Study Guide

Hiroshima Death

By John Hersey

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They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything. (1.1)

In the opening paragraph, Hersey references the massive scale upon which the six subjects—and the residents of Hiroshima more generally, of course—experienced and had to confront death.

Of a hundred and fifty doctors in the city, sixty-five were already dead and most of the rest were wounded. Of 1,789 nurses, 1,654 were dead or too badly hurt to work. In the biggest hospital, that of the Red Cross, only six doctors out of thirty were able to function, and only ten nurses out of more than two hundred. (2.19)

In addition to providing detail about the losses the six subjects suffered, Hersey inserts some of the citywide statistics that really drive home the scale of the tragedy. Here, we get details about the impact on medical professionals.

When Mr. Tanimoto, with his basin still in his hand, reached the park, it was very crowded, and to distinguish the living from the dead was not easy, for most of the people lay still, with their eyes open. (2.47)

Mr. Tanimoto's memories of fetching water for the people in the park, unable to tell the living from the dead at times, is pretty grotesque and tragic.

Soon he found a good-sized pleasure punt drawn up on the bank, but in and around it was an awful tableau—five dead men, nearly naked, badly burned, who must have expired more or less all at once, for they were in attitudes which suggested that they had been working together to push the boat down into the river. Mr. Tanimoto lifted them away from the boat, and as he did so, 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." (2.48)

Mr. Tanimoto managed to take time to pay his respects to the dead people whose boat he needed to poach to help the living escape from spreading fires.

When Father Kleinsorge got back after fighting the fire, he found Father Schiffer still bleeding and terribly pale. Some Japanese stood around and stared at him, and Father Schiffer whispered, with a weak smile, "It is as if I were already dead." "Not yet," Father Kleinsorge said. (2.50)

Unsurprisingly, many of the injured—who were surrounded everywhere by the dead—felt like they were about to die themselves.

Dr. Kanda had seen his wife and daughter dead in the ruins of his hospital; he sat now with his head in his hands. "I can't do anything," he said. (2.50)

Although people were looking to Dr. Kanda to help out in treating the injured (since he was one of the few doctors in the area), he was so overcome with grief for his dead family members that he was unable to assist.

"He'll die. All these bomb people die—you'll see. They go along for a couple of weeks and then they die." (4.13).

Father Kleinsorge overheard his doctor saying this to someone else outside his room. He went on to prove the doc very wrong—go get 'em, Father K.

Late in February, 1946, a friend of Miss Sasaki's called on Father Kleinsorge and asked him to visit her in the hospital. She had been growing more and more depressed and morbid; she seemed little interested in living. Father Kleinsorge went to see her several times. On his first visit, he kept the conversation general, formal, and yet vaguely sympathetic, and did not mention religion. Miss Sasaki herself brought it up the second time he dropped in on her. Evidently she had had some talks with a Catholic. She asked bluntly, "If your God is so good and kind, how can he let people suffer like this?" She made a gesture which took in her shrunken leg, the other patients in her room, and Hiroshima as a whole. (4.26)

In the wake of her injuries and losing her family members in he blast, Miss Sasaki was pretty down on life and "morbid." However, Father Kleinsorge was apparently able to snap her out of it.

In referring to those who went through the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the Japanese tended to shy away from the term "survivors," because in its focus on being alive it might suggest some slight to the sacred dead. (5.4)

Hersey makes a couple of references to the Japanese culture's reverence for the dead, which here seems to have really shaped how people who survived the attack wanted to identify themselves or think about themselves as exceptional.

About a year after Nakamura-san retired, she was invited by an organization called the Bereaved Families' Association to take a train trip with about a hundred other war widows to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, in Tokyo. […] The shrine was considered by many Japanese to be a focus of a still smoldering Japanese militarism, but Nakamura-san, who had never seen her husband's ashes and had held on to a belief that he would return to her someday, was oblivious to all that. She found the visit baffling. […] It was impossible for her to summon up a sense of her dead husband's presence, and she returned home in an uneasy state of mind. (5.25)

Mrs. Nakamura seemed to find some of the political "uses" of the dead (and particularly those who died in the war) perplexing. Apparently, she wasn't able to connect reverence for the dead to the political anger or "still smoldering Japanese militarism" in the way some others did.

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