Summary and Analysis
It is early morning on August 6, 1945, in Hiroshima, Japan. At 7:00 a.m. a loud siren warns of an impending American bombing raid. The "all-clear siren" sounds an hour later. At 8:15 a.m. Japanese time, an atomic bomb is dropped from an American airplane on the 245,000 residents of this city. The bomb kills 100,000 people, but others survive by chance, by fate, by decisions made in a moment, and by being in fortuitous locations. Six of the survivors — separated by miles and minutes — do not realize at the time that a massive bomb has destroyed much of the city and has killed thousands in a split second.
Author John Hersey follows these six survivors and relates their experiences. They are Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works; Dr. Masakazu Fujii, a medical doctor who is reading on the porch of his residence; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor's widow, who is listening to the silence of her sleeping children and watching a neighbor's house; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, who is reading on the third floor of the mission house; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young surgeon at the Red Cross Hospital, who is walking through the hospital's corridor with a blood specimen in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Methodist minister, who is unloading his daughter's belongings at the home of a friend.
Each of the six survivors describes his or her experience. Each survivor is described by his or her actions, location, and position after the bomb detonates. Early that morning, the Reverend Tanimoto and a friend push a handcart through the city streets, moving some belongings of Tanimoto's daughter to an area called Koi. When the bomb detonates, the minister's face is turned away from the city. But he feels pressure, and then splinters, boards, and fragments of tile from the nearby house landing on him.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura is tired from the air-raid sirens that signaled false alarms during the night. When the all-clear sounds around 8 a.m., she lets her three children sleep. The bomb explodes, and Mrs. Nakamura sees a tremendous white flash and is hurled across the room, along with parts of her house. She is stunned but is not deeply covered in debris. She can hear one of her children crying and sees that another, her youngest daughter, is buried up to her chest in debris and unable to move. From her other children, Mrs. Nakamura hears nothing.
The third survivor, Dr. Masakazu Fujii, a prosperous doctor, has arisen early to see a friend off on a train. When the first siren sounds at 7 a.m., he is back home and undressed down to his underwear, reading the paper on his porch. Suddenly, he sees a flash of brilliant yellow, and he is hurled into the river, his house turned into debris. Everything happens so quickly. Dr. Fujii feels the water and discovers that he is still alive, but he is squeezed between two timbers; the physician's head is above water, but his body is wedged tightly beneath it.
This same morning, Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge is resting on a cot on the third floor of the mission house of the Society of Jesus. He sees a terrible flash, like a meteor colliding with the earth. For a few moments, the priest remembers nothing. He then he awakens in the vegetable garden of the mission, bleeding from small cuts on his left side and wearing nothing but his underwear.
Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young doctor at the Red Cross Hospital in Hiroshima, came into work this morning from his mother's home in the country. In the corridor of the hospital, the doctor sees the flash through an open window and falls down. The blast rips through the hospital, breaking Sasaki's glasses and the bottle of blood he was holding, but he is survives and is untouched. Automatically, he begins helping people.
In yet another part of town, Miss Toshiko Sasaki (not related to the doctor) is sitting down to her clerk's job at her desk in the East Asia Tin Works. She turns to chat for a moment with the girl who works beside her, and as she turns her head from the window, the room is filled with a blinding flash. Paralyzed with fear, Toshiko Sasaki is trapped when the ceiling and people above her fall into her work space. Bookcases fall forward on her, breaking her leg and crushing her under piles of books.
In a brief moment, these six people, as well as others, survive while 100,000 die; the Atomic Age has begun.
Hersey begins his first chapter by introducing four elements that will provide the drama of his story: the setting, the six survivors, irony, and suspense. Each of these elements will play a part in the dramatic unfolding of survival under horrifying conditions.
The city, which is also part of the drama, comes alive in the first chapter. Hersey describes it as fan-shaped. This traditional Asian image has a twofold purpose: It provides a symbol well known to Hersey and to others familiar with Japanese culture, and it also reinforces the culture and beauty that is about to be destroyed in an instant. Hiroshima lies on six islands formed by seven estuarial rivers. It is a city of rivers, residences, factories, docks, airports, and inland seas. Its commercial and residential area is in the city's center and occupies 4 square miles. Most of the city's population lives in this area. The number of citizens was reduced from 380,000 to 245,000 after people left for safer places. Around the edges of the city are factories and other homes and in the south are docks, an airport, and the Inland Sea. Surrounding the other three sides of this delta is a rim of mountains. On this sleepy and warm morning in August, the air raid sirens signaled during the night, but an all-clear blast sounds at 8 a.m. right before the bomb detonates.
Within the confines of this time and place, Hiroshima, Hersey inserts factual details of the six survivors through each of their narratives. These accounts accomplish a second purpose: The survivors will be witnesses to both similar and contrasting experiences that will help Hersey interweave their stories and make them come alive to the readers. Furthermore, these are not six statistics; they are human beings caught up in a huge and shocking event and their stories enable readers to understand the human facet of this historical happening.
