Yuji and Mr. Koike

by Russell Doolittle

I first met Yuji near the end of the summer of 1976. He had been a visiting scientist for several months in a laboratory in Stockholm in which I had been a postdoctoral researcher many years earlier, and now he had written asking if he could visit my lab in California on his way back to Tokyo. The threads that bind scientific enterprises can be strong, and even though I had never heard of him before, the fact that we had passed through the same laboratory implied common interests, and I assured him he was welcome. In the end he stayed for about three months.

I met them at the San Diego airport, them being Yuji, his wife and their two teenage daughters. Yuji looked to be about my age, although later it turned out he was an important three years older. He wasn’t very tall, perhaps 5′ 6″, even with rather thickly heeled shoes, but he was solidly built and not slim. The family only stayed for a week because the older daughter had to get back to Tokyo to take university entrance exams.

We found Yuji an apartment in La Jolla on a month-to-month rental, and he leased a car that he tremulously drove at 40 mph in the right-most lane of local freeways. Gregarious by nature, he became friends with the all the people in my lab. He was a great favorite of my wife, and he did magic tricks for our younger son.

At the time he and I were both active in the same field of blood research, but one seldom does great experiments during a casual three-month stay in any lab, and Yuji’s visit was no exception. What developed during his visit was more of a personal relationship than a scientific one.

Like many visitors from Japan in those days, he was anxious to improve his English, especially if it could be done gracefully and without embarrassment. As a result we talked a great deal about everything and anything. We reminisced about Stockholm, where, as it happened, we had both lived in the same apartment complex, although a dozen years apart. The coincidence wasn’t that unusual because the great majority of foreign visitors to Stockholm’s Karolinska Institutet were housed at the Wenner Gren Center that had been built for just that purpose.

Our conversations were always a kind of stop-and-go operation, the subtleties of the English language often conspiring with the inverted social responses of the Japanese, “yes” and “no” taking on somewhat different meanings.

“You don’t mean you lived in Wenner Gren Section E?” I would ask incredulously.

“Yes,” he would answer, “Section F.”

At one point, I was explaining that I had visited Japan on several occasions, the first time in May, 1953 when I was a soldier passing through on my way to Korea. The most notable event of that first visit was that it stretched over three weeks instead of the usual forty-eight hours that most GIs experienced at the time. The reason was that I was among a randomly chosen lot of each boatload assigned to take some course or other before proceeding to Korea.

Those courses covered a wide range of subjects, and in my case it was a two-week course in Chemical, Biological and Radiation Warfare (“CBR School”). We were taught what to do if the enemy should use gas warfare (find the box of gas masks and distribute), or biological warfare (boil the water), or atomic weapons (clean the affected areas well). The school was located at Eta Jima and had previously been the Japanese Imperial Naval Academy.

“Eta Jima!” Yuji exclaimed. “I was at Eta Jima. I lived there for one year.” Although Yuji’s experiences as a naval cadet at Eta Jima in 1945 must have been significantly different from mine, given this much less likely coincidence, we agreed that some day we would visit that island-situated institution together to compare notes. By this time, the Eta Jima facility was once again under the aegis of the Japanese and was called the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force. Yuji knew the Director.


Eta Jima is a small island in the inland sea of Japan about ten miles south of Hiroshima. The “specialty” courses offered at the school when it was run by the U.S. Armed Forces in the early 1950s were open to both officers and enlisted men, and although the usual segregation was nominally observed, the accommodations for and treatment of enlisted men seemed nothing less than officerial. On weekends we could leave the school, and we would rent bicycles and ride around the island; on Sundays there was an old LCT (landing craft transport) available to take those who were interested on a tour of a nearby shrine island called Miyajima. All too soon, however, my school time was up, and it was back on a train, this time heading for Sasebo at the southern tip of Japan, and a few days later the short sea-crossing to Korea.


One morning during Yuji’s visit I regaled him with a song familiar to every GI who ever had an R & R in Japan during the 1950’s. I came into the lab whistling the tune while Yuji was setting up some test tubes for an experiment, and out of the corner of my eye I saw him pause. Then I began singing the first few lines in Japanese  (the only ones I knew):

“Shina Naru” means China Night in Japanese, but, as many GIs from the period remember, the phonetics emerge as “She Ain’t Got No Yo Yo.”

Yuji was impressed if not stupefied.


About a year after Yuji had returned to Japan, I was invited to attend a scientific conference to be held in Taipei. It occurred to me that I could take advantage of being in Asia to make brief visits to Korea and Japan to rekindle old memories. I wrote to Yuji to tell him my plans, in line with our promise about visiting Eta Jima together.

