On August 18, 1945, Father Kleinsorge sets out for Hiroshima from the Novitiate to deposit the Jesuit Society’s money in a bank. As he walks to Hiroshima, he notes the city’s ruined buildings and crumbling streets. All this damage, he now knows, has been achieved with one bomb. As Kleinsorge deposits the money in the bank, his wounds barely trouble him. A few days later, however, he collapses in the middle of Mass.
As the chapter begins, Hersey alludes to the onset of radiation poisoning—a consequence of the atomic explosion that nobody seems to have anticipated (most of the scientists who designed the atomic bomb didn’t think that anybody exposed to nuclear radiation would survive the initial blast).
On the morning of August 20, Mrs. Nakamura complains of nausea and notices that her hair is falling out—a few days later, she is bald. Her daughter, Myeko, begins to feel weak, but her son and other daughter seem perfectly fine. Mr. Tanimoto begins to feel ill, too. Nakamura, Myeko, Tanimoto, and Kleinsorge don’t realize it, but they are all suffering from radiation sickness.
Gradually, the world realized that radiation sickness could be as deadly as the explosion itself. For reasons that are still unclear, not everyone within range of the explosion contracted radiation sickness—some avoided it entirely, while others experienced intense symptoms within a few days.
Toshiko Sasaki has a horrible infection in her left leg. In the hospital, the doctors conclude that she needs better care, and they arrange for her to be moved to the Red Cross Hospital in Hiroshima. As she is carried into the hospital, Toshiko Sasaki notices the incredible beauty of Hiroshima’s flora: the atomic blast has stimulated plant growth. Dr. Sasaki cares for Toshiko Sasaki, noting that his new patient seems to be suffering from strange “spot hemorrhages.”
Like many other doctors in Hiroshima at the time, Dr. Sasaki faced the challenge of treating the victims of radiation sickness without understanding what was wrong with them.
By the end of August, Dr. Fujii is still staying in the home of Mr. Okuma. His health seems to be improving, and he begins treating patients again. Then, one day, Dr. Fujii comes home to find that a flood has swept away Mr. Okuma’s house—thankfully, Okuma wasn’t home at the time.
By a strange coincidence, two of Dr. Fujii’s homes collapsed—the first because of the atomic explosion, the second because of a flood. Perhaps this event could be said to symbolize the random, meaningless destruction inherent to life itself.
Rumors arise that the atomic explosion has poisoned Hiroshima, and Japanese physicists suggest that there could be lingering radiation in Hiroshima; after investigating, they find evidence of persistent radiation. However, they conclude that Hiroshima is safe for people—even if radiation levels are higher than usual, they aren’t deadly enough to hurt anyone.
Scientists quickly determined that Hiroshima was habitable. However, Hersey doesn’t discuss whether people were apprehensive about visiting the city due to the threat of radiation poisoning—perhaps the public was so dimly aware of the issue that they didn’t even consider this danger.
By the first week in September, Father Kleinsorge is seriously ill from radiation. In the hospital, doctors try to treat him, but they don’t know how to deal with radiation poisoning. They prescribe vitamins and iron pills, to no avail—his condition won’t improve, and his wounds refuse to heal. However, Mrs. Nakamura and Myeko, her daughter, seem to improve. Toshio and Yaeko lose some hair, probably because of radiation poisoning, but they don’t seem to have other symptoms.
Radiation poisoning continued to eat away at the bodies of many Hiroshima survivors—moreover, the medical community had very little experience treating radiation victims, meaning that doctors could provide only simple, relatively ineffective remedies.
Mr. Tanimoto is hospitalized with a fever of 104 degrees; doctors treat him as best they can. He is sent to live with his father in the town of Shikoku. Meanwhile, Dr. Sasaki and his fellow doctors begin to understand radiation poisoning. Radiation from an atomic explosion can vaporize a human being almost instantaneously. It can also kill more slowly by inducing a fever and diarrhea and destroying the white blood cells. Finally, radiation can cause persistent harm to the body by tricking the body into producing too many white blood cells, resulting in infections of the chest cavity. Doctors already have some basis for treating radiation, since they know about the victims of X-ray overdoses.
