/

Atomic bomb survivor credits desire to learn for living ‘four lives’

Overcoming polio and family losses, Hiroshima native uses English in his quest for success

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Yuuki Yoshida, 80, divides his lifetime into four different “lives,” but he has lived each of them by following one maxim: “Try to learn as if you were to live forever, and live as if you were to die tomorrow.”

As a survivor of the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the manager of a prosperous trucking company, a business consultant and now, in his “fourth life” — living in the Philippines newly remarried and starting fresh again — Yoshida sees perpetual learning as the only way to live.

Born in 1931 in Hiroshima, Yoshida was a victim of polio that left one leg physically weakened. He could not walk until shortly before entering elementary school, and instead crawled along on his hands and knees, making his hands “tough and strong.”

He was always encouraged by his boisterous, five-sibling family and parents: “My mother was born in Hawaii and came to Japan when she was 11 years old. She always told me, ‘Polio-stricken people are great and clever by nature. Look at the American President Franklin Roosevelt. A person who is stricken with polio always turns out to be excellent.’ I was proud of that in my heart, even though it was taboo in those days to speak well of an American.”

The true uncertainty of life would crash down when he was 13 years old, working in a factory office because of his disability. Yoshida still remembers the day of “the pikadon” (atomic bombing) clearly: “I was completely buried under the debris in the darkness with breath-stopping dust and terrible smells. I could not move an inch. For a crippled boy, I was hopeless if placed in such a situation. For a moment and unconsciously, I came to hold my hands together to pray as if I were to die.”

Somehow, Yoshida found the will to crawl out from the debris: “If I were an ordinary boy, I could run to my home to face reality sooner. My world was always so small and narrow because of my difficulty in moving.”

Overwhelmed by the wounded and determined to find his family, Yoshida used a fallen rafter as a cane and hobbled out to the streets, thankfully meeting an older sister who reunited him with their father. Unable to locate the rest of the family, the father evacuated Yoshida and his sister to an aunt’s home 30 km from Hiroshima into the mountains before returning to search for survivors. His youngest brother died, but the remaining siblings and mother survived and made it to their aunt’s home.

Yoshida believes “the first stage of my life started with the atomic bomb,” but even earlier, his attitude had been shaped by his disability. He was always determined to make himself ever stronger: “My physical adversity itself is the very thing that made me avoid walking an easy way of life, always challenging myself with something not easy. Because of my father’s early death, I was obliged to work from the age of 14, so I had to give up any chance for higher education.”

After surviving the atomic bomb, his father died in an accident at a sawmill. As the oldest son, Yoshida accepted technical work at the same sawmill to support the family.

He also began to study engineering and work on his English, an interest from his school days, by reading English books aloud at night to his mother. “After the war, there came the age of the English conversation learning boom. My determination then was to become a much better English speaker than any university graduate. My mother helped me with pronunciation, and I learned intonation and pace by reading aloud so often.”

Yoshida won a Hiroshima speech contest and later published an essay in Japanese about the significance of this period in his life: “Studying English is my eternal self-education. I could say that all the reasons for my success throughout my life until this day comes from my passion for learning it.”

Working hard at his job at the sawmill, a technical position supporting the machinery, Yoshida found a way to use his English at work by studying various English magazines on lumber and the sawmill industry. He began corresponding with American lumber firms and successfully brought new welding techniques to Japan, adding his own innovations to improve the technology.

Impulsively, he sent an English essay detailing his innovation to an American lumber magazine, which then published his explanation and photograph, sending him a letter requesting a new article each month.

“During my active life as the inventor of devices and importer of new American techniques, I came to have a wide association with many businesspersons through my newly developed technologies throughout Japan — even though I had a hard time walking,” he recalls. “At the early age of 20, there came opportunities to make lectures from Hokkaido down to Okinawa. My youth was really colorful in a sense with a great dream, despite the hardship.”

But it was not Yoshida’s professional life that would bring about the change to his “second life.” He fell in love with his younger brother’s university classmate. Although her family hoped he would join their family registry because they had no sons of their own, Yoshida was determined to keep his own family name, and her family reluctantly agreed. Soon after marriage, however, his father-in-law suddenly died, and he had to leave his own prosperous career to take over the responsibilities of managing his small trucking company.

For more than three decades, Yoshida led the firm, expanding until it had seven subsidiaries and more than 100 employees. He and his wife raised three children, and Yoshida used his English skills to make contacts with trucking firms in the United States, studying various business practices and philosophies, including labor-management relations and the owner-operator system.

He also became a local PR chief for the volunteer organization The Lion’s Club, editing newsletters for its activities all over Hiroshima Prefecture and attending as many as 120 conferences and assemblies each year. “My motivation for joining Lion’s Club came from my simple belief that a businessperson must show his appreciation to the various people and communities that surround him.”

Meanwhile, his wife’s family continued to put increasing pressure on him to give up his surname and adopt his late father-in-law’s, an issue the family ultimately would fail to overcome.

At the age of 62, Yoshida entered his “third life,” stepping down from his position at the trucking firm to become a business consultant, traveling throughout Japan to give advice to various companies. His first act as a consultant was to contribute a 50,000-word article to a Japanese publication to advocate the owner-operator system as part of the deregulation of the trucking industry.

“My next challenge was another trip to the United States to research the owner-operator system, where it is widely used,” he recalls. “I secretly promised myself that I would try to be strong enough to walk without a cane in the States, although I would be there for a whole month. I began to practice walking in my neighborhood each morning, and for the first time in my life, walked 5 km without a cane.”

Yoshida had visited the U.S. once before in 1988, but now planned to stay a full month and go coast to coast. After successfully meeting that physical challenge and returning to Japan, Yoshida set up his logistics and management consulting firm. He was later invited to speak in Las Vegas at a management conference.

In June 2006, Yoshida attended a business lecture in Hiroshima that would lead to his current, “fourth stage” in life — retirement in the Philippines.

Yoshida said he had long “dreamed of retirement living abroad” and originally planned to retire in Malaysia. But the lecture given by a Philippine speaker and the impression it made on him changed his plans.

There was also a second reason — the massive loss of life, including civilians, that ensued from the Japanese invasion there in World War II — with the remains of large numbers of Filipino, Japanese and American soldiers “still left in the soil even now.”

After moving to the Philippines in February 2009, his new purpose in life emerged — to advocate nuclear disarmament and open communication around the world. He wrote an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama last year, and operates a bilingual website detailing his life experiences and efforts toward disarmament.

As a lifelong learner, he also researches his new homeland. Yoshida plans to start a nonprofit organization to help his adopted country, and looks forward to new developments in life.

Never too old to dream, Yoshida says, “I hope to travel around the United States, making speeches in English as a citizen ambassador, trying to convey to the American people my thanks and my perspective as an atomic bomb survivor.”