While their experiences will be influenced by their varied locations, each of the six survivors explains his or her observation of the blinding light. Mr. Tanimoto sees a "tremendous flash of light," like a "sheet of sun." Mrs. Nakamura sees everything flashing like a huge white light. Even though he is facing away from the city, Dr. Fujii sees the flash as a brilliant yellow light, and Father Kleinsorge sees a terrible flash like a meteor exploding. Dr. Sasaki observes a "gigantic photographic flash," and Miss Sasaki is "paralyzed by fear" from a "blinding light." Each of these initial reactions is described matter-of-factly, and each complements the others' versions. This light is the beginning of a long thread of events that will unify these six survivors. Although this is a factual account that Hersey gives the reader, some readers may be struck by the fact that light, which is usually associated with spiritual purity and goodness in traditional Western fiction, is now a destroyer. Seeming to appear supernatural and god-like, it is overpowering, it destroys, and it alters the environment.
Each survivor sees the huge flash differently but the significance of the life-changing event is not yet apparent. From this point on, even though Hersey tells his story factually, the real drama is actually only beginning as he follows the lives of these six people as they struggle to survive against terrible odds.
On this particular morning, Hersey also meticulously describes the actions and everyday details of the six survivors' lives on the morning of the bombing. His account lends credence to the feeling of being there with the inhabitants of Hiroshima. What time they get up, where they go, their clothes, what they are doing, and occasionally details of their past histories indicate that this is a "normal" day like any other. Hersey gives the reader a slice of each survivor's life and they represent people from different social strata and varied backgrounds.
To these factual details Hersey adds more human elements, such as how each person is feeling and what his or her human cares and concerns are on this particular day. Hersey wants readers to see that this gigantic event happened to real human beings and that these individuals are forever changed on this day. By stopping each story where he does in this first chapter, Hersey adds to the suspense and desire to read on. For example, he tells of the tailor's wife whose love and concern for her children cause her to stay at home. Their sleep had already been interrupted by a journey in the small hours past midnight. She is relieved this morning when the all-clear siren is sounded, and she hopes they will sleep a little longer because they are tired from being awakened earlier. She is moved to pity for her neighbor who must tear down his beautiful home, board by board, to help the war effort. Readers are taken back in time to the death of her husband and to her difficulties as a single mother. When she and her children are buried in debris in their home, readers want to find out what happens to these people who have struggled to get through life.
Dr. Fujii, the prosperous, pleasure-seeking physician, also has thoughts and concerns. In contrast to Mrs. Nakamura, he lives well and has a beautiful vista from his home. Life is good. But concern for evacuating his patients and workers makes him decide to cut back on his practice. Anxiety about the safety of his wife and children causes him to be separated from them so they will be safe. While he enjoys the good things in life, he also seems to be a careful man who has thought about his future and has planned for it. He, too, is brutally hurled through the air by the bomb blast. When he regains consciousness, he is being held aloft between the timbers of his house like crossed chopsticks, another traditional Asian image that reminds readers of the culture and Eastern civilization that is about to be destroyed. Although the account is factual, it is also ironic that these timbers symbolize chopsticks, a tool for eating and thus nurturing.
Father Kleinsorge and Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, like the others, are described with human concerns and weaknesses, and both are driven by duty. This similarity enables Hersey to go from one narrative to the next. Kleinsorge is suffering from war rationing, and he is not well on the day of the bombing. Yet despite this, he conducts a mass and reads the Prayers of Thanksgiving. When the sirens go off, he dons his military uniform so that he can help people to safety. Kleinsorge scans the skies, concerned about what part he will need to play. His counterpart, Dr. Sasaki, is also driven by duty. Though he too is not feeling well because of nightmares, he makes his daily journey to the city to work in the hospital on this day. The nightmares concern his past and a time when he was driven by compassion to help people in his mother's town even though he did not yet have his medical license. On this particular morning, he alters his usual route to work; because of that fortuitous decision, he misses the center of the bomb strike. He is doubly lucky because his colleague in the third floor laboratory, which was to be his destination, is dead. After the explosion, as soon as he realizes what has happened, he automatically gets bandages and begins to help people who are maimed and bleeding.
Another survivor with a cultural concern for duty is the young clerk, Miss Toshiko Sasaki. She, like other good daughters, is up early helping the family because her mother and brother are at a pediatric hospital. At 3 a.m. she is making breakfast, packing lunches, and working hard to keep the family going in her mother's absence.
