Nearly every day, seventy-seven-year-old Yoshida Katsuji drives across the city from his modest home to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. Always early, Yoshida moves through the museum corridors and office hallways with ease, greeting each staff member with an energetic “Good morning!” and a slight bow of his head. As the museum lobby and sidewalks outside become packed with students lining up for tours and presentations, Yoshida stands at the information desk talking and laughing with the staff person there. Once his group arrives, he enters the lecture hall just off the main entrance, stands before a hundred or more visiting school children, and tells them his story.
“I look out at them,” Yoshida tells me, “and the little girls look at me like this.” He raises his eyebrows and mimics an expression of shock and horror. “Instantly, they begin to cry— because I’m so incredibly handsome.” Yoshida laughs—a huge upper body laugh—and waits, eyes wide, for my reaction.
I hold his gaze. A large black patch covers the right side of his head, secured by a black elastic band that runs underneath his chin, up the other side of his face, and across the top of his nearly bald head. Scar tissue covers his face and neck, and his left ear is shriveled. When he smiles, his mouth is crooked, revealing severely misshapen teeth. Behind large framed glasses, Yoshida’s eyes are uneven, one higher than the other.
“I’ve gotten used to it,” he says, as if to reassure me. “I tell the audience, ‘I am as good looking as Kimutaku’—a famous actor. When I spoke in Chicago, I was DiCaprio. In Japan, I am Kimutaku. I tell them this to make them laugh.”
Yoshida leans back and laughs again. Then he sighs and covers his mouth and nose with the palm of his hand to wipe tiny beads of excess saliva from his lips and face.
In a small conference room tucked away inside the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall, I interview Yoshida for the first time. In my research for a book about the Nagasaki survivors, I had read his brief testimony of the days and weeks after the bomb, and had asked my contact at the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace to set up this meeting. Yoshida is wearing black slacks, black suspenders, and a beige dress shirt with thin blue stripes and a narrow Nehru collar. He leans in, ready for my questions.
“Is it all right to begin by looking at this map?” I ask in Japanese, turning the map around so he can read it.
Yoshida quickly scans the map, finds the atomic bomb’s hypocenter, and points to a neighborhood on the other side of the mountains. “This is where my house was,” he replies in Japanese, “Uma-machi No. 65.”
Yoshida studies the map further and indicates an area just north of the hypocenter. “My school was here.”
“That’s so close,” I say. Few survived at that proximity.
“Yes,” Yoshida says, “it was very close.”
In 1945, Yoshida was a thirteen-year-old student in the shipbuilding course at the Nagasaki Vocational School. But classes had been cancelled for more than a year, so Yoshida, one year too young for mandated student labor in military factories, dug air raid shelters, joined bucket brigades to extinguish fires caused by Allied bombing, and made bamboo spears for use against the Allies in the anticipated land invasion of Japan.
“When you were a child,” I ask, “what did you think about the war?”
“Us?” Yoshida says, speaking with immense energy and intention. “We thought Japan would win for sure. We had to endure until we won. That’s how it was.”
“Did you want to fight in the war?”
“Everyone did. We longed to. We wanted to become soldiers and fight; we were educated that way starting in elementary school. We were brainwashed, so we didn’t think it was possible for us to lose.”
Yoshida’s words are hurried, upbeat. “A portrait of the Emperor hung at our school. He was considered a descendent of God. We bowed to the portrait when we passed it to pay our respects.
“But during the war, the situation in Japan was bad, you know? Gradually, we were being defeated. Everything was rationed. The amount of food we were allowed each month got smaller and smaller. We got two go (just under a cup) of uncooked rice per month. One loaf of bread. That’s how it was.” Yoshida looks at me intently. “My stomach was empty.”
By August 1945, Allied forces had firebombed and incinerated sixty-six Japanese cities. Hundreds of thousands of civilians had been killed, and the country’s infrastructure had crumbled. Nagasaki, however, was on the short list for the atomic bomb, so the United States had not implemented full-scale bombing on the city. Instead, Nagasaki had experienced limited targeted attacks on docks, shipyards, factories, and the central railway station. U.S. surveillance planes flew over Nagasaki every morning and evening, prompting air raid alarms across the city that interrupted work, school, and agricultural routines. The city was on constant alert.
