Sato. He said: ‘A single bomb can’t destroy a whole city! You’ve obviously been badly injured, and I think you’ve gone a little mad.’ At that moment, outside the window, I saw another flash and the whole office, everything in it, was blown over.

“We were both on the ground. The director was shouting, ‘Help me! Help me!’ I realised at once what had happened, that it was the same thing as in Hiroshima. But I was so angry with the director. I climbed out of the window and got away because I had to help myself.”

A second B-29, ‘Bock’s Car’, had left Tinian that morning. It had dropped a 25 kiloton plutonium bomb, known as ‘Fat Man’, which exploded above the northern part of Nagasaki at 11.02am.

At that moment, Mr Iwanaga was dozing on a suburban train bound for central Nagasaki. The glass on the side of the train facing the city was blown in, but he escaped without injury.

Mr Sato was also in the shipyard, standing by the quayside. “People were asking me what happened in Hiroshima, because they had heard rumours,” he said, “I was just explaining when I saw the flash of light. Instinctively I knew what was happening, so I jumped immediately into the water.” He trod water for an hour, and escaped without a scratch.

Mr Yamaguchi crawled home to his wife and baby, who had no more than scratches and bruises. The blast had blown off his bandages, exposing the raw burns. The hospital where he had been treated the day before was destroyed; 70,000 people were dead or dying. Mr Yamaguchi curled up in the shelter behind his damaged house, and lay there for days, semi-conscious, in a high fever, hovering between life and death.

“I must have stayed there for a week,” he said. “I didn’t know if it was night or day. Then one day, it was the 15th August, I realised that people around me were crying. Some were crying, some were delighted.” They were listening to the famous broadcast by Emperor Hirohito, the first one ever made by a Japanese emperor, announcing Japan’s surrender. “I had no feeling about it,” Mr Yamaguchi said. “I was neither sorry nor glad. I was seriously ill with a fever, eating almost nothing, hardly even drinking. I thought that I was about to cross to the other side.”

*                    *                    *

For sixty years, soldiers, politicians and historians have argued about the morality of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Did it bring an end to the war, removing the need for a land invasion which would have killed many more civilians and soldiers than the bomb itself? Or was it a cynical test of a new weapon on an enemy which was already on the verge of collapse? Whatever moral doubts exist about the bombing of Hiroshima, they are redoubled in the case of Nagasaki.

In the three days since the first bomb, no word had come from Tokyo suggesting imminent surrender. But American intelligence was fully aware of the confusion which reigned in the Japanese High Command: the question under debate was not whether, but how, to submit to the inevitable. It knew too that, with the entry into the Pacific War of the Soviet Union, Japan’s decline was irreversible. “Why did they have to drop another bomb on Nagasaki?” Mr Yamaguchi asked me as we sat in the fruit garden. “They could have made their point by dropping one bomb. I think they were in a hurry to show their superiority. It would have been one thing if they had used it on a battlefield. But they knew that it would kill women, children, babies. How could they do that?”

The years after the war were hard ones for the three men from the Mitsubishi shipyard. But all of them eventually won their share in Japan’s astonishing post-war prosperity. Mr Iwanaga became a civil servant in the Nagasaki City Office, and Mr Sato had a career in the local government of nearby Amakusa island, where he still lives. Mr Yamaguchi worked first for the US military occupation, then as a teacher, and finally returned to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. He is the oldest of the three, and the most emotional and imaginative. Sato and Iwanaga, practical engineers and bureaucrats, seemed to me to have overcome the anguish of the atomic bombings. But in Tsutomu Yamaguchi, I sense, it lives on undiminished.

"I write poems, songs of the atomic bomb,” he said, and he wept as he spoke. “People often ask me to write new ones. When I’m writing a poem like that, I have to transport myself back to when it happened, and that’s tough for me. That’s tough. On those nights I dream of what I saw. I dream of the dead lying on the ground. They get up from the ground and they walk past me, one by one. This is the dream I have when I write poems, when I remember the wasteland.”

I read one of Mr Yamaguchi’s tanka, a traditional Japanese stanza, which he wrote in 1969.

Thinking of myself
As a phoenix
I cling on until now.
But how painful they have been,
These twenty-four years past.

I asked Mr Yamaguchi if he felt optimistic about the future. He hesitated, then said: “I have hope for the future.”

Where did that hope come from? “I believe in love, in human beings,” he said, and he was weeping again. “The reason that I hate the atomic bomb is because of what it does to the dignity of human beings. Look at the photographs of the aftermath of the atomic bombing, those dead bodies in the photographs. When you forget the dignity of individual human beings, that it is when you are heading towards the destruction of the earth.”

What did it mean, I asked, to have lived through two atomic bombs? “I think that it is a miracle,” he said. “But, having been granted this miracle, it is my responsibility to pass on the truth to the people of the world. For the past 60 years, atomic bomb survivors have declared the horror of the atomic bomb, but I can see hardly any improvement in the situation.”

Towards the end of our long conversation, Mr Yamaguchi wept repeatedly. It was the week of the United Nations conference on non-proliferation Treaty. The mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had travelled to New York to make an appeal for disarmament on behalf of the survivors of the atomic bomb. But the meeting had ended in failure, and Mr Yamaguchi was taking it hard.

There was another reason for his sadness. His wife had lived in an old people’s home for five years, and in March, Katsutoshi, the baby son born amid such trepidation, had died too. “My son was born in February 1945,” Mr Yamaguchi said. “He was exposed to the radiation of the bomb when he was just six months old. He died this February 4th at the age of 59. He had cancer. The son of 59 died, leaving the father of 89 behind. He was still a baby to me. The death of my son takes away my will to live.” Mr Yamaguchi was consoling himself with a demanding spiritual exercise. He was painting the images of Buddhas, representing the 88 temples of a famous pilgrimage on the island of Shikoku. “I am too old to visit those places physically,” he said. “But by painting in their colours, I want to pray for the spirits of the people who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and for my son.”

I heard from Mr Yamaguchi’s daughter the other day. He had worked day and night to colour in the drawings of the Buddhas of the Shikoku pilgrimage, she said, and had finished all 88 of them; afterwards he fell into an exhausted depression. He seemed calmer these days, but detached, and she understood the reason. It was as if he was preparing to cross over to the other side.