The Reverend Mr. Tanimoto is full of anxiety and worry about this day. He realizes that only two important cities in Japan — Kyoto and Hiroshima — have not had major bombing raids, and he is sure their "turn" will come. Described as a "cautious, thoughtful man," he has sent his family to the country because he fears for their safety. On this day he is tired because he moved a piano yesterday. He has also had several sleepless nights, and combined with a poor diet, these physical factors are adding up. The concerns of his parish are also weighing heavily on his mind. All of these cares and vicissitudes of life make readers of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds see these survivors as average, ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary event.
Throughout the book irony is a common theme beginning with the "all-clear" siren fifteen minutes before the bombing. Locations continue that sense of irony because everyone's lives are filled with unexpected outcomes.
Except for a snap decision, a sleepless night, or a friend staying over, each person might have been directly in the path of the bomb. Others might have been farther away from the blast if they had not made various decisions. The Reverend Tanimoto, torn between his duty as an air-raid defense chairman and the concerns of his daughter, happens to go to Koi the morning of the raid. This places him two miles from the center of the explosion. He throws himself between two large rocks that shield him from the debris. Because of her decision to stay in her home, Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura would have been at the East Parade Ground on the edge of the city with her children, ages 10, 8, and 5. However, she and the children are so tired that she makes the decision to stay in her house, only three-quarters of a mile from the center of the blast.
Locations play a major role in life or death. Fortunately, Dr. Fujii gets up early to see a friend off at the train station; otherwise he would have been sleeping in his house when the bomb hit. His home is totally destroyed, so his decision to go outside on the porch to read resulted in his flight into the river rather than his death. Father Kleinsorge is in a building that was braced and "double-braced" by an earlier priest who was afraid of earthquakes. He survives. Dr. Sasaki actually considered not going into the city this day because he was too tired from his nightmares; had he stayed thirty miles away at his mother's home, he would not have found himself in the middle of this nightmare. He later realizes that if he had taken his later, customary train, he would have been right in the center of the explosion and would most certainly have died. And he is doubly lucky because seconds before the bombing, he was heading for a laboratory in the hospital that was demolished by the blast. Had he been a little faster, he would not have survived the bombing.
Still another irony is that most mornings, the Hiroshima citizens are accustomed to an American weather plane routinely flying over the city during most mornings. They reason that if the Americans were to bomb the city, there would be quite a few B-29s, not a lowly single plane. Obviously, this belief, along with the ironic "all-clear" signal, leads to still more deaths.
When Chapter 1 ends, each of the survivors has observed similar scenes when the bomb explodes, but Hersey expresses their viewpoints about the bomb on their own personal levels. Each survivor thinks that this has been a bombing raid like others. Not a single person has any idea of how massive the casualties are and how different this raid is from any that came before it. Dr. Fujii does not realize how badly he is hurt; Reverend Tanimoto believes a bomb has fallen on the nearby house and he then notices the sky, which seems to be twilight even though it is early morning. Dr. Sasaki thinks his hospital is the only one bombed. Hersey clearly delineates the personal recollections of each survivor as he or she remembers his or her initial reaction. By using these techniques, Hersey emphasizes what statistics can't: that the extreme destruction and conflagration is so unexpected and so shocking that these survivors remember clearly their first reactions.
He ends the chapter on an ironic note by explaining that Miss Sasaki is being crushed by books, vehicles of man's humanity in "the first moment of the atomic age." This last comment on the young clerk's fate is the only break in Hersey's restrained pattern of understatement. Unlike earlier Asian images, Hersey has used a universal symbol that all readers in all cultures can understand: Mankind's knowledge — symbolized by books — has becomes not a tool for improving life but a weapon of destruction. This is what makes August 6, 1945, a watershed event: Man's capacity to use his creativity and intelligence to make the world a better place has instead been used to produce technology that can destroy on an unprecedented level.
Jesuit a member of the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic religious order for men, founded by Ignatius Loyola in 1534.
Wassermann Test a test to diagnose syphilis by determining the presence of syphilitic antibodies in the blood serum; devised by August von Wasserman (1866-1925), German bacteriologist.
parsonage the dwelling provided by a church for its minister.
rayon any of various textile fibers synthetically produced and woven or knitted into fabrics.
estuarial of an estuary, an inlet or arm of the sea; especially the lower portion or wide mouth of a river, where the salty tide meets the freshwater current.
sampan a small boat used in China and Japan usually propelled with a scull from the stern and often having a sail and a small cabin formed of mats.
prefectural government rule by various administrative officials.
incendiary causing or designed to cause fires, as certain substances, bombs, and so on.
piecework work paid for at a fixed rate (piece rate) per piece of work done; in this case for sewing and mending.
hedonistic having to do with pleasure.
piling a long, thick piece of wood, metal, or stone used in building; here the base of the house that extends out over the river.
Society of Jesus See Jesuit.
xenophobic fear of strangers or foreigners.
terminus either end of a transportation line, or a station or town located there; terminal.