At about ten o’clock on the morning of August 9—three days after the United States dropped the world’s first atomic bomb used in wartime over the city of Hiroshima—another round of air raid sirens wailed in Nagasaki. Adults and children throughout the city scurried to the tunnel-shaped air raid shelters built in factories, hospitals, schools, and into the sides of hills all around.
Yoshida points on the map to the shelter where he hid that morning. “When the air raid alarm sounded, my friends—”
“There were six of you?”
“Yes, six friends, plus me—seven total—we went to the air raid shelter near our school for protection. But teachers and employees had priority, so we didn’t go in. Instead, we escaped to an air raid shelter in the woods to hide from the enemy.
“We crouched there until the ‘all clear’ sounded. This meant that the enemy planes were gone, and we had to leave the shelter and get back to school. If the ‘all clear’ siren hadn’t sounded, we would have stayed in the woods, and we wouldn’t have been so close.”
Just before 11:00 a.m., the people of Nagasaki emerged from hiding. The sun was hot, and the high-pitched, rhythmic song of cicadas vibrated across the city. Crowds filled the streets. At an altitude of thirty thousand feet, Bock’s Car, the B-29 carrying the second atomic bomb, arrived undetected.
“It was summer—right?” Yoshida says, speaking so fast I can hardly understand him. “We wanted some water. So when we came down from the mountain, we stopped at a roadside well shared by two farmhouses.”
Six miles above, Captain Kermit Beahan, Bock’s Car’s bombardier, activated the tone signal that opened the bomb bay doors and indicated thirty seconds until release. Five seconds later, he noticed a hole in the clouds and made a visual identification of Nagasaki. “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” he yelled. Within seconds, the instrument plane accompanying Bock’s Car discharged three parachutes, each attached to scientific equipment that would measure heat, blast, and radiation effects. Then Beahan released the bomb.
On the side of the road, Yoshida was lowering the bucket into the well when he looked up to his right and saw two parachutes about a half a mile away, falling between a crack in the clouds.
“Rakka-san, they were called back then,” he says. Descending umbrellas.
“What did you think when you saw them?”
“I just thought that they were regular parachutes, that maybe some soldiers were coming down.”
“Did you say anything?”
Yoshida shrugs. “Just, ‘Hey, look! Something’s falling!’ We all looked up, using our hands to block the sun. The parachutes floated down—saaatto—quietly, with no sound.”
Then Yoshida noticed a large dark object falling through the clouds.
“There was just a split second, then…BAN!” he says, his voice loud and fevered as he recalls the thunderous detonation of the five-ton plutonium bomb. Yoshida jumps up from his chair and moves to the white board behind me. At high speed, he scribbles the mountains around the city, marks where he was standing when he saw the bomb, and draws an “x” for the hypocenter—the point five hundred meters above the ground where the bomb exploded. “My body was hurled into the air,” he says, drawing a line from one spot to another, “and blasted across a field, a road, and an irrigation channel. I landed here, in a rice paddy.”
One millionth of a second after the bomb exploded above the city, the burst point reached an estimated three to four million degrees Fahrenheit. All the materials that made up the bomb vaporized into an ionized gas, releasing electromagnetic waves that, when absorbed by the air, ignited a fireball approximately fifty-two feet wide, with an internal temperature of over 180,000 degrees Fahrenheit. In one second, the fireball grew to about 750 feet in diameter. The demolition force of the blast blew people off their feet, crushed them beneath houses and collapsed buildings, destroyed steel structures, roofs, and walls, and moved an iron bridge twenty-eight inches downstream. Near the hypocenter, the heat instantly carbonized human and animal bodies and vaporized their internal fluids. Within three seconds of the explosion, infrared rays from the heat of the blast caused severe and fatal flash burns on the exposed faces, arms, and legs of tens of thousands of people. Unprecedented levels of radiation penetrated deeply into the bodies of people and animals, initiating cellular mutations that would lead to death, disease, and life-changing medical conditions.
