Dr. James Yamazaki

Narrative of Dr. James Yamazaki

Legacy Conference 2011

By: Christine Imazumi

I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Dr. James Yamazaki, a UCLA professor emeritus in pediatrics, whose activism lies in his life experiences. As with many niseis, his life changed with the events of World War II. He not only saw American internment camps and experienced battles in Germany, but he also was sent to Japan soon after the atomic bombing to study its long term effects. He has actively asserted the need for an open discussion on the impact of nuclear weapons and advocated for a world without this dangerous power. Having experienced wartime devastation and living with atomic bomb survivors, he has gained an insight on the reality of the bomb and has dedicated his life to seeking to convey this message to others.
James Yamazaki was born on July 6, 1916 in Los Angeles, growing up on a designated Japanese American street nicknamed the “Fedora Ghetto” which is now part of what is known as Koreatown. As a child, he experienced a warm sense of community in the area, feeling at home walking into any of the nearby houses. Yamazaki’s father was an Episcopalian priest at the local St. Mary’s church which was where most of the neighborhood children attended. The church served as a community center, especially for the children, and had a popular Americanization program to help integrate the new immigrants. “My father’s programs were focused toward young people and the community supported it very much. Most of the kids in the neighborhood came to the church.” In this way, even though they were new to America, it felt like that they at least had a community in which they belonged. Having this type of supportive community was an important part of the adjustment of many immigrant groups trying to find their place in America.

Despite having this community, racial prejudice was still prevalent directly outside of the area. The community was in an enclave that was surrounded by more affluent people who didn’t associate themselves with the new Japanese immigrants. Yamazaki attended a high school surrounded by a gated community, an area where the Japanese students never felt like a part of the student population. “Even in graduation, we were never invited to the social activities. We had the feeling we weren’t welcome, but on the other hand, we had no connection to Japan in terms of culture.” With this opposition, many of the Japanese students felt that it was best to try to integrate and be accepted into the society.

In 1935, Yamazaki began attending the University of California Los Angeles. Although there was such a small student population at the time, he wasn’t the only Japanese student, since about a hundred other niseis also attended the school among the student body of 8,000.  However, after graduation, Yamazaki still faced the same type of racial prejudice troubles in the job market. Even with a UCLA degree, the only jobs he could find were on farms picking vegetables and fruits and packing sheds. “I didn’t think that the Constitution, especially about the equity of all people, applied to us, to US Asians. We couldn’t even get jobs.” Even though he tried to better belong to American society by becoming prepared and educated, Yamazaki still faced the same racial troubles that Japanese have faced their entire lives.

Many things changed for the Japanese with the outbreak of World War II. Similar to the teachings of the Americanization program at the church, Yamazaki’s father advocated for the neighborhood children to serve in the United States armed forces during the war, hoping that in this way, they would become better integrated into society. “My feeling was first that of survival, where do we go to live when the war was over? The only way to survive in this kind of environment is mixed in with that population. Maybe when the war was over, maybe we would be more acceptable.” Yamazaki himself volunteered to serve for the army even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. With this similar mindset, almost all draft-eligible Japanese young men in his neighborhood volunteered to serve in the Army of the United States.

At the time of Pearl Harbor, Yamazaki was attending a medical school in Wisconsin so he was allowed to continue his medical training. However, his family was a part of the over 100,000 Japanese Americans who were taken to live in internment camps starting in 1942. His brother was sent to a camp located at Gila, Arizona while his father to Jerome, Arkansas. Faced with the racism and opposition while growing up, Yamazaki holds a unique view on this forced movement of Japanese Americans. “When World War II broke out, in a way, I was glad that we were in a camp where the rest of the population couldn’t turn on us.” He saw internment in the more positive light of keeping the Japanese away and safe from the rest of the community rather than the other way around.

From 1944-1946, Yamazaki served in the United States Army as a battalion surgeon for the 106th Infantry Division in Germany.  “We had a lot of close calls in Europe, tank warfare, aerial bombardment, and the actual battle. I feel like a lucky guy to be among those who returned home from the war.” At the Battle of the Bulge, a major German offensive, Yamazaki was captured by the Germans and held in a prison camp from December of 1944 to May 1945. Even at such a young age, Yamazaki had already had more than one person’s share of wartime experiences. He not only saw his family in American internment camps, but experienced German imprisonment and warfare that would shape his future perspectives. “I was confined behind  barbed  wires, an acceptable consequence to soldiers of belligerent nations at war. The most impressive part of my war experience is that I survived and was able to come home while I witnessed those that did not return.” During this experience, he saw how there was no limit to the intense feelings toward the Japanese. “Warfare is almost like an overkill. It started with 65 cities of fire bombing in Japan and then the a-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was just the end piece. It’s hard, as a physician, because each individual life is so valuable to me. Killing people at this level is not just unwarranted, but an almost inhumane type of behavior. The feelings between the two countries was mutual, they hated each other.”

