It is 8:15 am on August 6, 1945, in Hiroshima, Japan, and an atomic bomb explodes over the city. At this precise moment, a clerk named Miss Toshiko Sasaki is sitting down to her job at the East Asia Tin Works. Also at the same time, Dr. Masakazu Fujii is reading the paper in his hospital; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura is standing in her kitchen; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest, is sitting in his mission house; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki is walking through the city hospital; and Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto is standing outside a house in the western suburb. A hundred thousand people die in the explosion, but these six are among the survivors.
Readers had no idea what they were in for when they opened the August 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker to find John Hersey’s full-length article on the atomic bomb that had been dropped almost exactly a year before. For Hersey to confront the reader with an abrupt first sentence about the explosion echoes the way that the bomb itself devastated tens of thousands of unsuspecting Hiroshimans who had thought they were going to have a fairly ordinary day. In his study of the bombing, Hersey will focus on six major characters, moving back and forth between their separate “storylines.” In 1946, his technique was groundbreaking—since then, it has been imitated thousands of times.
Reverend Tanimoto awakes early at his parsonage. His wife and child are staying with a friend in Ushida, a northern suburb. Hiroshima is one of the only Japanese cities that hasn’t been bombed during the war with America—as a result, city dwellers are “sick with anxiety.” Rumors circulate that America is “saving something special for the city.” Tanimoto is a talkative, energetic man. In the days leading up to the bombing, he moves most of the items from the parsonage to a neighboring district. Today, he’s risen early to help a friend, Mr. Matsuo, remove some of Matsuo’s daughter’s belongings.
As he goes about his business, Tanimoto seems vaguely apprehensive. In general, the bombing of Hiroshima both was and was not a surprise. Hiroshimans knew that they were incredibly lucky to have escaped being bombed since the beginning of America’s involvement in World War Two—however, nobody could have predicted the destructiveness of the atomic bomb that was eventually dropped on Hiroshima.
Tanimoto has studied theology in Georgia, so he speaks good English. He has many American friends, and has kept up with them in the years leading up to World War Two. The police have questioned him about his ties to America and, partly to compensate for police suspicion, he’s volunteered to lead the local Neighborhood Association. As a part of his duties, Tanimoto has to organize air-raid defenses.
During World War Two, the Japanese government investigated many people like Tanimoto who’d spent time in America (and the U.S. government interned many Japanese citizens). It’s important to notice that many of the characters in the book have, or went on to develop, strong Western or American ties. While this might be indicative of a broader trend in Japanese culture, it could also be an example of “selection bias”—while researching his article, Hersey may have had an easier time interviewing Hiroshimans who spoke English, respected American culture, etc., and therefore he could have included a disproportionate number of “Westernized” Japanese characters).
Around six am, Tanimoto leaves for Mr. Matsuo’s house. When he arrives, he finds that Matsuo wants help moving a cabinet. The two men carry the cabinet through the streets, until the air-raid siren goes off. Neither of them is perturbed, since the siren often goes off, whether or not planes are coming. At the time, Hiroshima is home to about 245,000 people. It is also a notable manufacturing center. Matsuo and Tanimoto make their way through the city streets, eventually reaching the house where they are supposed to store the cabinet. Then, out of nowhere, a flash of light appears in the sky. Matsuo and Tanimoto are terrified—they have time to react, since they are about two miles from the center of the explosion. Matsuo dives under the steps of the house, while Tanimoto crouches beside some large rocks. Tanimoto feels pieces of board and tile falling on him.
The techniques that Hersey uses in this section have become so commonplace in journalism that it’s hard to understand how groundbreaking they were at the time. Notice how the passage alternates between general observations about the city of Hiroshima and descriptions of two specific Hiroshimans, Matsuo and Tanimoto. In the explosion, the two men don’t try to save one another; their first instinct, quite understandably, is to protect themselves (whereas certain other characters in the book instinctively protect their families).
When Tanimoto rises again, he sees the house collapsing. There is dust in the air, to the point where it seems like twilight. He sees soldiers coming out of their secret underground dugouts, blood streaming from their heads.