As the mushroom cloud billowed three miles overhead and darkened the city, Yoshida lay in a muddy rice field more than 130 feet from the well where he had seen the bomb. His entire body was burned.
Yoshida moves back to his chair but does not sit. “We should go to the museum,” he says, “I’ll show you the photos of me there.” I follow him through the long corridors of the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall, into hidden hallways that connect it to the Atomic Bomb Museum, and downstairs to the below-ground entrance to the exhibits. The museum staff wave Yoshida through, and we bypass the turnstiles that visitors use to enter.
The first room is a small passageway with oversized black-and-white photographs of Nagasaki from the 1940s. Set into trees and foliage, wooden homes are clustered in small neighborhoods across the city. Staircases ascend into the hills, leading to shops and tile-roofed houses huddled close together. Streetcars wind through the city on tracks, their wires connected to cables strung between electrical poles along the side of the road. Women wear kimonos, and men wear Western clothes – suits, shirts, slacks, and sometimes hats. Workers transport their goods with hand- and horse-pulled carts. In one celebratory photo, thousands of people are standing on the docks of a shipyard next to a battleship, waving their fathers, sons, brothers, and uncles off to war. In another, students at bayonet practice stand in lines on the dirt field of their school.
The next room is cavernous and nearly dark. All around are actual and recreated ruins of the city: cracked archways and crumbling sacred statues from the Urakami Cathedral, melted metal beams from bridges, and fractured cement staircases from schools and factories. Video screens alternate black-and-white photos of factories reduced to mangled steel skeletons, vast stretches of debris and dust where the city once was, scorched bodies, and people wandering dazed through the rubble.
We move into the main exhibit room, past a timeline of the Manhattan Project and the development and delivery of the bombs, and weave through a crowd of junior high school students toward a wall of photographs relating to survivors’ injuries. Behind us to our left stands a life-size model of the Nagasaki atomic bomb, ten feet eight inches high and five feet in diameter with an orange-red band around its middle like a belt.
Yoshida points to the glass case in front of us. “The top photo is before my surgery,” he says. “The bottom one is after.”
I stare at the top photo trying to understand what I am seeing. Except for the outline of his head and neck and his thick black hair on top, it is hard to tell that this photograph is actually a side view of Yoshida’s face. The entire right side of his head—from behind his ear to the middle of his nose, and from the top of his head past his right eye, cheek, and down to his neck—is a mass of charred, blistered, crusted skin. His right ear is a swollen glob of melted flesh.
We stand together in silence.
“The left side of my face healed on its own,” Yoshida says, “but on the right side, the burns were more severe. Even though my skin grew back, the flesh beneath it didn’t. I was in the hospital for fifteen months.”
“How many surgeries did you have?”
“Three. Two of them failed. They took skin from my left thigh and grafted it onto my face, but infections grew beneath the skin and pus would pour out. When the infections healed, the skin scabbed over, as hard as a cast. That was really, intensely painful. After the third surgery, I gradually healed.”
“What about your right ear?”
Yoshida touches the black patch covering the right side of his head. “After a while,” he says, “the swollen part rotted and fell off. So there’s no ear here.”
“Nothing at all?”
“No. Just a hole, alone.”
The bottom photograph shows Yoshida’s face a year later, after his final surgery in late 1946. It is difficult to see much of a difference, except that both the blackness and the swelling are somewhat reduced. By then, Yoshida was nearly fifteen. His eyes are frozen in terror.
“Let’s go upstairs,” he says, turning to leave. I dash after him, barely keeping up, past artifacts of the bombing: melted coins and glass; scorched rice in a schoolgirl’s melted metal lunch box; and a military helmet found near the hypocenter, with part of the soldier’s skull still attached on the inner surface. We enter the last exhibit room, filled with paintings and poems created by survivors. To the right, three small television screens are mounted on the wall in front of cushioned benches where visitors can sit and watch videotaped testimonies of individual hibakusha (“bomb-affected people”).
“My video is number 21,” Yoshida tells me as we race by.
“Number 21?” I say. “I’ll come back when it’s not crowded.”
“Yes,” he replies. “I hope you will.”
