There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.
Chapter One introduces the six main characters of the book, describing their activities in the minutes or hours before the explosion. On the morning of August 6, 1945, all of the characters are either engaged in their everyday activities or preparing for a possible B-29 raid. Unlike many other cities in Japan, Hiroshima has been spared any raids thus far in the war, and there are rumors that America has saved “something special” for the city.
The Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, who was educated in America, is especially anxious. He has recently volunteered to organize air-raid defenses, in part to prove his loyalty to Japan. When the bomb strikes, Mr. Tanimoto is helping a friend move some of his daughter’s belongings to a house outside of the city center. They are about two miles away from the center of the blast, but the bomb still levels the house as Mr. Tanimoto takes cover in a rock garden.
Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, is tired from repeatedly taking her three young children to a safe area in response to every warning. When the air-raid siren sounds early in the morning, Mrs. Nakamura confers with a neighbor and decides to stay home and let her children sleep unless she hears a more urgent warning. When the bomb strikes about three-quarters of a mile from her house, she is watching her neighbor tear down his own home in order to help clear fire lanes. We learn in Chapter Two that this man is killed instantly.
Dr. Masakazu Fujii runs a prosperous private hospital overlooking a river. Because of the difficulty of evacuating his patients in the event of an air raid, he has turned away all but two patients. On the day of the explosion, he wakes up much earlier than usual to accompany a friend to the train station. As a result, when he returns, he has the leisure time to sit on a porch reading the paper in his underwear. When the bomb strikes, the blast topples the whole clinic, sending it and Dr. Fujii into the water.
Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge is a German Jesuit priest stationed at a mission house in Hiroshima. Recently weakened by diarrhea from the wretched wartime rations, he is resting and reading a magazine in his room when the bomb strikes. The mission house, which has been double-braced for earthquakes, does not topple, and Kleinsorge and his fellow priests survive.
Dr. Terufumi Sasaki is an idealistic twenty-five-year-old surgeon at the Red Cross Hospital. By two strokes of luck, Dr. Sasaki manages to survive the blast unscathed. First, that morning he had taken an earlier train than usual because he could not sleep—based on the location and timing of the blast, he would have been killed on his normal train. Second, when the bomb hits, he is safe standing one step away from an open window. He is the only doctor in the hospital who is uninjured, and he immediately goes about binding the wounds of those around him.
Miss Toshiko Sasaki is a twenty-year-old clerk at the East Asia Tin Works, working to support her brother and parents. She is sitting in her office when the bomb strikes. The blast topples a bookcase on top of her, crushing her leg, and she loses consciousness.
Chapter One is an introduction to the characters described in Hiroshima, providing a window into the normal lives of each in the hours leading up to the explosion. There are elements of the ordinary in each description, but there is also a fair amount of wartime anxiety and disruption. Everyone’s lives are touched by the war, even in the most indirect ways. Hersey shows how wartime hardship is woven into every character’s daily existence: Mrs. Nakamura, for example, has been trudging up to a safe area every night with her children, and the siren warnings have lost much meaning for her. Many people, it seems, are both anxious and unconcerned at the same time.
The other common element in each character’s story is the utter confusion generated by the blast. Many people expect to hear the sound of approaching planes or the warnings or the air-raid sirens, but nobody hears anything before the bomb is dropped. The first moment is, as Hersey describes it, a “noiseless flash,” astoundingly bright and powerful, toppling and imploding buildings before anyone even hears a sound. Most of the people who survive are just lucky to be in a safe place at the right time. Hersey refrains from making explicit moral judgments, but it is difficult to miss the fact that the confusion and chaos that the citizens of Hiroshima undergo reflect the United States’s deliberate decision not to warn the civilians in Hiroshima about the imminent bomb attack.
Hersey’s narrative style in Chapter One, which he continues to use throughout the book, is to crosscut the stories of his characters at a single moment in time—in this case, at the moment the bomb strikes. It is a short chapter, scarce on details, but the technique heightens the dramatic effect. Rather than learn a lot about each character’s life, we learn only those details that are most relevant to their state of mind on the morning of August 6th. We also learn important details that will come up later in the book. Such minor characters as Mr. Tanaka, for example, a man who criticizes Mr. Tanimoto for his American ties, become more important later on.
The last sentence of Chapter One gives us a sense of the literary power of Hersey’s narrative: “There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.” Hersey juxtaposes elements on the human scale—a falling shelf filled with books—with an invention beyond our comprehension. The author thereby suggests that technologies bring consequences beyond the scope of our imagination. However, Hersey shows that ironically, even books, the symbols of tradition, knowledge, and education, can be dangerous. He leaves the reader with a mixture of horror, disbelief, and a kind of macabre irony about the unworldly power of such a weapon.