IFN Hiroshima Discussion

Welcome to our IFN comment string on the classic nonfiction book, Hiroshima, by John Hersey.


In writing Hiroshima, John Hersey portrays six survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima–following their unique, yet irrevocably linked stories. Via intense interviews and research, Hersey created a serialized narrative of the events, including residents’ actions in the calm before the Noiseless Flash.

Here are some questions to spark our discussion. Choose one or two and leave a comment:

1) Describe a literary technique Hersey uses to create a voice for the characters (give an example); 2) How do  their stories illuminate the event’s backstory, panoramic picture, investigation, or aftermath (again, cite a particular example).

Or, 3) What did you find most effective about this book and what purpose does it serve as a work of narrative nonfiction?

After the first few commentators, later contributors can refer to an insight previously made as well. Please add your name at the end, so that we know who is speaking, as not everyone recognizes e-mail addresses. Everyone in class should add at least one comment (appropriate comments, of course). Set aside part of our normal class time to comment or follow, though any final responses would be due by 5 p.m. Wednesday.



20 thoughts on “IFN Hiroshima Discussion

  1. Zachary Athing says:

    I find the interplay between immediate (indeed instantaneous) and delayed effects of that day to be effective. This is due in large part to the hindsight we enjoy in 2013.

    “…(the rumor” made its way to the house in Kabe where Mrs. Nakamura lay bald and ill. It was that the atomic bomb had deposited some sort of poison on Hiroshima which would give off deadly emanations for seven years; nobody could go there all that time. This especially upset Mrs. Nakamura, who remembered in that moment of confusion on the morning of the explosion she had literally sunk her entire means of livelihood, her Sankoku sewing machine, in the small cement wanter tank in front of what was left of her house; now no one would be able to go and fish it out.” (p. 72)

    In this passage the hints of long-term lasting effects (e.g. “Mrs. Nakamura lay bald and ill”) are contrasted with the immediate effects (loss of livelihood). I think this establishment and comparison of immediate and future implications gives Hiroshima a novel feel.

  2. Thomas says:

    On point #2, I thought it was revealing how Hersey speaks about the survivors in the bomb’s aftermath and the difficulties that they faced in the following years integrating in society. In particular, Mrs. Nakamura and her “mysterious but lasting A-bomb sickness: a nagging weakness and weariness” (93). Hersey notes how she and other “‘hibakusha’ — literally explosion-affected persons'” (92) struggled to find work or compassionate employers, somewhat summed up in a common attitude of passivity that Hersey cited in many survivors, “summed up in a phrase . . . ‘Shikata ga-nai,’ meaning, loosely, ‘It can’t be helped'” (93). One gets the sense that even though Mrs. Nakamura later found slightly less menial work, she still did not have any semblance of a “normal” life. To me, this illuminated how perhaps the greatest tragedy of the bomb’s destruction was not those who were lost but the way that those who survived the blast were indelibly affected. Hersey’s follow-up and discussion helps to bring that out.

  3. Shiori says:

    I thought the book was very effective in that the narrator was very objective. The subject of atomic bomb can be difficult to discuss, but Hershey writes the story without adding any of his own bias. Because the narrator is objective, we can read the story as if we’re hearing it directly from the survivors.


    • Nick Schmidt says:

      On Hershey’s description of the bomb:

      The sheer power of the atom bomb is unnatural. It turns day into night and destroys human beings from the inside out. When the Japanese learn that the bomb works by splitting atoms they call it the original child bomb. I thought that was interesting because it puts the birth (child) of man into the bomb and not anything man made. Clearly, something beyond control. Miss Saski in chapter four says it “gives her the creeps.” This was in response to how nature sprung from the ruins so quickly, nature seemed to be taken over glad everyone was gone.

      Hershey ‘tells’ us about the effects of the bomb, but this particular case really showed the reader it’s power and what people thought of it.

      • Alex Dash says:

        I had a different response to what gives Miss Sasaki “the creeps.” The passage on page 69 that describes all the different plants that take root throughout the city does start from Miss Sasaki’s perspective, but in its course, Hersey’s voice comes out. He describes a “blanket of fresh, vivid, lush, optimistic green…wild flowers were in bloom among the city’s bones.” He even names the chapter after two of the plants, panic grass and feverfew. This, I think, is one of the few clear intrusions of the author’s voice in the book, and shows his optimism for regeneration even amid destruction.