Tanimoto faced the surreal sight of an entire city in ruins. At the time, there were soldiers stationed throughout the city—many of them were killed or wounded in the bombing.
The narrative shifts back to the night before the bomb drops. The radios announce that a fleet of B-29s is coming for Hiroshima and advise civilians to go to their “safe areas.” Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, gathers her three small children—a boy named Toshio, a girl named Yaeko, and a girl named Myeko—and walks them to the East Parade Ground, a military area for evacuated families. They put out some mats and fall asleep until two in the morning, when the fleet of planes fly over the city. Afterwards, Nakamura wakes her children and brings them back to her home. Although the radio is broadcasting a new warning, she decides to stay in the house that night.
In the days—indeed, the years—leading up to the attack, the Hiroshimans knew that they had to be on guard. There was a citywide protocol for how to respond to an air raid or a bombing: city dwellers were supposed to evacuate their houses and make their ways to a designated safety zone. However, by the time Hiroshima was bombed, many Hiroshimans had become so numbed to the constant warnings and sirens that they didn’t take the threat too seriously.
Around seven am, Nakamura wakes up to the sound of the siren. She runs to the home of Mr. Nakamoto, the head of the Neighborhood Association, and asks for advice. Nakamoto tells her to stay at home. Around eight, the siren stops, to Nakamura’s relief. She feeds her children breakfast, and notices that there is a man outside, trying to build special fire lanes in case of a bombing. Nakamura has had a hard time during the war. Her husband fought in the Army and died in 1942. Since her husband’s death, she’s begun sewing to support her children—however, she isn’t very good at her job.
Like many people living in Japan during World War Two, Mrs. Nakamura tried to go about a fairly normal life while facing the daily possibility that her city would be attacked. In addition to the inherent dangers of living in a big city during a war, Nakamura struggled with the challenges of supporting her three small children without her husband.
As Nakamura watches the man building the fire lanes, light flashes across the sky. Instinctively, she runs to take care of her children, but the explosion reaches the house before she can move more than a few feet. Her house collapses around her, and she sees Myeko buried in rubble, crying out for help. Nakamura can’t see or hear her two other children.
Notice that Nakamura’s first instinct is to protect her children, not herself—in a moment of crisis, her selflessness blossoms. Notice, too, the vivid, almost cinematic way that Hersey moves between the six different “storylines” in his book: here, instead of letting us know that Nakamura’s three children are alive (and they are), he “cuts away,” building the suspense.
Dr. Masakazu Fujii, aged fifty, is a rich, hedonistic man. He usually sleeps late, but he wakes early on the day of the bombing. Around six am, he gets up and walks to the train station with his friend. He returns to his home (which doubles as a private, single-doctor hospital) around seven, and eats breakfast on the porch overlooking the Kyo River. Fujii is the proprietor of the hospital, but lately he’s decided not to admit too many patients, recognizing that, in an air-raid, he wouldn’t be able to evacuate them all. Fujii’s wife and son are living in Osaka, and his other son and two daughters are living in the country. He is a successful, middle-aged man.
Unlike the other characters in the book, Dr. Fujii doesn’t seem to be a particularly generous or principled person. He’s a doctor, meaning that he spends all day caring for others, but Hersey also makes clear that he’s an easygoing, pleasure-loving guy. In this sense, Dr. Fujii is arguably the book’s most representative example of the “average” Hiroshiman caught in the bombing.
When the light flashes across the sky, Fujii barely has time to react. Before he knows what is happening, the porch has collapsed into the river below. Fujii finds himself beneath two heavy timbers with the remains of his hospital all around him.
The bombing threatened Dr. Fujii’s life and destroyed his source of income, his private hospital.
Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, aged thirty-eight, has been in poor health in the months leading up to the bombing. He’s had very little to eat all week, and he is feeling paranoid because of the xenophobia common in Japan at the time—although the Germans have allied with Japan, Germany had surrendered to the Allies (the coalition fighting Japan and Germany in WWII) just a few months before. At six am, he reads Mass in his mission’s chapel. The only worshippers that morning are a theological student, the mission’s housekeeper (named Murata), and some priests. When the siren sounds, Kleinsorge changes into the military uniform that he always wears during air raids, but when no planes arrive, he retires to his room.
