Hiroshima – John Hersey (1946)

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“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk…”

Having seen this title on Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling’s blog and reading her positive review, I picked it up at the local library. I only had a vague idea of the awful situation that happened in Hiroshima on August 06, 1945, and so I was a pretty clean slate to start the piece. Then, after being riveted to the book for 31,000 words, I finished the read, astonished that (a) this whole bomb thing happened in the first place, and (b) why it’s not really talked about much any more. (At least, not in the world in which I live.)

John Hersey was an award-winning journalist and writer who won a Pulitzer Prize for this work. He’s also considered to be one of the earliest writers who wrote what was called “New Journalism” and I think would be called “literary non-fiction” now (or perhaps “creative non-fiction”) and, in fact, when this piece was published, it was considered so important that the editors of the New Yorker magazine handed over its large editorial space to print this whole thing in its entirety. (It was published in 1946, just over one year since the bomb had landed in Japan.)

Hiroshima in ruins. October 1945, two months after the explosion. (Source: Wikipedia.)

Hiroshima in ruins. October 1945, two months after the explosion. (Source: Wikipedia.)

Hersey follows six ordinary people who happened to be living in Hiroshima on that fateful day, and then he follows them as they endure the after-math of this horrible incident, and this structure was so effective as it allowed the reader to see the utter confusion and horror from a more human perspective as opposed from an international political view. I am not that well versed in the history of why the atom bomb was used (although I have read about it more), but it still sounds like a dreadful idea to me, affecting innocent townspeople who had *nothing* to do with the decisions of the warring governments of different countries.

Hersey writes in an objective voice, reporting what this small group of survivors tell him about how the bomb affected the lives of themselves, their families and Japan itself. Their multiple ongoing physical injuries and illnesses from the radiation lasted for years, not to mention the emotional toll that followed, and I was astounded to see that the government was reluctant to pay for the ongoing medical care for these people and how little the medical personnel knew about radiation sickness. (Interesting note: Japanese culture/language was not comfortable with the Hiroshima victims being called “survivors” interpreting the word as focusing on being alive which could suggest a slight to the sacred dead. Instead, the survivor group was named “hibakusha” which means “explosion-affected persons.”)

The a-bomb was dropped on August 6 sixty-nine years ago, and so it’s fading from memory as its survivors et al. pass on with just the other day, Google reporting that the last member of the Enola Gay flight crew had died. However, as this horrific event fades into the past, I think it’s very important for people to remember it and apply the lessons learned to present-day world politics.

So, this was an amazing read, and, right or wrong, it happened and it needs to be remembered. A powerful read which sent me down the numerous fact-finding rabbit holes on the interwebs to find out more.

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13 thoughts on “Hiroshima – John Hersey (1946)

  1. It’s an incredibly powerful book, isn’t it? And you’re right – this kind of thing shouldn’t be forgotten. I’d recommend “Black Rain” as a companion read to this, as I mentioned in my post – it’s parallel but from the perspective of a Japanese writer.

  2. I am very conflicted about this event. My whole being says it was wrong and yet had it not happened I would not have a being of any sort with which to have an opinion. My father would not have survived another winter in the Far East POW camps and I would never have been born. I think this is a book I should avoid as I am in no position to have an objective view about it.

    • Alex – I completely agree. There is no one “right* answer to this. Would Japan have cont’d on with its military strategy if this hadn’t been done? Who knows. But was it “right” to launch this bomb on innocent people in the name of that? Don’t know. It’s a very complicated issue for me, and I don’t even have that personal connection so I am sympathetic with your confusion.

      • At the time I think I wanted to find out what happened to Hersey, wether he became ill from the radiation. I think I then followed it up by reading his ‘Bridge at Andau’.

        What i like about his work is that what he experiences does have an affect on him, he is more than just an uninvolved reporter or journalist.

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