  4. Alex Dash says:

    Alex Dash: Hersey portrayed the mass suffering of survivors in two main, contrasting settings: Red Cross Hospital, through the eyes of Dr. Sasaki; and Asano Park, through the eyes of Mr. Tanimoto. Though each setting was flooded with a multitude of injured, they were very different. The hospital was a still-standing building with a staff, though small, and access to medical equipment like anesthesia, bindings, and iodine. The Park, meanwhile, was just a sheltered grove that could only provide access to freshwater. Both Dr. Sasaki and Mr. Tanimoto exceeded the bounds of human endurance and capability in ministering to the wounded.

  5. Nick Schmidt says:

    Along the lines of long term effects:

    Several characters were used to get into the minds of those experiencing the events, much like Killer Angels, and I’d like to focus on one that stood out to me.

    Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura was a great perspective because she was the only one in charge of a family at the time of the explosion. She seems to depict the average citizen, who falls ill and suffers greatly and hates America in the beginning. Then she summed it up as “it can’t be helped” as time passed. There isn’t much emphasis on her story, but it comes back to her in the end, showing how she ended up having a relatively good job and life being as normal as it could. She demonstrates how people accepted and tried to move on as best they could.

    I thought it was great to include her because it gave me a broader look into how people handled it and not just the thoughts of one.

  6. Kavita says:

    3) In Hiroshima, Hersey describes an event that has probably seen the more death per time than any other tragedy. In doing so, what struck me was that Hersey’s approach was not only to describe and react to the incredible death and destruction following the dropping of the bomb, but to do so in an effort to preserve the character of the Japanese people. When Mr. Tanimoto leaves to search for his wife and daughter, he describes “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.”

    The endurance of the people he sees speaks not only to the victims’ reaction to the events of the day, but also to their character on a larger scale. He continues to do this throughout the novel, and instead of sharing with the reader his probable devastation, leaves this job up to interpretation. He describes other events that also show Japanese unity as a reaction to the event. When Mr. Tanimoto later tells the story of Dr. Y. Hiraiwa and how he dies in the bombing, he says that him and his son, caught under enormous pressure in their burning house, praise their Emperor as their probable last words to each other. I appreciate Hersey’s ability and decision to create a novel describing this event not only in the present of when it did happen, but continues into the future and demonstrates the identity of the Japanese people as a main source of their perseverance.

  7. Ayresleigh Rowland says:

    1) Hersey’s method of giving the characters a distinct voice is a simple one: it seems to me that he is by and large quoting them directly from his interviews. What he has done as an author is primarily to organize the six individual’s thoughts in a coherent string of events and memories. What was said to him in the first person (I distinctly remember…) has become third person narratives (for example, Mr. Tanimoto has a distinct recollection that [the flash] traveled from east to west…(5)). The voice that comes out for each character in the book is thus that of the individual him/herself. The character that particularly stood out to me was that of the young woman, Miss Sasaki, whose leg was crushed by books. Her experience, which is a solitary one throughout the first half of the novel, comes through in tones of embarrassment and tragedy. I thought one passage from her narrative was extremely powerful. On page 86: “Her fiancé never came to see her. There was nothing for her to do except read and look out, from her house on a hillside in Koi, across the ruins of the city where her parents and brother died. She was nervous, and sudden noise made her put her hands quickly to her throat. Her leg still hurt; she rubbed it often and patted it, as if to console it.” Here, I wonder if these are the words she used, or if they are a mix of hers and Herseys who is reporting his observations. Either way, I find the passage very poetic–that she would “console” her leg, which has become the symbol of her family’s death and her fiancés abandonment.

  8. Edward says:

    I believe that this story illuminates on the extremities of nuclear warfare. It’s terror is emphasized by starting the story with the character’s normal lives before the bombing and showing the readers what happened after the bombing. A huge contrast could be seen. For example, Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge was reading a magazine when the bomb struck. In chapter 3, he experiences the terror of what atomic bomb could do to people, as he witnesses soldiers’ “faces were wholly burned, their eyesockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks.”

