Yoshiro Yamawaki’s Interview
Yoshiro Yamawaki is a hibakusha, an atomic bomb survivor. He was 11 years old when the U.S. dropped the “Fat Man” atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945. Yamawaki’s father was killed; Yamawaki and his twin brother, who were 2.2 kilometers away from the hypocenter, survived. Today, Yamawaki shares his testimony and advocates for the elimination of nuclear weapons. In 2010 the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed him as a Special Communicator for a World without Nuclear Weapons. In this interview, Yamawaki recalls the day of the atomic bombing and its aftermath. He discusses how the bomb affected his family, including the health complications he and his brothers have faced, and calls for humanity to “make sure that Nagasaki is the last place on Earth to suffer an atomic bombing.”
[Note: This interview contains graphic descriptions of the aftermath of the atomic bombing.]
Cindy Kelly: I want to begin by saying it’s February 19, 2019 and we are in Nagasaki, Japan. If you could introduce yourself–say your name and spell it. Just tell me your name.
Yoshiro Yamawaki: My name is Yoshiro Yamawaki, Y-O-S-H-I-R-O Y-A-M-A-W-A-K-I.
Kelly: Great. Okay, well thank you. You are a survivor of the Nagasaki atomic bomb. How old were you at the time? Tell us your story.
Yamawaki: I was eleven years old. I was in the second grade of elementary school [when] Japan started the Pacific War, when our newspaper and radio reported that Japan drew battle lines with the United States or Britain. Many Japanese believed Japan would carry out a victory.
It is because we were instilled with the idea that Japan was a land of God from the time we were young. However, as the war was prolonged, the defeat of Japan became clear. The war was still going on when I entered the sixth grade, and it was during summer vacation of that year that the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
I was exposed to the atomic bombing while at home, some 2.2 kilometers from the site of the explosion. At present I am 85 years old, the same age as the current Emperor of Japan [Akihito, who abdicated in April 2019]. To be precise, the Emperor’s birthday is December 29, 1933, and I was born six days after. Please remember my talk if there is an opportunity for you to catch a sight of the Japanese Emperor on television or in a newspaper.
Let me first tell you about my family. My father, who was 47 years old, worked as an engineer for the Mitsubishi Electric Corporation. My mother was 37 years old. And there were seven children including myself. My older brother was 14 years old and a third-year junior high school student. My twin brother and I were 11 years old and sixth grade at elementary school. I had two younger sisters and two younger brothers as well, making for a total of nine people in our family.
However, in my family, only my father and the three older brothers suffered the damage of the atomic bomb. Actually, U.S. Air Forces Lockheed fighters and Grumman fighters attacked Nagasaki three times two weeks before the atomic bombing. On the last day of these attacks, August 1, the bomb of one was dropped on Inasa International Cemetery, which was near my house.
With the blast, the big gravestones broke through the roof of my house and fell inside. My mother was shocked by this incident. She took my young brother and sister and went to her mother’s home in Saga the day before the atomic bombing. Therefore, that damage of the atomic bomb was suffered only by my father and we three brothers.
Let me explain about the copies you have been given. This is the back of the atomic bombing hypocenter area at the time. The red line shows the route that my brother and I took immediately after the bombing. When we went from our house, which is marked with X, to the place where our father’s factory was located. We went there because my father had not returned home.
Please look at this photograph. This boy was exposed to the atomic bombing at the point of the map where the blue mark is. He had been riding his bicycle, delivering mail for the post office. At the moment of the explosion, the skin melted from his back leaving it looking like a flushed tomato. He was thrown through the air with his bicycle and lost consciousness. His name is Mr. [Sumiteru] Taniguchi. You can see that my house was just outside the 2-kilometer radius in which this boy was. The only reason I didn’t suffer the same horrible wounds as he did was that I had gone to the back part of my house for five minutes before the bomb exploded. I will talk more about this later.
On the morning of the atomic bombing, my father and three of us boys woke up at home. My mother had taken our four younger brothers and sisters and evacuated to the family home in the countryside. After getting breakfast, our father went off to work as usual. My older brother, the junior high school student, went off to the weapons factory where he was helping out as part of the Mobilized Student Forces. The two of us twins stayed at home because it was summer vacation and until just before 11 o’clock, we were out on the veranda. When we got hungry, we went in the sitting room in the back of my house.
While we were in the sitting room around the table, a whitish blue light shot across the room. Then came a roar that seemed to shake the whole house. The two of us got down on the tatami mats and covered our eyes, ears, and noses with our fingers, just like we had been taught to do. While we were in that position, plaster from the walls and other debris came falling down on top of us. I thought that a bomb had directly hit our property and that we would probably be buried alive there. The falling debris didn’t continue falling for all that long, however.