It’s gruesome but undeniable that the bombing greatly advanced the medical community’s knowledge of radiation poisoning: scientists began to understand the different ways that radiation interfered with homeostasis. While doctors had studied radiation victims in the past, these victims had mostly been exposed to small amounts of radiation over a very long period, whereas the Hiroshima survivors had been exposed to massive amounts of radiation in the span of a few minutes.
After Mr. Okuma’s home is destroyed in a flood, Dr. Fujii lives in a house in the mountains. He later moves to a suburb outside Hiroshima, where he resumes practicing medicine; he even treats Allied soldiers, with whom he practices his English. Dr. Sasaki treats Toshiko Sasaki on October 23. Her bones heal very slowly, but her leg is going to be shorter than its mate, with the foot turned inward. She thinks about the man to whom she was engaged, and wonders if he’s left her because of her injury. Father Kleinsorge leaves the hospital on December 19; two days later, he meets with his friend Dr. Fujii—this is the first time they’ve spoken since the bombing. Fujii cracks jokes about how his buildings “keep falling into rivers,” and Kleinsorge mentions that he is supposed to rest for two hours every afternoon.
The characters slowly began to adjust to their new lives, but with great difficulty: they couldn’t forget what had happened on the day of the bombing, and most of them bore literal, physical wounds that acted as a constant, painful reminder of the catastrophe. Kleinsorge and Fujii, who’d known each other long before the explosion, tried to come to terms with their new lives—Fujii even managed to laugh about his misfortune, suggesting that he was beginning to cope with his trauma.
Hiroshima is now under the control of a new government whose single biggest responsibility is providing for victims of radiation sickness. By November, the population of Hiroshima is down to about 137,000, and the government has brought in workers to rebuild the buildings. Electricity is re-installed, and the public transportation system resumed. The new Military Government adviser, a man named Lieutenant John D. Montgomery, is tasked with rethinking what kind of city Hiroshima should be (previously, it had been an important military and communication center). Now, the government proposes various non-military projects for the city, such as a group of buildings to house an “Institute of International Amity.”
In the aftermath of World War Two, the United States established its own government in Japan, with the intention of eventually ceding control to Japanese leaders (albeit leaders of whom the U.S. government approved). Notice that Hersey characterizes Hiroshima as a “military center”—a claim that President Truman made in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. Historians have since disputed this characterization—one writer argued that Hiroshima in the 1940s was a military center to the same degree that Seattle was (not very much).
Scientists and statisticians crowd Hiroshima, running tests and trying to determine just how many people have died. The initial statistic is 75,000, but that number later grows to well over 100,000. Scientists also find that the heat of the bomb melted solid granite and concrete. The American military tries to prevent scientists from publicizing their findings, but by then the word is out: the U.S. has detonated a uranium bomb in Hiroshima.
While the U.S. government tried to hide specific information about the uranium bomb, the U.S. certainly wanted the rest of the world to know about its weaponry. Put another way, the U.S. wanted to broadcast its new military power without giving away scientific data that might allow other countries to build nuclear missiles.
In February 1946, Father Kleinsorge is summoned to Toshiko Sasaki’s hospital bed. He speaks sympathetically about her condition, and he doesn’t even mention religion. Then, on a later visit, Sasaki asks, “If your God is so good and kind, how can he let people suffer like this?” Kleinsorge replies that humanity is living in a state of sin and then goes on “to explain all the reasons for everything.”
Throughout the book, religion is a source of comfort for the characters; in this scene, for instance, Kleinsorge suggests that Christianity and the Christian definition of God can explain why disasters like Hiroshima occur. However, it’s unclear if Hersey himself buys into such an idea—notice that ends the section before Kleinsorge can articulate any of his “reasons.”
Mrs. Nakamura has lost all her savings in the bombings, but she is able to petition the bank to return her money. Then, she sets to work rebuilding her house and making sure her children attend school. However, within a few months, Nakamura has spent all her savings. She asks Father Kleinsorge for advice; he suggests that she work for the Allied forces, or that she repair her sewing machine, which has rusted after being stored in water.
The characters in the book slowly begin to rebuild their lives, often relying upon religious leaders such as Father Kleinsorge for advice about how to do so. Even though they want to resume regular lives, their everyday circumstances have been irrevocably altered.
