There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.
This powerful quotation, referring to Miss Sasaki’s injury after the atomic explosion, ends the first chapter of Hiroshima. The image is powerful because it juxtaposes very disparate elements. Both tin factories and books represent technologies that have become old-fashioned in the atomic age. Books are mundane and nonthreatening, whereas the force of the blast is almost beyond human comprehension. On the other hand, both books and “the atomic age” suggest human knowledge turning on human beings to destroy them. Miss Sasaki is crushed because of the misuse of scientific knowledge, and the fact that books literally fall on her and crush her symbolically underscores this idea.
He was the only person making his way into the city; he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and every one of them seemed to be hurt in some way. The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of pain, held their arms up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing. On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns—of undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos. Many, although injured themselves, supported relatives who were worse off. Almost all had their heads bowed, looked straight ahead, were silent, and showed no expression whatsoever.
Mr. Tanimoto encounters this gruesome scene as he runs into the city in search of his wife and child in Chapter Two. This is one of a few scenes where we encounter large groups of severely injured, nameless victims of the bomb. Hersey describes the scene graphically, but he does not try to sensationalize this potentially dramatic, cinematic moment; he merely describes the tragic facts and allows the horrible details to speak for themselves. This paragraph also conveys two of the narrative’s themes—that following the tragedy, the victims helped one another as best as they could, whether or not they were injured, themselves; and that many victims showed a uniquely Japanese stoicism regarding their pain.
“Why have you not come to Asano Park? You are badly needed there.”
Without even looking up from his work, the doctor said in a tired voice, “This is my station.”
“But there are many people dying on the riverbank over there.”
“The first duty,” the doctor said, “is to take care of the slightly wounded.”
“Why—when there are many who are heavily wounded on the riverbank?”
The doctor moved to another patient. “In an emergency like this,” he said, as if he were reciting from a manual, “the first task is to help as many as possible—to save as many lives as possible. There is no hope for the heavily wounded. They will die. We can’t bother with them.”
“That may be right from a medical standpoint—” Mr. Tanimoto began, but then he looked out across the field, where the many dead lay close and intimate with those who were still living, and he turned away without finishing his sentence, angry now with himself.
In this exchange in Chapter Three, Hersey depicts the overwhelming sense of hopelessness that many of the uninjured felt when faced with so many others’ pain and death. Mr. Tanimoto tries to blame the doctors for not doing more to help. However, in this scene he realizes that there are not enough doctors to care for the thousands of injured people, and that most of the seriously injured will simply be left to die. Hersey mentions in Chapter Two the fact that out of 150 doctors in Hiroshima, sixty-five were killed and most of the rest were wounded. Out of 1,780 nurses, 1,654 were either dead or too badly hurt to help anyone. Compounding the tragedy of Hiroshima was this lack of medical care. Doctors and nurses were either killed or injured, or they had no access to hospitals, medical supplies, and resources. Many injured people could have survived the explosion with proper treatment, but there was simply no one to provide it. In this passage, Hersey forces us to face this fact, and thus, other ramifications of the atom bomb explosion.
Over everything—up through the wreckage of the city, in gutters, along the riverbanks, tangled among tiles and tin roofing, climbing on charred tree trunks—was a blanket of fresh, vivid, lush, optimistic green; the verdancy rose even from the foundations of ruined houses. Weeds already hid the ashes, and wild flowers were in bloom among the city’s bones. The bomb had not only left the underground organs of the plants intact; it had stimulated them.
In Chapter Four, Miss Sasaki is brought into Hiroshima for the first time since the bombing. On the way to the hospital where she is being taken, she is amazed to see that amid all the destruction there is an unexpected display of life—lush greenery, weeds, and wildflowers in the crevices of the ruins. The inclusion of this observation provides the narrative with hope as well as a touch of irony. The most destructive device ever made by man has annihilated 100,000 people, destroyed an entire city, and changed the future of modern warfare forever—yet nature still endures and flourishes in the cracks caused by the destruction. More than merely surviving, nature seems to be taking over in a way that gives Miss Sasaki “the creeps,” as though humans have had their chance to contain it, and nature is returning to take over again. Hersey includes Miss Sasaki’s humorous observation that “it actually seemed as if a load of sickle-senna seed had been dropped along with the bomb.” In detailing one of a number of unexpected consequences of the bomb, this passage contributes to the sense that the victims are unwitting participants in a gruesome scientific experiment.
Dr. Y. Hiraiwa, professor of Hiroshima University of Literature and Science, and one of my church members, was buried by the bomb under the two storied house with his son, a student of Tokyo University. Both of them could not move an inch under tremendously heavy pressure. And the house already caught fire. His son said, ‘Father, we can do nothing except make our mind up to consecrate our lives for the country. Let us give Banzai to our Emperor.’ Then the father followed after his son, ‘Tenno-heika, Banzai, Banzai, Banzai!’ . . . In thinking of their experience of that time Dr. Hiraiwa repeated, ‘What a fortunate that we are Japanese! It was my first time I ever tasted such a beautiful spirit when I decided to die for our Emperor.’
At the end of Chapter Four, we read excerpts from letters that Mr. Tanimoto wrote to Americans, describing the attitudes of many Japanese regarding the bomb. As in this passage, he continually depicts the Japanese as people who demonstrate selfless fidelity to their country and the emperor. Stories such as these help explain that the main reaction of the Japanese, after the horrific bombing, was one of optimistic rebuilding, not anger or bitterness. The Japanese in Mr. Tanimoto’s stories seemed to embrace the opportunity to work or die for their country, and Hersey does not counteract this depiction by showing the views of people who might have been openly critical of the bombing.