Study Guide

Hiroshima War

By John Hersey

War

Of all the important cities of Japan, only two, Kyoto and Hiroshima, had not been visited in strength by B-san, or Mr. B, as the Japanese, with a mixture of respect and unhappy familiarity, called the B-29; and Mr. Tanimoto, like all his neighbors and friends, was almost sick with anxiety. (1.2)

From early on in the book, Hersey establishes the mood of fear/paranoia that seems to have persisted in wartime Hiroshima.

The two men pulled and pushed the handcart through the city streets. Hiroshima was a fan-shaped city, lying mostly on the six islands formed by the seven estuarial rivers that branch out from the Ota River; its main commercial and residential districts, covering about four square miles in the center of the city, contained three-quarters of its population, which had been reduced by several evacuation programs from a wartime peak of 380,000 to about 245,000. (1.5)

Hersey definitely threads a lot of statistics regarding wartime Japan/Hiroshima and history into his accounts of the six subjects, and this is a great example of how he transitioned between those two different "modes," moving from the details of Mr. Tanimoto's trek to the burbs with a friend to the more general birds-eye of the city dealing with war.

The siren jarred her awake at about seven. She arose, dressed quickly, and hurried to the house of Mr. Nakamoto, the head of her Neighborhood Association, and asked him what she should do. He said that she should remain at home unless an urgent warning—a series of intermittent blasts of the siren—was sounded. She returned home, lit the stove in the kitchen, set some rice to cook, and sat down to read that morning's Hiroshima Chugoku. (1.11)

On the morning of the atomic bomb drop, everyone was reeling from a night of air raid warnings. Here, Hersey describes Mrs. Nakamura's reactions to the air raid siren that morning (after a night of being evacuated in response to other alerts).

Before the war, he had affected brands imported from Scotland and America; now he was perfectly satisfied with the best Japanese brand, Suntory. (1.16)

Beyond air raids and evacuations, there were also more minor staples of wartime life in Japan, including limitations on what one could buy/get in the way of foreign goods. Apparently, Dr. Fujii, who loved foreign whiskey, had to make do with Suntory… after all, "for relaxing times, make it Suntory time."

"It seems logical that he who supports total war in principle cannot complain of a war against civilians. The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result? When will our moralists give us a clear answer to this question?" (4.40)

Hersey sometimes quotes other people's thoughts about the war and its lasting impact. This quote reflecting on the ethics of total war came from a report someone named Father Siemes wrote to the Holy See. Hersey identifies Father Siemes as someone who talked about the ethics of the bomb with other German priests in Japan, including Father Kleinsorge.

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)

It's interesting that many who lived through the war/Hiroshima bombing did not want to talk about their status in terms of survival. Instead, survivors of the blast referred to themselves as hibakusha.

The bombing almost seemed a natural disaster—one that it had simply been her bad luck, her fate (which must be accepted) to suffer. (5.6)

According to Hersey's account, Mrs. Nakamura did not like to spend a lot of time dwelling on the larger meaning of the bomb or her status as a victim; in her view, it just was what it was, and she had to accept it. She was disinclined to think about the politics/global issues associated with the bomb drop.

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)

Just as she couldn't really get worked up about the politics surrounding atomic warfare, so Mrs. Nakamura didn't really seem able to rustle up the "Japanese militarism" that others who visited the shrine seemed to indulge in. She just ended up perplexed by the exercise of going there.

These thoughts led her to an opinion that was unconventional for a hibakusha: that too much attention was paid to the power of the A-bomb, and not enough to the evil of war. Her rather bitter opinion was that it was the more lightly affected hibakusha and power-hungry politicians who focused on the A-bomb, and that not enough thought was given to the fact that warfare had indiscriminately made victims of Japanese who had suffered atomic and incendiary bombings, Chinese civilians who had been attacked by the Japanese, reluctant young Japanese and American soldiers who were drafted to be killed or maimed, and, yes, Japanese prostitutes and their mixed-blood babies. (5.89)

Like Mrs. Nakamura, Miss Sasaki ultimately wasn't super interested in dwelling on her status as a victim of the bombing/war, but her experiences did seem to prompt her to think about war in general and its meaning/impact.

He had the body taken to a crematorium; then, that night, it was taken out a back way and was delivered to the American-run Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, on top of a hill to the east of the city. […] He was shown that his father's brain had atrophied, his large intestine had become enlarged, and there was a cancer the size of a ping pong ball in his liver. (5.123)

Although Hersey doesn't say it outright, it seems implied that Dr. Sasaki's son had his dad's body autopsied at the American-run Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission to determine whether his father's body/health had been adversely affected by the bomb.

On the sea voyage, an ambitious idea grew in his mind. He would spend his life working for peace. He was becoming convinced that the collective memory of the hibakusha would be a potent force for peace in the world, and that there ought to be in Hiroshima a center where the experience of the bombing could become the focus of international studies of means to assure that atomic weapons would never be used again. (5.130)

On his way over to the States to raise some money to rebuild his church, Mr. Tanimoto apparently decided that he would go beyond that single goal to try to help promote world peace—and the use of atomic weapons.

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