Mr. Tanimoto becomes friendly with Father Kleinsorge. He is jealous, however, that Kleinsorge and his fellow priests have so much wealth—Tanimoto, on the other hand, has no money or property anymore. Kleinsorge supervises the building of a new Society of Jesus. He keeps busy—so busy that he is unable to find time to rest, as his doctors insisted, and by July, he has no choice but to go back to the hospital.
Kleinsorge worked tirelessly to help the victims of Hiroshima, and he did so to the point where he intensified the effects of radiation poisoning on his body and had to go back to the hospital.
By April of 1946, Toshiko Sasaki’s wounds have healed. Her fiancé has abandoned her, but she takes comfort in her talks with Kleinsorge. Then, in the early summer, she converts to Catholicism. Meanwhile, Dr. Sasaki continues to work hard at the Red Cross Hospital—he almost never leaves. In March, he gets married. However, he finds that he gets tired very easily—partly because he never eats anything.
One could argue that both Sasakis—Toshiko and the doctor—were motivated by a desire to forget about, or escape, the horror of the Hiroshima bombing. Toshiko turned to religion as a means of burying the trauma of Hiroshima, while Dr. Sasaki tried to use his medical practice to do the same thing.
One year after the bombing of Hiroshima, “Toshiko Sasaki was a cripple, Mrs. Nakamura was destitute, Father Kleinsorge was back in the hospital,” and “Dr. Sasaki was not capable of the work he once could do.” Furthermore, Dr. Fujii has lost his hospital, and Mr. Tanimoto has lost his church. In other words, even six of the luckiest Hiroshimans present on August 6, 1945 have been severely harmed by the disaster. Yet they share “an elated community spirit” and a pride in their own survival. In a letter, Mr. Tanimoto writes about how some of his friends have died “for their country.” A professor who Tanimoto knew well dies in a fire following the bombing—his last words are, “Let us give Banzai to our Emperor.” He finds that the Hiroshimans died “believing that it was for Emperor’s sake.”
It’s important to consider that, by definition, the Hiroshimans Hersey interviewed for his book were six of the luckiest, least traumatized people living in Hiroshima on the day of bombing—they survived the explosion with the power to think and speak. By structuring his story around these six survivors, one could argue that Hersey crafts an inherently optimistic story, in which tragic things happen, but the characters escape death. The passage also discusses the way that Japanese citizens used love for their Emperor to rationalize the Hiroshima bombing. The bombing was a horrific and, some might argue, incomprehensible tragedy, but may of the characters in the book find ways of convincing themselves that the tragedy happened for a reason—whether that reason was God or “the Emperor’s sake.”
Many Hiroshimans seems “indifferent about the ethics of using the bomb.” Mrs. Nakamura says of the explosion, “It is war and we had to expect it.” However, others, including Dr. Sasaki, believe that America’s leaders are war criminals—Dr. Sasaki wants American generals to be hanged. Father Kleinsorge and many other priests maintain a neutral view of the bombing. Some priests say the bombing was a grotesque crime; others argue that it was justified, since it pushed Japan to surrender and avoid further conflict.
This is one of the only times in the entire book when Hersey raises the possibility that the Hiroshima bombing was a war crime. In 1946, when the book was published, the vast majority of Americans believed that the Hiroshima victims were acceptable casualties of war (or even that the bombing was “payback” for the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941). Some have faulted Hersey for presenting a lopsided view of the Japanese response to Hiroshima, making it seem that the Japanese were somewhat more accepting of America’s attack than they really were. Others have praised Hersey for raising the possibility that the bombing wasn’t justified—a point of view that was scandalous in American society at the time.
One wonders how the children who survived the bombing will remember the day. Toshio Nakamura writes an essay for his teacher, in which he describes going for a swim the day before the bombing. On the morning of the explosion, he explains, he saw a light—later, his mother brought him to a park. In his essay, he describes going to play with his friends, one of whose mothers, “alas was dead.”
In a chapter that offers many different interpretations of the Hiroshima bombing—that it was an act of God, that it was a war crime, that it was a justifiable preemptive strike, that it was all for the Emperor’s sake—Hersey ends with Toshio’s simple, childish perspective on the disaster. Toshio, who’s just a kid, doesn’t have any elaborate way of understanding the bombing—all he knows is that people are dead. But in a way, Toshio’s unbiased perspective on the bombing is the one that the book itself ultimately offers: there are many different ways of understanding the attack, but all revolve around the inescapable fact that a hundred thousand people died.