The plan was, after my conference in Taipei, I would stop in Korea for some limited site-seeing, and then I’d fly from Seoul to Hiroshima where we would meet. After our visit to Eta Jima and the Memorial in Hiroshima, we would return to Tokyo together before I continued home.

I went to the meeting in Taipei, and then flew to Seoul and stayed a day or two in a vain effort to find some familiar landmarks in the environs to the north. But when I went to the airport to make my flight to Hiroshima, I was not allowed to board. The reason: a sharp-eyed clerk had found that in those days a person flying to Japan without a visa must enter and exit from the same port. What to do? I rushed to the telephone exchange to make an international call to Yuji, hoping to cut him off before he left for Hiroshima. Miraculously, I reached him just as he was going out the door. For a few moments he was totally mystified, but after several back and forths of “Do not go to Hiroshima” and “Do not go to Hiroshima?” he finally got the point

Later that day, I managed to board a flight to Tokyo, which was a valid port of entry for me as long as I departed within seventy-two hours. Although our sentimental trip to Eta Jima had to be cancelled, we did get to see some sites in Tokyo, visited a pachinko parlor, and drank some good Japanese beer.

Some time after that, Yuji sent me an English translation of an autobiography he was working on. In it he recounted his early experiences as a Naval cadet at Eta Jima and how they came to an abrupt end one summer morning with a strong flash in the sky followed shortly by an ear-splitting explosion, “the heavy clouds of the gray explosion gas were observed slowly rising high up in the sky.”

With this, and a similar detonation three days later in Nagasaki, the war was effectively over. Yuji and his fellow cadets were released and sent home by whatever way they could find. Yuji had trudged across Hiroshima “in the dead of night and under the full moon. It was like a picture scroll of hell on earth. There was no living creature all around in dead silence.” A few days later he had managed to get on a train and reached his home on his 19th birthday.



In the following years there were numerous letters, in many of which Yuji asked me to smooth the English for accompanying scientific articles he was submitting to English language journals like Science and Nature. Often he coupled these requests with invitations to come to Japan, pointing out that the Japan Society for Promotion of Science (JSPS) had supported the visits of many American scientists to Japan. But my life was always busier than I could manage, and, especially with teaching obligations during much of each year, I always had to decline.

Some time around 1987, Yuji increased the pressure for a visit. He would soon need to retire from his professorship at the Tokyo Institute of Technology because Japan had a strict policy of forcing academic retirement from public universities at the age of sixty. And although he was arranging for a position at a private university where he could continue his work, he worried that his national influence would decline, and I had better come while he was in a position to make arrangements.

And so a fifteen-day trip was sketched out in which I would present a series of six different lectures at various places in Japan, stretching from Sendai in the north to Kyushu in the south. Importantly, Yuji would once again arrange a visit Eta Jima. I needed to provide a detailed curriculum vitae and personal history in order to qualify for the award from the JSPS, which was paying for all this. In one of the packets shipped to Yuji I enclosed a “souvenir” of an event that took place while I was at Eta Jima, The enclosed letter described it as “involving young men from Hiroshima and some from the US Armed Forces at Eta Jima.”

After some back and forth about specific dates, my trip was scheduled for late June and early July, 1989.



Yuji and one of his former students who had spent some time in my lab were waiting when I arrived at Narita airport. We drove into Tokyo in pouring rain. The traffic was heavy and the progress slow. We hadn’t gone very far when, ever so casually, Yuji slipped a tape into the car’s tape deck and turned up the volume. “Shine Naru” blared out. She Ain’t Got No Yo Yo! Of course! Did he really think I wouldn’t recognize it?

They left me at a hotel for some much needed sleep. The next morning Akira, the former postdoc, fetched me and shepherded me to the Tokyo Institute of Technology where an all-day Symposium on Proteins was being held that included my first lecture. In fact, my talk was the only one in English, and I didn’t get much out of the others.

The next five or six days were a mix of lectures and diversions that kept me one hundred percent occupied, the last few of which I traveled on my own. I was nearing  exhaustion when I reached Osaka on Sunday for my final two lectures, and on Tuesday evening I jumped ahead of my rigidly devised train schedule and went on to Hiroshima on my own, a full night ahead of when I was to reunited with Yuji for our visit to Eta Jima, determined to go to bed and wake up at times of my own choosing.


