Never heard of him until he was dead


Tsutomu Yamaguchi died January 4, of stomach cancer.

I’ve had this link sitting around since it arrived in my New York Times RSS feed, but haven’t done anything with it because I can’t figure out why it bugs me so.

Mr. Yamaguchi, as a 29-year-old engineer for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, was in Hiroshima on a business trip when the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945. He was getting off a streetcar when the so-called Little Boy device detonated above the city.

Mr. Yamaguchi said he was less than two miles away from ground zero that day. His eardrums were ruptured, and his upper torso was burned by the blast, which destroyed most of the city’s buildings and killed 80,000 people.

Mr. Yamaguchi spent the night in a Hiroshima bomb shelter and returned to Nagasaki, his hometown, the following day, according to interviews he gave over the years. The second bomb, known as Fat Man, was dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, killing 70,000 people.

Mr. Yamaguchi was in his Nagasaki office, telling his boss about the Hiroshima blast, when “suddenly the same white light filled the room,” he said in an interview last March with the British newspaper The Independent.

“I thought the mushroom cloud had followed me from Hiroshima,” he said.

Japan surrendered six days after the Nagasaki attack.

Mr. Yamaguchi recovered from his wounds, went to work for the American occupation forces, became a teacher and eventually returned to work at Mitsubishi.

There were believed to have been about 165 twice-bombed people, known as nijyuu hibakusha, although municipal officials in both cities have said that Mr. Yamaguchi was the only person to be officially acknowledged as such.

Over the intervening days, I’ve come to the conclusion that what bothers me about the story is that, until is death, I never heard of Tsutomu Yamaguchi. Having Japanese blood in my ancestry, I must admit that I’ve never been particularly close to the community. Yet I cannot even begin to describe how that part of my heritage has affected who I am.

So to get that part out of the way, I don’t speak the language, or eat the food; I’ve never been to Japan, and I know damn little about its history and culture. I think I have long preferred it that way. I try to skip those ethnicity check-boxes on various forms, and if I ever find myself obliged to actually answer, I check other and write, “American”, just to be a prig.

But every once in a while, I come across something related to Japan that captivates my attention. I bought Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars shortly before its popularity exploded, on the merits of a writer from the Pacific Northwest and the idea of reading something that wasn’t horror fiction. The part about Japanese-Americans in the story was just icing on the cake.

And it goes on. Some people presume it natural that I listen to J-pop, but in truth I don’t have that much in my collection; just a few songs I picked up from varous anime I like. Ah, anime? But of course! Well, no, not really. Every now and then, I watch Cartoon Network’s lineup. If it’s any good. And right now, the only good things about it are buried in the middle of the night. Which, of course, is all the excuse I need to get high and stay up all night watching television, but it makes for a rough Sunday to get to bed around six in the morning. And it was Star Blazers that introduced me to anime. Years ago. Along with all of my white, hispanic, and native American classmates in elementary school; it ran weekday mornings during breakfast, ending in time to make the bus. Oh, yeah. There was one black guy at the school, but I don’t think he watched Star Blazers.

Various markers emerge from time to time to remind me of my heritage, but other than that, I really don’t pay attention to it. Or what it equals. Perhaps I should, as whenever it comes up it seems in some way important. Is that why I view racism and other bigotry as I do? Is there some intrinsic connection between genetic heritage and personality? There are, after all, days I would kill myself for shame if I wasn’t such a coward.

But that last is so superficial. It’s an example of how even I am subject to American cultural biases. I know nothing about ritual suicide in Japanese history and culture. Why should I even ask the question?

Which brings us back to the point. For a childhood in which your primary connection to heritage is a Dolch book of traditional stories, the teleplay of Clavell’s Shogun as a miniseries (which I didn’t even watch) and the expectation of knowing kung fu, I think it would have been somewhat comforting to have known that Tsutomu Yamaguchi existed.

I’ve been attacked and bullied in retaliation for the Vietnam War, for heaven’s sake. And when you’re a kid, and being tough counts, yeah, it would have helped to know that one of “mine”—such as childish views of people go—was tough enough to survive two atomic bomb blasts.

And he lived to the age of ninety-three, passing all of two weeks ago. Sixty-four years he survived Fat Man and Little Boy. I owed that man a drink, but instead I’ll have to raise a glass to his name.

Okay, I’m done whining.

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