DAVID McNEILLin Tokyo recalls the life of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who survived Nagasaki and Hiroshima and inspired blockbuster director James Cameron
HIS 3D blockbuster Avatarmay be searing a hole through global box office records, but director James Cameron is already reportedly focused on his next project: an "uncompromising" movie about nuclear weapons.
So when he turned up in Japan before Christmas, there was one man he sought: Tsutomu Yamaguchi, Japan’s most famous double A-bomb survivor.
Reporters never knew whether to call Yamaguchi the luckiest or the unluckiest man alive.
In 1945, the Nagasaki native was exposed to both nuclear blasts that incinerated his home city and Hiroshima.
Lying in hospital in December, just days from dying of the cancer that finally claimed him this week, aged 93, he told Cameron it was his “destiny” to make the movie. “Please pass on my experience to future generations,” Yamaguchi said.
The visit by probably the world’s most famous moviemaker almost made up for what Yamaguchi had waited for in vain all his life: a meeting with a sitting US president.
His sister Toshiko says he clung to life to hear Barack Obama say in November that he would one day like to visit Nagasaki or Hiroshima.
“He was elated when President Obama pledged (in a speech in Prague last year) to abolish nuclear weapons,” she says. Inspired, Yamaguchi painstakingly wrote a letter to the president.
“I was so moved by your speech in Prague,” he wrote. “I devote all of my remaining life to insist that our world should abandon nuclear arms.”
Until he died, he never knew if the letter had actually been read.
Yamaguchi was a young engineer on a business trip in Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945, when an American B-29 bomber dropped its payload – the “Little Boy”, which would kill or injure 160,000 people by the end of the day.
Three kilometres from Ground Zero, the blast temporarily blinded him, damaged his hearing and inflicted horrific burns over much of the top half of his body.
Three days later, Yamaguchi was back in his home city of Nagasaki, more than 300 kilometres away, explaining his injuries to his boss when the same white light filled the room. “I thought the mushroom cloud had followed me from Hiroshima,” he said later.
The “Fat Man” bomb killed about 70,000 people and created a city where, in the famous words of its mayor, “not even the sound of insects could be heard”.
His exposure to so much radiation led to years of agony. He went bald and developed skin cancers. His son, Katsutoshi, died of cancer in 2005 aged 59, and his daughter Naoko never enjoyed good health. His wife died in 2008 of kidney and liver cancer.
Toshiko suffered one of the many symptoms of fallout survivors: an abnormally low white blood-cell count.
But once he recovered, he returned to work as a ship engineer and rarely discussed what happened to him.
He quietly raised his family and declined to campaign against nuclear weapons until he felt the weight of his experiences and began to speak out.
In his 80s, he wrote a book and took part in a documentary film called Niijuuhibaku(Twice Bombed, Twice Survived).
The film shows him weeping bitterly as he describes watching bloated corpses floating in the city’s rivers and encountering the walking dead of Hiroshima, whose melting flesh hung like “giant gloves”.
Four years ago, he spoke to the UN in New York, where he pleaded with the audience to fight for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Last March, Nagasaki recorded Yamaguchi as a double-hibakusha, or A-bomb survivor.
“My double radiation exposure is now an official government record. It can tell the younger generation the horrifying history of the atomic bombings even after I die.”
Cameron read Yamaguchi's remarkable history before deciding to meet him, along with author Charles Pellegrino, whose book The Last Train from Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Backis released this month.
A reportedly spellbinding account of the experiences of the nuclear survivors, one scene describes how Yamaguchi survived in Nagasaki by a fluke, protected by a stairwell that diverted the blast as the rest of the building disintegrated around him.
“He was an ordinary man so nothing prepared him for experiences like that,” said Toshiko. “How could anyone be prepared?”