Father Kleinsorge, like Reverend Tanimoto, has strong ties with the Western world, since he is from Germany. At the time, Japan was an intensely xenophobic country (though, of course, one could say the same thing about the United States), with the result that Kleinsorge put up with lots of harassment. Nevertheless, Kleinsorge was a respected figure among his Christian congregants. (It’s a bit odd that Hersey chooses to write about not one but two Christian priests, rather than Buddhist or Shinto religious leaders—he may have thought that his readers would have an easier time identifying with Christians).
When the bomb drops, Kleinsorge’s mind goes curiously blank. He still has no memory of how he left his house, but somehow he manages to stumble out of the mission into the garden nearby. Murata staggers out to the garden and cries, “Our Lord Jesus, have pity on us!”
Murata’s reaction to the bombing exemplifies the confusion that many Hiroshimans must have felt at the time. In this moment of danger, furthermore, Murata and thousands of other Hiroshimans turned to religion.
On the morning of the bombing, Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a twenty-five-year-old Red Cross Hospital surgeon, is on the train back to Hiroshima from the country. In addition to his duties at the hospital, Sasaki practices medicine without a permit—a major crime—and he has dreams about being arrested and punished for his actions. On the train, he thinks about how he should give up his private practice, since it isn’t worth the risk.
Sasaki was a “doctor” in the sense that he practiced at a hospital; however, he hadn’t yet received the proper medical degree, meaning that he was technically breaking the law by practicing medicine on his own. The passage is suffused with dramatic irony: Sasaki is lost in his own, relatively unimportant thoughts, unaware that a massive disaster is about to hit.
Dr. Sasaki arrives at the terminal and takes a streetcar to the hospital. There, he draws blood from a patient and carries the blood to the laboratory. When the bomb drops, Sasaki is a few steps away from a window. Seeing the explosion in the distance, Sasaki ducks down and tells himself, “Be brave!” The blast is so powerful that it rips the glasses off of his face, and he shouts out the name of the hospital’s chief surgeon. He runs into the surgeon’s office, where he finds that the surgeon is bleeding heavily. Sasaki seems to be the only doctor in the hospital who hasn’t been injured. He quickly finds some bandages and begins tending to the wounded—an act that will make him “forget his private nightmare for a long, long time.”
Two things to notice about this passage. First, Sasaki begins practicing medicine without the supervision of his head surgeon—the very thing he had been worried about. Second, Hersey writes that Sasaki’s actions help him to forget his “private nightmare.” This suggests that Sasaki forgets his fear of being prosecuted for practicing medicine without a degree. However, it also foreshadows the way that Dr. Sasaki immerses himself in work to forget his traumatic memories of the bombing.
Toshiko Sasaki, aged twenty, isn’t related to Dr. Sasaki—she is a clerk for East Asia Tin Works. At three am, she wakes up to do some housework. She is the cook and housekeeper for her father, brother, and sister while her mother is in the hospital with a baby. Around seven, Sasaki takes the train to the tin works; at the plant, she prepares to attend a funeral service for a coworker who has recently committed suicide. When the bomb drops, Toshiko Sasaki is thrown to the floor and loses consciousness. A heavy bookshelf collapses in the explosion, crushing her left leg, so that “in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.”
Like many of the other characters in the book, Toshiko Sasaki spends a significant portion of her life caring for other people—in this case, her family. The final sentence of Chapter One is famous, and it’s a good example of how Hersey uses techniques most commonly associated with literature, such as symbolism and irony. The atomic age, one could say, was a triumph of human ingenuity, the product of hundreds of years of physics, mathematics, and chemistry. And yet all this ingenuity didn’t better the human race—on the contrary, it resulted in the deaths of more than a hundred thousand people. Thus, the image of a body crushed under books is an apt symbol for the dawn of the nuclear era, which used centuries of knowledge and progress to destroy human lives.