After a few minutes, the falling debris became more infrequent and while lying there, the voices of people in the neighborhood screaming and crying reached my ears. While remaining down on the ground, I lifted my head up and looked around to find everything completely changed. Almost all the furniture had been mangled and tossed around. The walls had come crumbling down. In every room, tatami mat floors were covered with dirt and debris, with furniture scattered all about.
The roof had been blown off as well and we could see the sky. The pillars and the walls were embedded with large numbers of sharp-edged fragments of broken glass. The other houses in the neighborhood were in the same state of destruction. Across the harbor, the central part of the city was covered in clouds of dust.
The two of us evacuated to the bomb shelter in our yard where we waited for our father and older brother to come home. About an hour had passed when our brother arrived home from his factory. At that time, he said that it was too dangerous to stay in that tiny bomb shelter and that we should move to a larger one nearby.
That bomb shelter, which was like a tunnel carved into the cliffside, was filled with mothers and their children. The children, who had been showered in the heat rays while outside, had suffered burns to any exposed skin. Other children were crying because their bodies had been stabbed by shards of glass and other fragments that had been thrown by the blast. If my twin brother and I had left the veranda to go to the sitting room five minutes later, we most likely would have suffered horrible wounds from the heat rays and blast. We spent that entire night waiting anxiously for our father to come back. By the next morning, however, he still hadn’t returned. At that point, the three of us brothers headed off to find him.
Please look at this. Please look at the map you have been given. By looking at that red line, you can see that we walked from a point about 2 kilometers from the hypocenter to a place only 500 meters away from it. Of course, we didn’t have any idea that the bomb dropped had been an atomic bomb, nor that my father’s factory was so close to the site where it had been exploded. As we continued on, the damage grew worse and worse. The houses at the roadside had all burned to the ground and the trees and electric poles were scorched, although they remained standing.
The factories on the other side of the river now looked like masses of clustered wire with only the largest of their columns remaining standing. There were many dead bodies among the debris littering the roads. Their faces, arms, and legs had swollen up, making them look like black rubber dolls. When our shoes touched these bodies, the skin would come peeling off just like that of an overripe peach, exposing the white fat underneath.
There were many dead bodies floating in the river as well. We were drawn to one that belonged to a young woman of about 18 or 19 from which a white cloth belt was dragging behind. Looking closer, we saw that this white belt was really her intestines, which were protruding from the side of her abdomen. Feeling nauseous, we turned our eyes away and hurried off again in the direction of our father’s factory.
When we had come within about 100 meters of our father’s factory, my brother suddenly screamed out and stood paralyzed with fear. I looked over his shoulder to see a boy of six or seven who had died with something white hanging out of his mouth. At first glance, it seemed to me that he had been vomiting up noodles when he died. Looking closer, however, I realized that the roundworms that had been living inside his body had come shooting out at once. We ran away, fighting back our nausea.
Our father’s factory had also been reduced to nothing but scorched metal framing. Through the demolished walls, we caught a glimpse of the factory and saw three men working with shovels. Overjoyed, we called out, “Our name is Yamawaki. Where is our father?”
One of the men glanced over and said, “Your father is over there.” He pointed in the direction of the demolished office building.
The three of us dashed off in the direction he had pointed to. What we saw there, however, was our father’s corpse, swollen and scorched just like all the others. As we stood there stunned, the men with the shovels said to us, “If you want to take your father back home with you, you had better cremate him here. If you don’t want to do that, the only other thing to do is bury him here. What are you going to do?”
The crematories had also been destroyed in the bombing and couldn’t be used. With nothing else to do, we went around the scorched ruins of the factory and gathered up the smoldering pieces of wood so we could perform the cremation right there. We put our father’s body on top of a bed of burned posts and then piled up the pieces of wood on top of him.
When we lit it on fire, the flames rose high in the air. We put our hands together and said prayers for him. When we looked up again after finishing our prayers, we saw both of our father’s feet sticking out from the fire. That was an absolutely unbearable thing to see. Our feelings must have showed because the men from the factory said, “You had better go home for today. You can come back tomorrow and collect the remains.”
The next morning, we looked around the kitchen area of our demolished house for a pot to put our father’s remains in. We found one and the three of us took it along with us as we went to collect our father’s remains. It was very strange, but we weren’t scared at all by any of the corpses we saw. We only thought of them as objects that blocked our way as we walked. When we arrived at the place where we had cremated our father’s body, however, a shock awaited us. The body still remained as it had been the day before in a half-cremated state, and covered over with ash. There weren’t any people from the company around. We three brothers only wanted to collect our father’s cremated bones, but his half-cremated body was lying exposed. The only part of his body that had been cremated were the tips of his hands and feet and part of his stomach. We could only pick out a few of his bones.
This body, which was like a skeleton covered in ash, was far more gruesome than the corpse of someone just deceased. It was even more unpleasant when we thought about how this body belonged to the same father we had always talked to and eaten meals with. It was so that I couldn’t bear to look at our father’s body anymore and I said to my brother, “Let’s go home now and leave his body here.”
