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Hiroshima (1946)

by John Hersey

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,860296,565 (4.12)162
On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb destroyed the city of Hiroshima, Japan. In this book, Hersey reveals what happened that day. Told through the memories of the six survivors, it is a timeless, powerful and compassionate document.

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» See also 162 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 29 (next | show all)
In the West our cultural products tend to focus disproportionately on our own tragedies. Our great battles from World War Two and the Holocaust have a special place. Canadians are periodically offered new treatments on Vimy, the Somme etc. All this is right and good. National imaginaries must be constructed. We must remember for never again to have meaning. And so while we recognise the Armenian genocide, Rwanda, Congo, colonialism etc, we don't hold them up with great pride of place in constant cultural reproduction and examination. And those dark-stained moments that shame the Western conscience tend to be examined even less.

So it was refreshing to read this treatment of the horror of the first atomic bomb attack. This little book has pride of place on the matter in English language bookshops. It is incredibly moving. But I only gave it four stars instead of five because there is something missing. What is it?

Surely so soon after the war, a Japanese perspective on Hiroshima would have been too much for The New Yorker to print. So Hershey takes a clinical journalistic approach. Without frills or melodrama. Without excessive personalisation. By preparing his treatment of the subject in such a way one assumes he is protecting himself from possible accusations of anti-American bias. Just the facts. A plain recounting. It reads like a case report for a judicial enquiry.

So moving as it is, it is because the plain facts are so moving. And this, of course, would easily serve as a narrative defence - that the facts are moving enough on their own, that they need no embellishment, etc. Thus avoiding completely the need to acknowledge that Hiroshima has been treated differently for not being anglo-saxon. The author even manages to cut himself out of the script, letting the subjects voices speak for themselves, we can imagine the argument. And yet they are not speaking for themselves. They are speaking through John Hersey's filter.

One wonders what the story could have read like if the author had personalised more, made more of a story, dramatise more; As if the victims were Westerners and those who launched the bomb from afar.

There is something limiting about this clinical factual reading. As compassionate and brave as Hersey is being, and this is perceived by his clinical approach, one would not need to be so consciously compassionate and brave if the victims were anglo-saxons.

This is fantastic gateway into Hiroshima, and yet it is as if there is no more archive. This book composes the entirety of the Western archive on Hiroshima. It seems strange it is so featured in out bookshops, but never alongside a Japanese voice. How many decades later I find it hard to believe there is no Japanese accessible personal voice on Hiroshima available in translation?

As good as Hersey is. We ought to be able to do better still. ( )
  GeorgeHunter | Sep 13, 2020 |
Yesterday, August 7th, 2020, I re-read this short but detailed classic of six eyewitness experiences of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I was amazed at how garbled my memory of it was and that I hadn't even remembered the back and forth narratives of the six eye witnesses. My main memory was of the experiences of the Japanese Methodist pastor and the German Jesuit priest. I had even melded these two into one character as the years had passed. About halfway through the book it dawned on me. Just as I was now reading Hersey's classic the day after the 75th anniversary of the ushering in of the atomic ago, I had originally read the book because of the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. At age 49, that is more than half a lifetime ago! How important it is to re-read important books. The journalistic style makes the telling very powerful. The six characters lives, an office clerk, two doctors, two clergy, and a widow with young children, move back and forth in a readable, understandable and yet bewildering style. They are all confused, scared, horrified, curious and yet strangely calm. The level of destruction and human suffering is like nothing they have ever seen or even imagined. Perhaps, the most graphically powerful image is that of the German Kleinsorge offering a hand to help a burn victim only to have the skin slip off like a glove. The most spiritually haunting moment may be the first time the injured office clerk, Sasaki is able to see firsthand the center of Hiroshima towards the end of August. While she was clearly horrified it was the "blanket of fresh, vivid, lush, optimistic, green" and Sickle Senna at the center of the blast, as if with the bomb came also a shower of seeds, "that particularly gave her the creeps." Like a great journalist, Hersey presents the findings of Japanese doctors, researchers, scientists and statisticians. The stages of radiation sickness are explained. The methods for calculating actual death tolls compared to "official numbers" is covered. Japanese scientists uncovered the details of the size, power and temperature of the atomic bomb even though mention of the atomic bomb was theoretically banned from scientific publications in Japan during the Allied occupation. It's a shame this was not required reading while I was in high school. Even though I read it on my own as a young twenty something, I obviously put it down without the communal discussion that is so necessary for this topic. Hersey does not present an opinion about the morality of the bomb but he presents the process that some of his witnesses and the Japanese people went through to come to grips with the fact of the atomic bomb. Fatalism seemed to be the most common feeling. Hopefully, by writing this review I can finally contribute to the public discussion and encourage others to read this very important work. If you start reading it on a free weekend evening, you will be finished reading by the next morning. God willing you will not be able to stop thinking and feeling the reality of the atomic age before you go back to work on Monday. ( )
  riskedom | Aug 8, 2020 |
Journalism at it's best and as it should be done. A must read for all human beings. ( )
  LJCain | May 17, 2018 |
Growing up, both in high school and college, I never learned much about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If they were mentioned at all, it was either in a way that expressed that 1) it was completely unavoidable and/or saved numerous lives, or 2) should have been accompanied by chants of USA USA, WE'RE #1, USA USA. The mentions that fall under the first category were brief, and the instructors were quick to move on to another topic of discussion; the mentions that fall under the second category were rather scary, but, fortunately, usually also brief.

The book doesn't attempt to argue that the bombs weren't necessary, and so that isn't going to be part of my review, either. Instead, the book focuses on six people who were present in Hiroshima on the day that the atomic bomb was dropped, and for a variety of reasons, somehow survived to tell their stories. There's a German priest, two doctors, a Japanese Christian minister, a factory worker, and a widow who was at home with her children. Some suffered grave and lasting bodily injury; others were left remarkably unscathed, at least when it came to physical damage. Some lost their entire families; others had their whole families survive.

The common thread amongst them, of course, is that they saw damage on a scale that is really unimaginable, even once you've seen the pictures of a devastated Hiroshima. To have everything, and nearly everyone, you know wiped away in a single instant; to be left in a wreckage that was once your home and not able to even trust if the water is safe to drink now; to see so much suffering and death. Many of them had absolutely no idea what had happened for quite some time - one woman believed that she had been the cause of it, that something had exploded because she hadn't been shifting the train she was on correctly.

It's an eye-opening book, even now, many decades after the events. I can only imagine how much more eye-opening it was when it was first published. The book is a little dated, but that is easy to look past because, ultimately, people are people, even in different places and different times. There's also an update that took place forty years after the bomb was dropped, when the author followed up with all six people who were originally profiled in the book to see how their lives had, or had not, been affected.

Recommended. ( )
  schatzi | Dec 31, 2017 |
An account of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima through the lives of 6 of its victims.
Interesting, although I found it a little difficult to keep some of the people straight. I'm not certain whether that's the fault of the writing or my doing other things while trying to listen to the audiobook... ( )
  electrascaife | Sep 28, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 29 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (17 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John Herseyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Asner, EdwardNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Belmont, GeorgesTraductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Biggs, GeoffreyCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Guidall, GeorgeNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Haas, PascaleTraductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
Please distinguish between John Hersey's original Work, Hiroshima (1946), and his "New Edition With a Final Chapter Written Forty Years After the Explosion" (1985).
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On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb destroyed the city of Hiroshima, Japan. In this book, Hersey reveals what happened that day. Told through the memories of the six survivors, it is a timeless, powerful and compassionate document.

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Hiroshima originally appeared in The New Yorker.
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