Upon his return from war, Yamazaki knew that he wanted to extend his medical training. “All the young doctors, we were in unison, we thought that we needed more training before we could practice medicine.” Along with his wife, Aki, a nutritionist, he wrote about 100 letters searching around for a residency to continue his training. After a search, In 1946, Yamazaki was able to secure a residency at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, one of the oldest and top ones in the country. “We were fortunate to get this.” He then went on to complete more training at the Children’s Hospital of Cincinnati for three years.

Then in 1949, Yamazaki was given a unique and interesting opportunity that would extend his involvement in a different aspect of the war. On August 6 and August 9 of 1945, during the end of World War II, the United States bombed Japan in the only use of nuclear weapons in history. The human toll was devastating with roughly 120,000 in Hiroshima and 70,000 in Nagasaki killed within the first few months after the bombing. With this attack being the first and only use of nuclear bombs, the National Academy of Sciences, a non-profit group of individuals that make decisions of scientific importance for the good of the public, decided it was necessary to put together a team to go and study the long term effects of the bomb. Yamazaki was recruited to be the lead physician of the team sent to Nagasaki to establish the United States Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission clinic and laboratory facilities to study the atomic bomb. “When I was recruited, it did arouse my interest to see what this other war was all about.” Therefore, after just completing his pediatric training and barely starting his life with his wife and 5 month old child, he made the move with them to Japan.

The NAS created the study, still occurring today, looking at 100,000 survivors of the bomb to see what the long term effects of radiation may be. In Japan, Yamazaki developed a relationship with the local Japanese community and worked with the faculty of Nagasaki University Medical School to study the bomb and its victims. The possibility of nuclear bombing has helped to create an entirely new layer to modern warfare that is yet to be fully explored and studied. “We could relate to the experience that occurred to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and appreciate the enormity of the atomic bomb’s lethal effect to life and instant destruction of their cities. Seven months earlier in Europe, we were involved in largest land battle of WWII, the Battle of the Bulge, that lasted three weeks, involving a million soldiers, with 50,000 casualties, all the while, surviving massive Allied air raids while a prisoner of war, but the atomic attack lasted less than a minute. We were able to appreciate how warfare has changed.” Being able to experience and study the immediate and lasting effects of the bomb left an impression on Yamazaki. “It became my lifetime work to let people know what nuclear warfare can do to future populations.”

Yamazaki continued his studies on the effects of such radiation upon his return to the United States by working on a project at UCLA starting in 1952. At the time, the dean of the UCLA medical school was the head of the medical section of the Manhattan project, the program responsible for producing the atomic bomb, so there was full support for completing the research. “We were able to link to different groups, the embryologists, the chemists, the radiologists .. to study radiation on the developing brain.” They discovered that the developing brain is the most sensitive to radiation and that it actually destroys the development of the brain, leading to mental retardation and seizures. This causes more punishing effects when a person is exposed early in life. “Cancer is one of the more prominent effects of radiation. Leukemia developed in children soon after the bombing. The incidence of cancer was greater in girls exposed in childhood compared to those women exposed in adulthood.” Therefore, not only was the initial impact of the bomb so devastating on human life, the after effects were equal, or even greater, in threat and terror for the people it impacted.

From 1952 to 1988, Yamazaki cultivated his medical practice by working at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and worked on the graduate training committee and the medical executive committee during this time. He also started a private pediatric practice from 1953 to 1987. Having a family doctor while growing up, Yamazaki appreciated the warm relationship a doctor can have with his patients and carried it over to his own practice. “Value each individual person, as a physician that is our main purpose. I think that it’s quite a privilege that people come and ask this responsibility. When push comes to shove, if each person feels that kind of responsibility to each other, a lot of problems would be erased.” He approached both his practice and research with this sense of caring that was showed in the work that he completed.

Having trained as a pediatrician, Yamazaki had a particular interest for the studies of how children were affected by the bomb’s radiation. “Change in the DNA would result in genetic injury. This type of injury would alter development of cells and create cancer that would effect normal development of the individuals, most notably in the developing fetus.” To make more people aware of his studies and the significance of the subject, he wrote a book with Louis B. Fleming called “Children of the Atomic Bomb: An American Physician’s Memoir of Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and the Marshall Islands” published in 1955. This book depicts the horrors and human loss that is often overlooked in discussions about the events of these atomic bombings. Yamazaki continually advocates the need to really spread this information to everyone in society. Especially as time moves forward and people begin to forget about the events of World War II, there is a greater need to keep up this kind of advocacy. The bombing itself may be becoming more a part of history, but the threat of nuclear weapons is still ever present as more countries are gaining the ability to develop such power.