We ascend the spiral walkway to the museum lobby. In the span of three minutes, Yoshida seamlessly interrupts his conversation with me numerous times to bow slightly and say ohayou gozaimasu—good morning—to every visitor who passes.
“When did you start speaking in front of others?” I ask.
“It was about twenty-two years ago,” he says. That’s 1987, I calculate, forty-two years after the bomb. “Many survivors spoke a lot, but I didn’t until then. I was shy to be in front of women. Everyone looks at me like this—” Yoshida grimaces. “I didn’t like it.”
“But you don’t feel that way now?”
“No, no. I don’t. Right now, my schedule is very busy. High school students, junior high students, elementary school students. When I speak to elementary school students, I have to use language they can understand. It’s hard.
“This is what I say to children,” he continues. “‘Have you ever looked up “heiwa”— “peace”—in the dictionary?’ They never have. They’ve never looked it up because we don’t need to know what peace is during peacetime. ‘Let’s look it up together,’ I say to them.”
We continue up the walkway. “Our greatest enemy is carelessness,” he says. “We need to pay attention to peace.”
In 2005, Yoshida traveled to Chicago to speak at several universities and at the Chicago Peace Museum. “Audiences were generally receptive,” he says, “and they always asked about Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. I told them that I think it was wrong that Japan started the war, and I apologized for that.”
“Telling your story over and over again,” I ask, “it’s not overwhelming?”
“No, I’ve gotten used to it. In the past, whenever I went to speak somewhere, I thought, ‘Oh, it’s too much.’ Now, I think that we should prevent war at all costs, so I should tell my story. Being shy is not a good reason to not speak for peace.”
We enter the lobby of the museum. On every wall hangs artwork, most made of colorful origami cranes representing peace, from school children across Japan and the world. Dozens of other pieces lean against the walls, overlapping one another. A group of students in uniforms waits for Yoshida in the lobby.
“An hour isn’t long enough to tell my story,” he says.
“No, it isn’t,” I reply. “I look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”
We bow to one another and I thank him. Then he turns to greet his group and lead them down the hall to the assembly room.
The next day, I meet Yoshida at the information desk and follow him as he zips through the hallways toward the elevator. Suddenly he veers right to the staircase. “The stairs are better for you!” he says, ascending them at fast speed and laughing as I hurry to keep up. We head into the second-floor conference room with a large window overlooking the city. As I try to catch my breath, Yoshida holds out his hand. “This is for you,” he says, giving me an individually wrapped lemon cake, “in case you didn’t have time for lunch.”
We settle into chairs across from one another, and Yoshida quickly returns to his memories immediately following the atomic explosion. “I’d been hurled back into a rice paddy, right? At some point when I regained consciousness, I could feel the coldness of the water, so I stood up. My body was covered in mud. I didn’t feel any pain.”
“You were in shock?”
“Yes. My entire face was burned.” Yoshida’s voice is animated. “The skin on my arms had peeled off and was hanging down, and blood—I had no skin, so blood was pouring out of my flesh.”
He points to his ribcage and looks at me. “I broke two ribs, and they’re still bent, even now. The doctor said the bones had healed in that bent position, as they’d been broken. Now, mostly, it doesn’t hurt, but when I play baseball, I can’t swing the bat further than this.” Yoshida mimes a baseball swing that stops short because he can’t turn his body at the waist.
“After the bomb,” he continues, showing me his hands, palms upward, “my hands were tight, like this.” Yoshida curls his fingers into fists. “The doctor told me to put sand in a bucket and hold it with my fingers so that my fingers would eventually open. The bucket was pulling my fingers down. I couldn’t hold it for five minutes because it hurt, like my hand would break. It took thirteen years before I could do this.” He spreads his fingers open. “In winter, it’s still really painful because the tissue underneath my skin always seems to split open.”
All six of Yoshida’s friends survived the initial explosion. They found each other and lay wounded in the grass next to a small river, hoping to be rescued. Field workers and others began staggering down from the hills, injured and dazed. “Tons of people,” Yoshida says. “People whose skin was falling off and hanging in strips from their bodies. Some had body parts that had been blown away. Some were almost completely naked and so badly burned I couldn’t tell if they were men or women.”
