On John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’

By Jacob Shamsian

I

On August 31st, 1946, the New Yorker published John Hersey’s Hiroshima, an account of six survivors of America’s atomic bombing of the city. If the New Yorker has any clichés, it is having ledes like the one this paper has, opening with a specific time and then finishing the sentence with an event central to the rest of the story. Hiroshima uses a supercharged version of that lede style. In its opening paragraph, it gives a precise time and tells what each of its six main characters did at that minute. However, in narrowing in, the article still doesn’t lose the magnitude of the event itself. “A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors.”

A massive project like Hiroshima requires a different structure than most features (it occupied an entire issue of the New Yorker when published, and was also published as a standalone book later that year). After setting up the characters, Hersey grabs the reader’s attention by discussing the curious qualities of the atomic bomb. It’s described as “a sheet of sun,” and Hersey notes that it was noiseless. Hersey doesn’t get to scientific explanations of these qualities until near the end of the story, putting the entire situation into an otherworldly light. If this were not history, it would read like a science fiction novel. In light of the atrocities described in Hiroshima, the levity about the atomic bomb in Dr. Strangelove appear much darker.

Hersey brings up some of the miraculous-seeming experiences of his subjects, which were echoed over a half-century later in 9/11 survivor stories. Just as some people just happened to miss the train to work that day, Hersey mentions that one character misses a train and instead takes a streetcar, therefore going to work by a different route and being, at the time of the explosion, further from its center. The whole story is simultaneously real and unreal. It’s told in plain style with graphic, almost unexpected, detail. And yet it’s filled with mysterious happenstance and things that science couldn’t adequately explain at the time. The point of travel writing is to communicate how another place is different, yet the same, as where the writer is from, and what that says about human experience. Hiroshima does the same, only under extraordinary circumstances nested within extraordinary circumstances.

There’s a passage in Hiroshima where, for the first time, Japan’s emperor comes on the radio and his voice is heard, and he tries to reassure his nation that Japan will recover from the disaster. It’s a weird segment, because for most of the book, Hiroshima is treated as a devastated western city. You have the feeling that it can happen here: there are hospitals, trains, etc. It’s a modernized place. It doesn’t feel so uniquely Japanese. When the emperor comes on the radio, and the characters in the story feel invigorated by his words, and feel the gravity of how unprecedented it is for him to come on the air, the reader is finally given something that isn’t necessarily relatable. That’s one of the ingredients that makes Hiroshima essential, because the reportage doesn’t flinch from un-relatability.

The episode reminds me of “Sakurajima,” a short story by Haruo Umezaki, published in The Catch and Other War Stories. In “Sakurajima,” a Japanese soldier in WWII, doubting his army after rumors of the Hiroshima bombing spread to his base (initial reports about the event were confused and somewhat suppressed in Japan) and after losing faith in his supervisor. When the emperor comes on the radio, declaring an end to the war, everyone at the base understands the significance of the moment and feels the weight of failure, but also the importance of moving forward. The speech seems to have had a profound universal quality captured in Umezaki’s fiction, which Hersey’s account corroborates.

II

On July 15, 1985, the New Yorker published a follow-up to Hiroshima. Hersey had caught up with his six survivors forty years later, and found out what they were up to.

In his initial reportage, Hersey observed that some people in Hiroshima seemed completely unaffected by the bomb, only to have symptoms show up months later, some of which quickly turned into fatalities. Hiroshima was published less than a year after the bomb dropped, and on his return to Japan, Hersey finds that illness struck some people years later. Father Kleinsorge, a German priest living in Japan, died in 1977. Hersey summarizes his life and work until then. He must have been either communicating with Kleinsorge since he published his initial story, or assembled his story from what other people told him.

Hersey follows up Kleinsorge’s story with Toshiko Sasaki who, in one of those weird ways, fills the gap that Kleinsorge left behind. In the interim years, Sasaki went from being a clerk who had to support her family into a religious woman, and then into a nun. Hersey, the son of two missionaries, doesn’t just keep thematic continuity by turning the story over to her, but demonstrates how spiritual leaders helped repair Japan in the aftermath of the war. G-d Himself is never incurred, but religious people play an important role in the story.

Hiroshima is completely serious. Hersey tells no jokes, and neither do the characters. In the follow up, though, there’s some room for levity. There’s an episode where Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a chaplain, is arrested for not having a proper license for the car he’s driving. When he gets to the police station, the officers take one look at him and laugh. The rookie cop didn’t realize he was the police chaplain. This sort of story would have been completely unfit for Hersey’s earlier piece. While the earlier article was unrelentingly grim, the follow up is, at least for a moment, optimistic, showing a city perhaps capable of having citizens who can lead routine lives.

But it isn’t entirely optimistic. Between some of the article’s sections, Hersey inserts paragraphs with a timeline of international nuclear weapons development. Their meaning to the modern reader isn’t entirely clear — those paragraphs are irrelevant to the story around them. But the end of the story brings up the importance of memory, of not repeating humanity’s mistakes. One of the characters is disturbed over reports of nuclear deterrence between Russia and the United States, and Hersey through his characters makes an implicit plea for Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be the end, not the beginning, of nuclear war.

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