Yamazaki has continually played an active role throughout his career in sharing information about what he has learned about nuclear weapons. He both participates and contributes to many symposiums and conferences on the nuclear issue. He has been involved in a wide variety of programs such as in Washington D.C with the U.S. Public Health Service and Atomic Energy Commission for a conference and with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Los Angeles to give a perspective about nuclear war. Most recently, last year, Yamazaki participated at the United Nations as a part of a panel to discuss the medical effects of the nuclear weapons. He has also participated in various radio and television interviews such as with National Public Radio and KABC, a Southern California radio station. Yamazaki has come a long way from feeling isolated in the Japanese community he grew up in. He has been successful in spreading his influence not only across the nation but even internationally through his participation and knowledge on the nuclear weapons discussion.

Throughout the interview, Yamazaki insisted on the importance of making the younger generation aware of the issue of the atomic bomb. “Eventually, I think that the young people can develop a dialogue where people can start discussing a world without nuclear weapons. I feel there is plenty of drive and motivation and brain power in the young people that it could be developed. It’s their world, it’s their future, and they should think about it.” There are many in this new generation who have not been personally affected by the bomb and therefore don’t have as much connection or passion for the cause. However, Yamazaki insists that it’s important to keep up such nuclear conversations because we shouldn’t wait until another bomb threat to occur to take action. There should be a constant discussion so that there is not another Hiroshima or Nagasaki devastation.

In particular, Yamazaki thought that college campuses would be a good way to spark conversation and gain more activism for the cause. “Everyone, including students, need to be aware of the impact of nuclear weapons. Maybe this type of dialogue should be a main part of the student’s education, politics, and academic intrigue.” In the past, there have been classes on such campuses as Tufts, Loyola, USC, Pomona, and UCLA, but there is only limited support for such teachings. Although, currently, there aren’t any of these type of classes found in the course catalogue. “Get your generation to be involved, there is plenty of brainpower there to harness and to do a lot of things. I think that you need someone to take the bull by the horns. Once you get the ball rolling, it might make some of these problems resolved.”

Currently, the 95-year-old Yamazaki resides in Washington with his wife, but still continues to remain active in the community. He still collaborates with UCLA, especially closely in recent years with the Asian American studies center on campus. With the center, he has developed a website named “Children of the Atomic Bomb” (http://www.aasc.ucla.edu/cab/index.html), a site that is dedicated to UCLA’s involvement in the nuclear age using reports from professors, such as Yamazaki. It provides an opportunity for people to find more information on the nuclear issue as well as connect to others interested in the cause.

I am very glad that I had the opportunity to be able to talk to such a wonderful individual as Dr. Yamazaki. I think that everyone can gain so much by taking the time to hear his story and learning from his many experiences. He has a unique and interesting story, as a man of war turned researcher and pediatrician. Not many individuals are given the chance to research and provide personal experiences to the greater debate about nuclear weapons on both the national and international stage. However brief our encounter may have been, I will be influenced by all that he has done and work to implement his visions in the future. His activism may be different from others in the nisei community, but he is a perfect example of the passion and power within this special group of individuals.

Personally from this interview, I have learned the importance of hearing the stories and experiences of past generations. With this new age of technology, information spreads so easily, yet can become hidden from everyone’s minds just as quickly as it comes. Even I can admit that I am at fault to this new trend of forgetting what isn’t readily right in front of me. Dr. Yamazaki has taught me the great importance of not forgetting the past and maintaing ongoing discussions even for issues that might not look as immediately relevant. Especially as a current student at UCLA, I feel that there are so many resources out there to continue such activism or at least be aware of the issues that there isn’t an excuse for us to ignore them any longer. Throughout the interview, Dr. Yamazaki asked me questions about my own activism and thoughts on the issues at hand as a “young person”. His thoughts and perspectives have helped me to realize the importance of my activism as a younger person in the community. Even though I may not have had the experiences of Dr. Yamazaki, I can still learn from these stories and make a difference in what is going on around me, especially by educating my peers. I hope to be able to follow the example set by Dr. Yamazaki and be willing to learn from the older generations and use this knowledge to influence the world around us.

At the end of the interview, Yamazaki gave some suiting words of encouragement and optimism for the future. “It’s an ongoing thing, I have tremendous confidence that each generation has a lot of power in individuals, that if harnessed together could resolve some of these problems.” Let’s hope that this continued collaboration of individuals serves to promote further discussions and knowledge on many issues.

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