“People were moaning and crying,” he says, his voice higher—younger, it seems, as if he is still there. “I saw one person whose eyeballs were hanging out. And people who were burned black all over, like us. Everyone begged for water.”
Yoshida leans forward, his eyes holding my focus. “Some mothers came down from the mountains and were crying, and we started crying, too, even louder. We joined them and headed toward the city, past dead bodies, some burned to ashes. As we got closer to the hypocenter, the whole city was on fire. Our skin was peeling off, and our flesh was swollen. Leeches from the rice paddy had attached to me, and at some point, we turned around and went back to the embankment to wash ourselves off. We placed uncharred leaves all over our bodies to cover the areas without skin. Then we crouched down in an area where the ground was depressed. ‘Hang in there, okay?’ we said, trying to encourage each other. ‘Gotta keep going…do our best…’
“By late afternoon,” he continues without pausing, “the leaves that we’d put over our open wounds began to dry out and crumble from the heat of the sun. When they fell off, the sun was beating down on our exposed flesh.” Later that day when the sun fell behind the mountains, the boys felt visceral relief. “At that point,” Yoshida says, “we thought we were saved.”
Yoshida’s story races from his mouth. “My face was so swollen that I couldn’t open my eyes. I couldn’t see anything, but whenever anyone passed, I called out to ask if my neighborhood near Suwa Shrine was damaged. I heard their voices reply to me, ‘The whole city is destroyed!’
“I lost consciousness that night. One of my friends, Tabuchi, who could still see out of one eye, left to try to make it over the mountain to our neighborhood. He arrived home the next morning, and his mother went to my house to tell my parents where I was. Because of that, I was saved.
“My mother and father and two neighbors walked seven kilometers, all the way from Uma-machi. The streets were still burning, you know? Their feet got so hot, they couldn’t bear it. Many houses were crushed and the water pipes had burst, so water trickled out. They ran to the water and got their feet wet and then kept walking. That’s what I heard.
“My parents were ira-ira—desperate—to find me, and walked through the ruins of my school where a member of a relief team had taken me. They called out my name, ‘Katsuji! Katsuji!’ But everyone looked the same, right? And everyone answered to everyone else’s call.
“‘We won’t be able to find him,’ my mother said to my father.
“‘If that’s the case,’ my father said, ‘then we need to lean in close to their ears and say his name in a small voice.’ I don’t know how many dozens of people they did that with, but when they came to me, they suddenly knew it was me.”
“Did they carry you home in their arms?”
“They placed me in an uba-guruma—a baby carriage—and pushed me through the smoldering ruins and across the mountains to our home.”
“When did you regain consciousness?”
“Not until mid-December. Four months. My mother laid out a futon and put newspapers on top, and then a kind of wax paper to protect the bedding from the pus oozing out of my wounds. She lay me down on top of that and hung mosquito netting. My mother was especially cautious about flies, but they landed on her and she carried them through the mosquito netting to me. They laid eggs all over me. She tried removing them with chopsticks, but the eggs were too small, so she heated the scissors and scraped my flesh—even though it was rotting. By doing that, she removed a lot of eggs and later maggots that had hatched in my wounds.”
“What about the friends you were with that day?”
“The first one died on August 21st. Then one by one they died in the weeks following the bomb. I’m the only one left. As for my other classmates, we stopped having class reunions for my vocational school because everyone in my class had died.
“It’s because of my mother that I am alive,” he says. “She never slept, and any food she had she gave to me. My face was so badly burned that I couldn’t open my mouth, so my mother used a stick to feed me. ‘Kuu, kuu,’ she said softly, to encourage me to eat.”
In December 1945, still unconscious, Yoshida was transported to the Omura Naval Hospital north of Nagasaki and received medical treatment for the first time. After three skin graft surgeries, he was discharged from the hospital in January 1947. Yoshida, then fifteen, walked alone into the Omura train station, and when he entered the waiting area, the room fell silent. Yoshida’s still blackened face drew everyone’s gaze.
“I bowed my head and cried,” he says. “After the train left the station, I thought I would have some peace, but at each stop people got on and off, and everyone stared. So I kept my face down and cried all the way to Nagasaki.