    The effect of atomic bomb not only resides on the people affected by the bomb, but to people who lives through that moment as well, as they get radiation poisoning.

    I believe this piece could have improved by using first person instead of third person. I think readers sympathize better when it is in first person

    – Edward-

  9. Ji Young Park says:

    I appreciated the details Hershey added regarding conjectures made about the atomic bomb. Because atomic bomb was unknown to the world at the time, people of Hiroshima made guesses as to what had happened to the city:

    Some believed that it was “oil drops” coming from the sky, and others believed it was “a kind of find magnesium powder sprayed over the whole city by a single plane, and it exploded when it came into contact with the live wires of the city power system.” (59-60). “About a week after the bomb dropped, rumor reached Hiroshima—that the city had been destroyed by the energy released when atoms were somehow split in two” (62). Hersey also tells us that “Japanese radio and newspapers were being extremely cautious on the subject of the strange weapon” (57).

    These speculations show the degree of confusion and turmoil that consumed the people of Hiroshima, and this ambiguity regarding the nature of the bomb and the mysterious deaths of the people (due to radiation exposure) add to the conflict in the overarching story.

  10. Anthony says:

    I think that the structure of the novel makes a continuous plot line difficult. As Joe mentioned, Hersey often switches characters in the middle of the action. As I tried to figure out how Hersey makes the plot work, I noticed a particular sentence structure. Hersey likes to use quick, simple sentences. Look at page 48, “Father Schiffer rolled off, lost consciousness, came to, and then vomited.” These quick details generate a causality that adds structure to the individual narratives.

    These quick sentences also serve to develop characters and add voice. On page 86, Hersey discusses Miss Sasaki’s post-bomb feelings. He says, “In that period she had ups and downs. Her depressions were deep. She knew she would always be a cripple. Her fiance never came to visit her.” Once again, these simple sentences avoid complicating her character. They allow the reader to insert their own ideas about Miss Sasaki. This is also a great way that Hersey does not reveal his own voice.

    • Alex Dash says:

      This is a great point, and reminds me a lot of Shaara’s voice in “The Killer Angels.” He, too, used very short, clipped sentences that were often just fragments. Both authors’ straightforward manner lets the story and characters take center stage.

  11. Colby says:

    I agree with Angela and will piggyback off of her comment. Seeing the event through six different characters was cool, but I really appreciated the brief snapshots of the people that they encountered like Mrs. Kamai with the body of the baby on p.40, Mr. Tanaka p.60-61, Mr. Fukai p.29, or the two burned sisters on p.45. Although we may have only seen these people once or twice (maximum), I thought they showed how other people were impacted. Many of the less featured characters brought or put faces on the hundred thousand people who didn’t survive. For example, I thought Mr. Tanaka showed how a person could be so changed, Mr. Fukai’s tragic ending shed light on how he felt about his country, his pride and his stoicism, and the brief glimpse of the younger sister dying on p.45 who was so badly burned that she was freezing up until she died. I thought that these stories offered even more insight into how tragically affected so many people were by the bomb. The book is full of details and imagery, and while all of the images are powerful (i.e. the group of soldiers with melted eyes p.51), I thought it was even more powerful learning about the stories of some of the people who didn’t survive individually, even if only in a paragraph or two.

  12. Colby says:

    I also meant to ask two questions. I’m not sure I completely understand the last line of the first chapter: “There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books” (16). Did he use this example to juxtapose the new idea of atomic warfare with something older? I know am I’m definitely missing something, I sense this is a very haunting ending, but I’m not sure what! Also, I feel as though the original piece (first four chapters) may have ended stronger with the second to last paragraph: “When well our moralists give us a clear example to this question?” (90). Why did he end on the next paragraph? I think that Toshio’s writing deserves a place in the book, I’m just not sure why he chose to use if for the original ending..

  13. Colby says:

    I mean the fact that she is trapped is horrible, sad and very scary, but I guess I’m asking why he chose to end the chapter emphasizing her being trapped by books specifically in the atomic age. Why end with that sentence?

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