To his surprise, I wasn’t on the early morning train he had booked the next morning, and he was perplexed when I met him in the hotel lobby a little later. In any case, he was relieved to see me, and we quickly set off for the small ferry that would take us to Eta Jima, a leisurely half-hour cruise on a foggy morning. It was a short taxi ride from the ferry dock to the Academy where a white-uniformed officer was waiting. We were taken to some important old building to meet Captain Kaneko and Commander Itoh, before being joined by a Lieutenant Smith, an American Naval officer on a two-year exchange program from Annapolis. I admit I felt somewhat uncomfortable in the presence of so much brass, my previous Eta Jima experience having been when I was an E2 Private in the US Army, the lowest possible rank once one has completed basic training.

In any event, we proceeded to the Captain’s dining room where we lunched elegantly. After that we toured the nearby Naval War Museum with Lt. Smith serving as guide and interpreter, describing the long history of Japanese naval exploits. Then we set off in search of the dormitory where both Yuji and I had been housed, him in 1945 and me in 1953. The building was a three-storied affair constructed around a central courtyard. I was reminded that every morning during my time at Eta Jima in 1953 the Officer of the Day stood in that courtyard in the seasonally pouring rain to take roll call while the troops remained perfectly dry on the covered balconies.

After some appropriate photography, and with the weather becoming increasingly warm and humid, we retreated to a fancy room for tea. During the tea I was presented with a small wall hanging of Japanese characters depicting the “five thoughts for officers,” a kind of five commandments framed as questions that Eta Jima cadets recited at the end of each day.

A short time later, a shiny car and uniformed driver appeared to whisk us back to the ferry for our return trip. Yuji had beamed all the way through the visit, but I was relieved to have it behind me. How in the world had he managed all this? How did it come to be that he had such influence? I would never find out.

The next day we took a local train to Miyajima-guchi station for our visit to Miyajima. Along the way, Yuji casually announced that we would be meeting a Mr. Koike at the station, and he would be joining us for our tour of the shrine island. Who was Mr. Koike?


Back in 1953, during my first week at Eta Jima while I was taking the CBR course, the British Armed Forces, which had both Army and Navy units in the immediate area, were hosting a field day and track meet at the nearby port city of Kure in honor of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.  They invited both the US forces at Eta Jima and the University of Hiroshima to participate. A call went out for volunteers, and, always alert to diversion, I promptly signed up for the 800-meter run (two years earlier, during my junior year in college, I had on occasion run a lethargic half-mile). The American team was quickly assembled, practiced for a few days, and then, on the 2nd of June went over to Kure.

I know all this because I managed to keep a mimeographed program of events, printed in both English and Japanese, titled “CORONATION DAY-2nd JUNE 1953 INTERNATIONAL SPORTS MEETING, ANZAC PARK, KURE. Event number 8 was the 800-meter run, and there were eight persons entered, including two from the British Navy, two from the British Army, two from the USA Eta Jima forces, and two from the University of Hiroshima. My name on the souvenir is circled and “5th” scrawled next to it. In fact, the team from Hiroshima University had run away with the meet, winning almost everything except the shot put and discus throw, in which events we had a burly Major who was twice the size of the Japanese contestants.

I had sent a copy of this souvenir to Yuji before leaving on the lecture tour, I suppose as evidence as to why I wanted to revisit Eta Jima. Yuji, determined to make my visit to Eta Jima an unforgettable occasion, had apparently launched an inquiry to see if he could find the Japanese contestants in the 800-meter run. Through the records at Hiroshima University he learned that a Mr. Tanizawa had died of cancer a few years before, but a Mr. Koike, an evening school teacher in a Hiroshima suburb, was alive and well. Yuji had telephoned Mr. Koike and persuaded him to meet us at the Miyajima-guchi station not far from his home for a reunion of sorts.



We were early and had to loiter around the station for a few minutes, but we soon noticed a man who seemed about the right age. Dressed casually with an open-necked sport shirt, he had an athletic appearance. Indeed, it was Mr. Koike. Introductions were quickly made all around. Mr. Koike’s English was as limited as my Japanese, but we managed a series of how-do-you-do’s, before we hurried on to the ferry to Miyajima

It wasn’t until we were settled in an upper lounge on the ferry and had exchanged a few opening remarks and comments that it happened. Mr. Koike, somewhat sheepishly, reached into the small tote bag he was carrying and withdrew a large plaque with a very royal crown embossment, “1st Place, 1500 Meter Relay, June 2, 1953.” According to the program, Mr. Koike ran in three events that day: the 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1500-meter relay. I had only run in the 800-meter, and decided not to inquire where Mr. Koike had placed in that event. But it had to have been ahead of me, since there had only been three weary Brits behind me.

Mr. Koike had also brought with him some small black and white photographs taken at the field day. I was struck by the thought that I was one of the few persons on this teeming earth with whom Mr. Koike could share this experience. Here we were, two men in their late fifties, meeting formally for the first time thirty-six years after running in a race together.