Thinking about that, I know that it was not a good thing to do. My brother looked at our father’s body for a while longer and then said, “We can’t do anything more. We will just take his skull home and that will be the end.” With the tongs my brother had brought, he touched our father’s skull. However, it crumbled apart like a plaster model and half-burned brains came falling out. Letting out a scream, my brother threw down the tongs and darted away. The other two of us ran after him. These were the circumstances under which we forsook our father’s body.
I think that all people who lost family members and others close to them in the atomic bombing went through experiences similar to this. There were 70,000 people who were killed in an instant by a single atomic bomb.
My mother, who had gone out to the country with the youngest children on the day of the atomic bombing, passed away 13 years ago at the age of 97. I never ever told her the details of what happened when we went to retrieve our father’s remains, including how the brains had run out from his half-cremated skull and how we had then run away home. Actually, another reason we didn’t tell her was that she was, in fact, my stepmother, who had taken care of us since our real mother passed away when we were two years old.
After our father died, my twin brother and I began working. We were 15 years old then and we worked for the next 45 years until we were 60. While working, we went to night school to complete our high school education. When I was 35, I began to have liver and kidney troubles. Because of this, I have been admitted to Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Hospital 15 times. I was given interferon and other treatment, which I am still receiving. Unfortunately, in September 2008, my doctor informed me that I had stomach cancer. In October, I underwent surgery at Nagasaki University Hospital. In January 2010, I had surgery again. I should add that my older brother and my twin brother are also victims of cancer.
One university professor has written that the atomic bomb killed people three times over. I think those words truly represent the horrific nature of the three destructive forces of the atomic bomb: its heat rays, its explosion blast, and its radiation rays. I pray that no one else will ever experience the brutal tragedy that I witnessed at the age of 11.
However, it is said that there are some 14,450 nuclear warheads in existence, all of which are far more powerful than the atomic bombs used on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. There are still many people in the world who do not know how fearful and cruel nuclear weapons are. In addition to this, the world has become increasingly tense in the wake of 9/11 and there are still civil wars and international conflicts being fought.
Not to change the subject, when I look back to Japanese history, it’s very regrettable. Japan had the chance to avoid the atomic bomb. Please look at the following chronology. The Allies have recommended [misspoke: issued] the Potsdam Declaration against Japan on January [misspoke: July] 26, 1945. However, the [Kantarō] Suzuki Cabinet [gave a] statement to silence it. This gave the best chance of the atomic bombing in the United States. If the Suzuki Cabinet accepted this, 200,000 people were not killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Undoubtedly, nuclear weapons lead to disaster. Please lend us your strength to eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the earth and make sure that Nagasaki is the last place on Earth to suffer an atomic bombing. [Let us] all work together to build a peaceful world, free of war.
Thank you very much.
Kelly: Thank you. That was quite a story, quite an experience. I can’t imagine being 11 years old and having to search the remains of my father and finding, you know–going 2 kilometers and finding the ruins and finding his corpse. Amazing. You have many nightmares about that. Did your sisters survive? They were in the countryside? Of your family, you lost your father. Is that all? Everyone else survived?
Yamawaki [Tr]: My mother and my younger sister and my younger brother, they were in the Saga Prefecture, so they were not exposed to the atomic bomb. Only my brothers and my father were exposed to the atomic bomb.
Kelly: Is there anything else that you want to add? This was an excellent presentation. We are very grateful that you could come today and share this with us. We will put it on the internet for everyone to see.
Yamawaki [Tr]: I have one question I would like to ask. I do not understand why you need to preserve the history and the legacy of the Manhattan Project?
Kelly: Well, if we don’t talk about the atomic bomb, if we don’t teach the next generation of how it was that it came into being and how it was used and what its effects were – it’s very common science now. There are many nations that figured it out then and who know now how to do this. If we pretend it didn’t happen, or nobody teaches the next generation what happened and how dangerous and horrific and what a threat these weapons are to civilization, someone could use it again, right. Isn’t it important?
Yamawaki [Tr]: I have another question.
Yamawaki [Tr]: I would like to ask your perspective on the use of nuclear weapons. As during that time in the U.S. military, the GHQ [General Headquarters] represented [Douglas] MacArthur and [Dwight D.] Eisenhower – were against using nuclear weapons against Japan. But it was used. So I would like to ask why do you think it was used, the atomic bomb?
Kelly: People debate, why was it used? They have been debating this. There are historians in the United States who think it should never have been used. They ask the same question. There are other historians that say that it was inevitable. Once the military, the U.S. Army, had control of such a weapon, they were going to use it. Anyway, there are arguments on both sides of the issue. I think no one will ever be satisfied. No side will ever be satisfied. It will be debated long after we are gone – should they, shouldn’t they have. The fact is, they did, and we have to live with it. We have to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Yamawaki: I see. Thank you.