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.