A tailor’s widow raising three young children on her own, Mrs. Nakamura is caring and resourceful, as well as a dedicated citizen. As Hersey puts it, she “had long had a habit of doing as she was told.” She and her children survive the explosion without any external physical harm, but she and her daughter, Myeko, later come down with radiation sickness and suffer with it for years.
Of the six people profiled in Hiroshima, Mrs. Nakamura is the only one in charge of a family—although some of the male characters are married, their wives and children are not present in the narrative—and the only person who struggles with poverty as a direct result of the war. Perhaps because she is busy caring for herself and her children after the bombing, as opposed to being involved with the larger community, she never emerges as a clearly defined character. We get a glimpse into her psyche when, in Chapter Four, Hersey says that after hearing that they poisoned the city, she begins to hate America even more than she did during the war. When this rumor is later dispelled, however, she returns to an attitude of general passivity, summing up her position regarding the war with the expression “Shikata ga nai,” or “It can’t be helped.”
Mrs. Nakamura’s role in the narrative seems to be that of an ordinary victim of an extraordinary event. She suffers from -radiation sickness and, consequently, extreme poverty, for many years—yet she does not harbor hatred or resentment about her predicament. She eventually manages to get a good job, and when we last see her she is financially well off and content. Mrs. Nakamura shows us that even after being unwilling guinea pigs in the worst act of war in history, many citizens of Hiroshima simply continued on with their lives as best as they could.
A twenty-five-year-old surgeon at the Red Cross Hospital in Hiroshima, Dr. Sasaki is hardworking, idealistic, and ambitious. We learn the extent of his selflessness early, when Hersey describes how he risks penalties by treating sick patients in the suburbs without a permit. As the only physician at the hospital who is unharmed in the explosion, he treats thousands of the dying and wounded people of Hiroshima. Dr. Sasaki contributes to important medical advances in the analysis and treatment of radiation sickness after the bombing, and for years he spends most of his time trying to remove keloids—the red, rubbery scars that grow over severe burns—only to discover that much of his work caused more damage than good. He later leaves the city to set up a private clinic, distance himself from his gruesome memories, and make a clean start.
We are kept at more of an emotional distance from Dr. Sasaki than from any other character. This distance emphasizes how Dr. Sasaki does not seek recognition or praise for his hard work. Thus, it is a bit shocking when he expresses his anger by saying that those responsible for the bomb should be hanged, but at the same time we see how he was deeply traumatized by his experiences after the bombing. While other characters attempt to simply continue on with their lives, Dr. Sasaki makes a break with the past by leaving the hospital. This drastic action suggests a deep level of suffering and a desperate need to forget what he experienced. Hersey illustrates Dr. Sasaki’s emotional disengagement from the bomb victims with a memorable turn of phrase: “He lived enclosed in the present tense.”
A German Jesuit priest living in Hiroshima, Father Kleinsorge selflessly comforts many of the dying and wounded in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, as well as in the years following. While he is not seriously injured by the bombing, he falls prey to radiation sickness and becomes weak and tired, often requiring lengthy -hospital stays.
Father Kleinsorge is the only non-Japanese person profiled in the narrative. Although before the bombing he often felt that he was under suspicion as a foreigner living in Japan, his experiences afterward are not very different from those of the other victims. His experiences demonstrate how the bomb served as an equalizer: all people affected by it suffered and came together to help, regardless of their background. At the same time, Father Kleinsorge gives the readers a distinct, non-Japanese view of some significant events, such as his amazement at how the majority of Japanese victims suffer silently and with dignity.
Father Kleinsorge’s life does not drastically change after the bombing—when we first meet him, he is already physically weak from the wartime diet—but he does become so enamored with the Japanese that he decides to become a citizen himself, taking the name Father Makoto Takakura. This unexpected gesture reflects positively on the Japanese people, and also symbolizes the community strength and dedication that came about in response to the bombing.
Miss Sasaki is a twenty-year-old clerk who works hard to take care of her siblings and parents. The bomb collapses the factory where she works, and she becomes pinned underneath a bookcase that crushes her leg. For weeks she receives no real medical care for her badly fractured and infected leg, and she remains crippled for the rest of her life. After the war she suffers greatly as a bomb victim and a cripple. Her fiancé abandons her, and she is scarred emotionally as well as physically. After Father Kleinsorge encourages her to convert to Christianity and become a nun, she has a distinguished career, travels around the world, and becomes optimistic about her future.
Miss Sasaki comes closest to representing the many nameless, wounded survivors of the bomb. Several doctors treat her callously; because her injury is severe but not mortal or mysterious, she garners very little sympathy from anyone. She is completely immobilized, so she does not become involved in the communal efforts that most of the other characters take part in. As a result, she suffers mostly in isolation.
A successful physician, Dr. Fujii owns a small, private medical clinic and has a wife who lives in Osaka. When the bomb strikes, his entire clinic topples into the water. Dr. Fujii rebuilds his Hiroshima clinic in 1948 and has a successful career mainly treating and socializing with members of the American occupation. He drinks, plays golf, and studies languages.
Dr. Fujii’s life changes very little as a result of the bombing. His injuries heal and he is able to continue his profession comfortably and lucratively. Of all the characters, however, his life ends under the worst circumstances. He dies after being in a coma for eleven years, with his family in discord. Hersey notes that his wife and son squabble over his inheritance after his death, leading to a lawsuit.
A thoughtful and kind Methodist pastor, Mr. Tanimoto works endlessly to help bring many of the nameless dying and wounded to safety. He is unhurt by the bomb and feels ashamed to be healthy while surrounded by so much human misery; so he spends more time and energy than any other character helping the wounded. He is later affected by radiation sickness and he loses much of his vitality and energy. After the war, he travels to America to give speeches and raise money for a peace center in Japan. He lavishes praise on the American people and government, calling them generous and “the greatest civilization in human history.” His newfound popularity ends up backfiring, as many in both Japan and America consider him a publicity seeker. Ironically, because of all the time he spends in the U.S., he ends up missing out on the development of a grassroots Japanese peace movement in which he does not get to play any part.
Of the six people profiled in Hiroshima, Mr. Tanimoto comes across as the most complex and difficult to understand. With his dedicated hard work in the days after the bombing, he seems to embody the personal humility and group-consciousness characteristic of Japanese culture. Yet at the same time, his actions seem very self-conscious because he, of all the characters, feels the strongest ties to America, ties that he knows cause suspicion. The pressure he feels to prove his loyalty to Japan reveals an important cultural dynamic at the time: Japanese citizens with foreign ties were even more suspect than actual foreigners such as Father Kleinsorge. As a Japanese man with ties to America, Mr. Tanimoto feels a constant guilt and drive to prove his loyalty. Despite all his hard work, however, Mr. Tanimoto fails to achieve the respect he craves from the Japanese, and his sycophantic praise of the Americans not only seems insincere, but also causes governmental suspicion.
Of all the characters, Mr. Tanimoto undergoes the most drastic postwar lifestyle changes, constantly traveling around the U.S., appearing on television, and trying to start his peace center. Hersey spends more time writing about him than about anyone else, and he ends the narrative with a description of an aging Mr. Tanimoto in his comfortable, modern home. Mr. Tanimoto’s life could serve as a twentieth-century political allegory of what happens when good intentions are coupled with miscalculated methods and an exaggerated need to please.