After debarking from the ferry, we had a fine tour of the shrine area and admired the enormous red Torii gate standing off shore. We stopped for cookies and iced green tea along the way. The weather was tolerably warm, but climbing to the best view point was a sweaty enterprise. Mr. Koike, who was a ski instructor in winter and an avid tennis player in summer, was in good shape (he was only fifty-five at the time). I was also all right because in middle age I had taken up running in a serious way, but Yuji suffered.

In time, we ferried back to the mainland and took a late lunch at a local hotel. During our short visit Mr. Koike and I talked about our families. Like me, he had two sons, one a meteorologist in Tokyo, the other, younger, working in the sales department of the Electric Company in Itakura, not too far from Tokyo.

After lunch, Mr. Koike insisted on seeing us off at the station, postponing his own departure to Otake-City in the other direction until we were safely boarded and on our way. He bowed politely as we waved from inside the moving train.

Yuji and I returned to the Hiroshima Terminal Hotel, unchecked our bags, and hiked to the adjacent train station and found a fast train headed south, me to my last lecture stop set for the next day at Kyushu University, and Yuji to Kokura, only halfway, where he was going to visit his brother. The two of us had a quick farewell at Kokura where the Shinkansen only pauses for two minutes.

After all the excitement of Eta Jima and Miyajima, the final lecture stop in Kyushu was rather an anti-climax. I was weary and catching cold and anxious to be on my way. My final lecture was on Friday afternoon, but my departure for home wasn’t scheduled to until early Monday morning.


Back in California and on my own time, I dictated a flock of thank-you letters to my many hosts back in Japan, especially thanking Yuji for all his efforts and the gifts he had given me for my wife.  I also included a corrected version of a long manuscript on blood clotting that Yuji had given me to “smooth,”  something I managed during the long flight home. I also completed a report for the JSPS detailing all my lectures.

My letter to Mr. Koike described what a pleasure it was to meet him and how grateful I was for the old photographs. Of course he should contact me if he were ever planning to visit North America. In reply, or perhaps even before he received my note, Mr. Koike sent me a letter in English and enclosed a set of recent color photographs, some taken during our trip to Miyajima, others of himself and his wife at their home in Otake-city. Staying in touch was a subliminal theme in both of our letters, and six months later we exchanged Christmas cards.

Quite unexpectedly, shortly after Christmas that year I received an invitation to attend a scientific conference in Kyoto to be held near the end of March, only two months hence. Happily, the conference dates coincided with the spring break at my university, and I was interested over and beyond the topic of the meeting. Like my trip sponsored by the JSPS, the organizers were willing to pay for business class on the air flights, and I felt sure accommodation could be made for my wife to accompany me, so long as Fran and I both used the lower economy fare schedule.

I wrote to Mr. Koike explaining how I would be in Japan again, this time with my wife, and inquired about the possibility of another meeting. He responded promptly and with enthusiasm, suggesting we join him and his wife on a trip to the Miyajima shrine, after which they would like us to visit their home In Otake-city on the outskirts of Hiroshima. I dashed off a quick letter of acceptance; it was agreed we would meet on March 29th at the Miyjima-guchi station where we had met the previous summer.


The plan was for Fran and me to visit a few of the more interesting places from my big lecture trip, except without the lectures and the constant shepherding by minders, trusting to my previous experience to navigate all the various transportation systems. To make it easier we purchased Japan Rail Passes that were valid on just about any kind of surface transport, from trains to trolleys to ferries, and we made hotel reservations for every night, including an old style Japanese inn in the Hakone area for the two days before the meeting in Kyoto.

The Kyoto meeting was only two and a half days in duration, and by the final afternoon we were on board the Shinkansen fast train headed for the Hiroshima Terminal Hotel, already familiar to me. Upon arrival at the hotel we found a neatly printed letter in English from Mr. Koike, detailing the next day’s schedule: meet at 14:00 at the Miyajima-guchi station, continue with ferry ride to Miyajima, tour the shrine, back to the mainland and travel to their home in Otake at 16:30, to be followed by a visit to the Kintai-bashi Bridge and then dinner at the Iwakuni Kankoh Hotel. The fast train would allow us to be back at the Hiroshima Terminal Hotel at 21:00.

The note also introduced some other participants in the visit, beginning with Mrs. Kawabata, who was Mr. Koike’s elder sister and who was learning English conversation, as well as Mr. Nishitani, who was Mrs. Kawabata’s nephew and an assistant professor at the University of Hiroshima. Mr. Koike’s wife’s name was Fujiko.