“I’m okay now, but then I was completely messed up. Such a handsome fellow that I was,” Yoshida jokes. “I was totally disfigured. I couldn’t show my face. After I got home, I never left my house.”
“How long did you stay inside?”
“For two or three years. There was a barbershop within fifty meters of my house, but I wouldn’t even go that far. At some point, my mother asked the barber to come to our house on his day off to cut my hair, but instead, he said I could come to the shop in the morning before it opened. In the middle of my haircut, it came time to open the shop. I looked up into the mirror in front of me and saw a customer looking at me. Our eyes met in the mirror.
“Immediately the customer looked away,” Yoshida continues. “He looked at me again. Human nature is amazing—once you’ve seen something, even if you turn away, you want to see that thing again. At that moment, I became very sad and began to cry.
“Later, my mother came to me and asked, ‘Have you ever thought about getting help so your face would be less difficult to look at? Why don’t we contact the doctor in Omura and ask him what to do?’ She did that, and I got cream to apply to my face. I’ve applied lotion to my skin every day since then. Even today,” Yoshida teases and laughs, “knowing I was going to see you, I applied lotion on my skin!”
By 1949, four years after the bomb, Yoshida had finally recovered enough to begin working at a grocery wholesaler. Eventually he married. “I was pretty lucky,” he says, speaking about his wife.
“Was she a hibakusha, too?” I ask.
“No, my wife wasn’t injured in the bomb. She died ten years ago, from cancer.”
“Did you discuss your experience with her?”
“We didn’t talk about it much. But ten years after we were married—we’d had two children in ten years—my wife told me how she’d felt at first. ‘We were sleeping together back then,’ she said, ‘but I couldn’t look at your face because it was so black.’” Yoshida clasps his hands. “I had a wife who couldn’t look at me.”
“What about your children?”
“For years, when my sons were little, I instructed them: ‘When someone asks what happened to me, don’t hide the facts of my experience. Right away, tell them that your father was injured in the atomic bomb.’ I told them this over and over. But three times my young sons brought friends over to the house, and when the children looked at me, they said, ‘Your father has a black face!’ But my sons didn’t say anything.
“Then one day, we were at sports day at my son Tomoji’s school. During the lunch break, everyone from the same class sat together in a circle on the ground—on woven grass mats. Parents and children together. Some of the children looked at me like they were shocked. They were still children, so they said what they were thinking without hesitation. One of the children said, ‘Tomo-chan! Your father has an awful face, huh!’
“‘Oh my God!’ I thought, ‘It would have been better if I hadn’t come!’ But this time my son spoke up for me immediately.
“‘My daddy was hurt by the atomic bomb,’ Tomoji said. That saved me. I felt grateful to my son.
“Now I go to my grandchildren’s school and anywhere I can. The children of Kyushu’s elementary schools treat me like Kimutaku. I sign my name ‘Grandpa Yoshida,’” he says and laughs. “Then I write in parentheses, ‘Grandpa Kimutaku.’”
The following morning, as I leave the museum library, all the school groups have already entered the exhibit hall, so the lobby is quiet. Outside the main entrance, Yoshida is standing on the sidewalk talking with the ice cream cart vendor, an older woman, slightly bent over, wearing a long white apron and white kerchief on her head.
“Good morning,” I say, bowing to both of them.
“Good morning!” he says, his voice strong and vibrant. “My group is late.”
“Ah,” I say, nodding, remembering that Yoshida himself is always early.
“Would you like some ice cream?” he says, smiling broadly. “It’s very delicious! I’ll treat you!”
“No, thank you,” I answer, laughing. Yoshida laughs, too, and then turns back to continue talking with the woman as I head down the hill. Behind me, I hear voices of students chattering as they approach the museum from the other side. I glance back to see Yoshida greeting the head teacher. He races ahead of the students and holds the museum door open, urging them inside until the last student has entered. Yoshida follows quickly behind, on his way to the lecture hall where he will face more children’s stares, ease their fear with jokes about his dashing good looks, and tell his story once again.
Runner-up in 2009 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize, judged by Robin Hemley.