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A passionate abolitionist turns 100

July 7, 2016
Dr. James Yamazaki (right) with PSR-LA board member Jimmy Hara

Dr. James Yamazaki (right) with PSR-LA board member Jimmy Hara

I got a phone call in the early spring of 1995 from a doctor in California who introduced himself as Jim Yamazaki. Dr. Yamazaki had just written a book about the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and wondered if I’d be interested in reviewing it in Medicine & Global Survival.

We talked for about half an hour—long enough for me to realize that the man on the other end of the line was the real deal. He had been the physician in charge of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) from 1949-1951, and had studied firsthand the effects of radiation on children, particularly those exposed in utero. The book described his research, he said, but it was also a deeply personal reflection on how nuclear weapons had poisoned our world.

A copy of Children of the Atomic Bomb arrived a few days later, and I read it in one sitting. It was one of those books. Jim and I talked a couple of more times and I persuaded him that we should run some excerpts from the book rather than a review. We published a lot of good articles in M&GS, and I always considered this one of the gems.

This remarkable man is celebrating his 100th birthday this year. Born in California to Japanese immigrant parents, he had to overcome pervasive institutional discrimination in order to attend college and medical school. He enlisted in the Army as a combat surgeon during World War II, only to see his parents sent to an internment camp along with more than 100,000 other Japanese-American citizens.

Taken prisoner by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge, Jim was shuttled from one POW camp to another, sometimes finding himself directly in the path of Allied bombing campaigns. He and his fellow prisoners were rescued at one point, only to be recaptured.

Jim resumed his medical studies after the war, settling on a career as a pediatrician. He started paying attention to the effects of radiation exposure to infants and children, which led to his being recruited to work with the ABCC.

What he has learned as a doctor has informed a passionate commitment to ensuring that nuclear weapons are never used again. Jim joined the Los Angeles chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility and, in 2008, received the group’s Socially Responsible Medicine Award for his lifelong work on the effects of radiation on public health.

Dr. Yamazaki with Peter Herby (left) of the ICRC at the 2010 NPT Review

Dr. Yamazaki with Peter Herby (left) of the ICRC at the 2010 NPT Review

I got to meet Jim Yamazaki in 2010, 15 years after that first phone call. At 93, he was prepared to travel across the country to the NPT Review Conference in New York, because he saw that as a potential turning point in the struggle to eliminate nuclear weapons. We had organized a side event to present the most recent findings about the climate and famine effects of a regional nuclear war, and had invited speakers from the ICRC in order to help lay the groundwork for what would soon become a powerful new initiative on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. We jumped at the chance to add Dr. Yamazaki to the program, and he spoke eloquently about the long-term human suffering caused by nuclear weapons and the urgency of removing that threat once and for all.

He put it this way at the conclusion of Children of the Atomic Bomb:

“Every decision-maker, every citizen, needs to know the human cost of nuclear warfare. I want no mistakes. I want no decisions that ignore the very particular vulnerability of children, and through the children, the vulnerability of the future of all of us.”

Few people still alive today can give that kind of testimony based on what they have seen with their own eyes. Jim Yamazaki is one of them.

It’s an honor to wish him a happy 100th birthday.

Children of the Atomic Bomb (Kindle edition)

Children of the Atomic Bomb: a UCLA Physician’s Eyewitness Report and Call to Save the World’s Children

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