They were waiting when we got off at the Miyajima-guchi station. There was a lot of giggling and guffawing, with Mrs. Kawabata gracefully interpreting in both directions. She was a charming woman in her sixties, married forty-two years, with two sons living in Honolulu. With her grandchildren forgetting or not learning Japanese, she had decided to become proficient in English and was taking a course in conversational English. We had no trouble communicating!

Off we went to Miyashima on a day that was mostly sunny and cool, unlike the heat and humidity of the previous June. Once on the island we made the standard loop of the main Temple, Pagoda, and other sites before getting back on board the ferry. Right on schedule we were on a local train heading for Otake-City, where two taxis whisked us off to the Koike household. Their comfortable old home had been in the family for seventy years, both Mr. Koike and his sister having been born there.

Otake-City is about fifteen miles southwest of Hiroshima’s ground zero. Mr. Koike as an eleven-year old boy on his way to school saw the same flash and thunder that Yuji did on that fateful day in 1945, except that for him they came from the northeast.


Later we were all loaded into a 10-passenger van and taken on a longish drive to the Kinta-bashi area. The cherry blossoms were in full bloom and were nothing short of spectacular. As was the custom, we walked across the three hundred year old wooden bridge with its three steep arches. Japanese lanterns glowed in the twilight along all the paths. We all dined at the nearby Iwakuni Kankoh Hotel where Mr. Koike, alert to the needs of Westerners, had reserved one of only two private dining rooms with tables that had space underneath to dangle one’s legs a bit. It was a grand meal in the traditional Japanese style. We ate all sorts of things and drank beer and saki and tea and finished with strawberries and melon.

Afterwards, taxis took us to a not too distant Shinkansen station where we said our goodbyes. Fran and I boarded a train for Hiroshima, and by ten o’clock we were back at the Hiroshima Terminal Hotel. The next day we went on to Kamakura for a night to see the giant Buddha before flying back to San Diego.

During the long flight home we reflected on how kindly we had been treated during our visit to the Koikes. Clearly a memorable event for us and likely for them as well. For Fran it was a typical adventure that came with foreign travel. For me, seeing Mr. Koike again strengthened a link to a pivotal stage in my early life, a reminder of an unusual event on my way to a year as a foot soldier in Korea.



During the rest of that year, 1990, letters were exchanged and suggestions made about how Mr. and Mrs. Koike would visit us in California. And then, in the spring of 1991, I had a long letter from Yuji, who had remained in touch with Mr. Koike, with some unexpected and disturbing news. He had learned that Mr. Koike was seriously ill. Yuji had visited him in the hospital, and although the situation was grave, Mr. Koike was determined to recover and to visit La Jolla.

I wrote both of them immediately. To Mr. Koike, I wished a quick recovery. To Yuji, I told him again how I still reveled in the memories of the trip to Eta Jima, and how, late at night when I grew weary of the world, I would play the tape of “China Night” he had given me, and it always brought back pleasant thoughts of times gone by.

Not long after that, Yuji wrote again. He had spoken with Mrs. Koike by telephone. Mr. Koike had received my get-well letter, but he wasn’t well enough to respond himself. They hoped he and his wife would have a chance to visit La Jolla after recovering.

One day in July, my secretary poked her head into my office:

“There’s someone on the phone, but I can’t get his name. I think he’s Japanese.”

I picked up the extension and identified myself. The caller responded, “I was a student of Mr. Koike. I am attending a language school in San Diego. Today I have a telephone call with a message for you. Mr. Koike, he is dying, yesterday.”

I wasn’t wholly unprepared. Yuji’s letters had signaled how grave the situation was. Still, I was stunned. Mr. Koike was fifty-seven years old. A man I had actually met only twice in my life had died. Why was I so devastated?

In the years that followed Yuji and I stayed in touch, but there were no more trips to be arranged or coincident meetings. As we got older, there were fewer and fewer manuscripts to have the English polished, and eventually matters dwindled down to annual Christmas cards. In 2006, Yuji’s card had a few lines added suggesting he was seriously but manageably ill. Then, the following year there was a short letter in June and a final note at Christmas.


Jan 3, 2008

       My dear Russ,

      After I read your kind letter at Dec. 2007, I have remembered our life at Eta Jima (Naval Academy in Japan) after Japan navy had been completely deposed by American navy. Russ and Yuji have now very good friend each other, although you must attach to Eta Jima at the end of the war. And you have been alive and I must die in Eta Jima. However, I need to remember the relation of you and me. Now I am eighty years old so that almost all of our memory is going away. However, I never forget the memory of the relation between you and I. Good bye, Russ.