In Hiroshima, John Hersey writes about six main characters who were living in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, but were far enough from the city center that they survived the bombing. In the immediate aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing—when the city was engulfed in flames, food was scarce, and many must have thought that the world was coming to an end—these characters faced impossible decisions about how to survive and whom to help. Unlike in many other books about life-or-death situations, Hiroshima doesn’t suggest that its characters must sacrifice their moral principles to survive. Indeed, many of the characters go out of their way to help other people—some devote the rest of their lives to helping their fellow hibakusha (survivors of the nuclear explosion).
Both immediately after the nuclear explosion, and for many years to come, the characters in Hiroshima behave selflessly, risking their own health and safety to tend to the wounded and the children who’ve lost their families in the disaster. Immediately after the explosion, Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge and Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto risk their own safety to help the wounded. Kleinsorge runs into a burning building to save people buried under rubble, and Tanimoto deliberately runs toward the nuclear blast to protect his wife and his church congregants. Hatsuyo Nakamura instinctively protects her three children, and Dr. Terfumi Sasaki works tirelessly to help the wounded in Hiroshima’s Red Cross Hospital. For many years to come, Tanimoto campaigns for nuclear disarmament and the establishment of a peace center in Hiroshima. There are remarkably few examples of characters in Hiroshima stealing food, fighting over supplies, or even disagreeing—in other words, the selfishness and pettiness that can emerge from a crisis seem not to exist in Hiroshima. It’s telling that the most selfish thing Hersey describes Dr. Sasaki doing is grabbing a pair of glasses from a nurse—which he does so that he can see clearly and help his patients. Even when the characters in Hiroshima sacrifice their morals, they do so for a greater good. In this way, the book suggests that during the aftermath of Hiroshima survival was a “team effort”—all the Hiroshimans pitched in and helped one another out.
In part, Hiroshima depicts the aftermath of the bombing as a relatively organized, civil, cooperative recovery effort because Hersey wanted to portray the Japanese people in the most favorable light, emphasizing their dignity and morality. During his time as a war correspondent, Hersey was known to despise the racist manner in which many other American journalists depicted the Japanese. In Hiroshima, he chose to write about doctors, priests, and mothers—in other words, the Hiroshimans who arguably would have been most likely to feel a strong instinct to help other people (and whom U.S. readers might have been most likely to respect). By focusing on these characters, Hersey challenged some of the lingering biases against the Japanese in America media. But the characters in Hiroshima aren’t especially cooperative simply because Hersey cherry-picked them—there’s strong reason to believe that, in the aftermath of the bombing, many Hiroshimans really were cooperative and selflessly devoted to helping one another survive. As the book suggests, the survivors of the explosion were united by a powerful sense of their own mortality. They felt that they’d been blessed with the gift of survival, and they wanted to help others survive, too. It’s entirely to Hersey’s credit that, at a time when many depictions of Japanese citizens in American newspapers and magazines were offensive and dehumanizing, Hersey emphasized his subjects’ selflessness, kindness, and nobility of spirit.
Survival and Cooperation ThemeTracker
Survival and Cooperation Quotes in Hiroshima
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.
A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died.
The reflex of a mother set her in motion toward her children. She had taken a single step (the house was 1,350 yards, or three quarters of a mile, from the center of the explosion) when something picked her up and she seemed to fly into the next room-over the raised sleeping platform
The children were silent, except for the five-year-old, Myeko, who kept asking questions: "Why is it night already?”
Dr. Sasaki lost all sense of profession and stopped working as a skillful surgeon and a sympathetic man; he became an automaton, mechanically wiping, daubing, winding, wiping, daubing, winding.
He experienced such horror at disturbing the dead—preventing them, he momentarily felt, from launching their craft and going on their ghostly way— that he said out loud, "Please forgive me for taking this boat. I must use it for others, who are alive."
The sounds came from one of the sandspits, and those in the punt could see, in the reflected light of the still-burning fires, a number of wounded people lying at the edge of the river, already partly covered by the flooding tide. Mr. Tanimoto wanted to help them, but the priests were afraid that Father Schiffer would die if they didn't hurry, and they urged their ferryman along.
[Fathers Schiffer and LaSalle] thanked God for the care they had received. Thousands of people had nobody to help them.
Father Kleinsorge has thought back to how queasy he had once been at the sight of pain, how someone else's cut finger used to make him turn faint. Yet there in the park he was so benumbed that immediately after leaving this horrible sight he stopped on a path by one of the pools and discussed with-a lightly wounded man whether it would be safe to eat the fat, two-foot carp that floated dead on the surface of the water.
About a week after the bomb dropped, a vague, incomprehensible rumor reached Hiroshima that the city had been destroyed by the energy released when atoms were somehow split in two.