Discuss the role of nature in Hiroshima. In what ways do naturally occurring events, such as the weather, affect the city in the wake of the atomic bomb?
Although a technological weapon triggers the destruction of Hiroshima, nature compounds and advances the devastation of the city in the aftermath of the explosion. For example, the heavy winds carry the fire from house to house, the rains flood rivers and destroy houses, and the sun causes wounds and infections to fester. Also, artificial rain is created by the huge cloud of dust and fission fragments that rise over the city. It is as if nature has been disrupted. In essence, the function of the atomic bomb—the splitting apart of an atom—is to disturb and corrupt nature. The bomb is able to harness the power of the elements, earth, wind, fire, and water, and control nature as if it has the power of a god. Nature, however, quickly begins to reassert its own power, as the plants and flowers in Hiroshima regenerate remarkably in the weeks and months after the explosion. Nature seems to take over where human technology laid waste to civilization.
Do you think Hersey favors some of the six characters, or presents some of them in a better light than others? Why or why not?
Hersey possesses the impartiality expected of a journalist, and while some characters might be more or less appealing to us than others, we cannot necessarily conclude that Hersey intended to present them that way. However, we can argue that Hersey presents the more selfless characters in the book in a more favorable light. Dr. Sasaki and Father Kleinsorge come across as saints, and Miss Sasaki and Mrs. Nakamura are almost Christ-like in their acceptance of suffering. Dr. Fujii and Mr. Tanimoto, on the other hand, exist in a kind of gray area. Whereas Dr. Fujii may have been a very noble doctor, most of the stories in Hersey’s narrative focus on his love for pleasure or his concern for his own fate, particularly when compared to Dr. Sasaki’s progress in the aftermath of the explosion. Mr. Tanimoto, on the other hand, is a very ambiguous character. He is devoted to the peace process, but he also appears self-serving and ingratiating at times. He seems to be a leader, but he is also under attack and scrutiny for being a self-promoter by Japanese and Americans.
Discuss the role of family in Hiroshima. How do family ties relate to community ties in the book?
One of the gravest consequences of the bomb is its effect on families. Throughout the book we find characters whose entire families have been killed, such as Mrs. Kamai, who clutches her dead baby in her arms, and we find those who have been separated from family members, such as the Kataoka children. At the same time, three of the main characters—Father Kleinsorge, Miss Sasaki, and Dr. Sasaki—do not have spouses or children of their own, and neither Mr. Tanimoto’s nor Dr. Fujii’s families are involved in the story. Hiroshima is much more a book about community than it is about family. Since the bomb has disrupted families and destroyed homes, the citizens of Hiroshima must come together and help one another as a community, as they do in Asano Park. If Hersey had focused his account on families fighting for their survival, his book probably would be more sentimental. Someone like Mrs. Nakamura, for instance, is the most sympathetic character because she struggles to support three children on her own, yet even her story is fairly marginal until the postscript. Hersey chooses instead to focus on those who give themselves to their community, like Father Kleinsorge and Dr. Sasaki, or those who benefit from the goodwill of others, like Miss Sasaki. A story about lost relatives finding each other or families struggling to rebuild their lives might be more emotional, but it would not have the same kind of pride and community spirit that Hersey wants to emphasize.
Does Hersey’s Hiroshima focus on the physical damage done to the city and its people at the expense of examining the psychological horrors faced by the victims?
Hersey’s narrative is limited by the emotional distance of his characters; he cannot share the psychological problems that victims may face unless they describe those problems to him. At the same time, we could also argue that those characters who do face severe mental problems in the aftermath of the explosion are given fairly short shrift in the book. Mr. Fukai, the secretary who presumably threw himself into the flames, is mentioned only briefly, although such a story has potential for enormous psychological impact. The same goes for Mrs. Kamai, the woman who walks around clutching her dead baby in her arms—Mr. Tanimoto turns his back on her, and we are spared any more discussion of her fate. Other possible reasons for the lack of psychological depth are the stoicism and pride of the Japanese people and Hiroshima survivors, who remain emotionally distant from the events. Toshio Nakamura is an interesting case. Hersey allows Toshio’s account to end the original book, using his school report as a kind of window into a child’s mind and perspective. Toshio’s account, however, is noteworthy for how undisturbed, but nonetheless disturbing, it is. Perhaps because we expect the characters to be more psychologically affected, the deadpan accounts are especially disconcerting. On the other hand, Hersey may have been unable to fully interview those people who were mentally and emotionally disturbed by the explosion, and that may account for the book’s lack of psychological depth.
1. John Hersey admits to having felt both “despair and relief” when he heard that the bomb had dropped on Hiroshima, but we do not know how he felt after he researched and wrote the book. Based on information in Hiroshima, make a case for Hersey’s either being for or against the decision to drop the bomb.
2. How does Chapter Five complicate or reinforce the picture of Japanese-American relations painted in the original edition?
3. In addition to his own narration, Hersey occasionally reprints letters, essays, or memos written by or about the main characters in Hiroshima. In what ways do these writings contribute to our understanding of the story and our understanding of history?