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Book Review

Hiroshima by John Hersey has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Plot Summary

Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist John Hersey shares the true accounts of six Hiroshima bombing survivors. He tells what each person was doing when the bomb exploded and what happened to these individuals in the aftermath. His subjects were a clerk in a tin works building named Miss Toshinki Sasaki, a young surgeon named Dr. Terufumi Sasaki (no relation to Toshinki), a physician named Dr. Masakazu Fujii, a tailor’s widow named Hatsuyo Nakamura, a German priest named Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge and a Methodist Pastor named Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto.

In the aftermath of the bombing, the Japanese shied away from using the term “survivors” when discussing people like these. They felt it might dishonor those who had been killed. The survivors became known as hibakusha, which literally meant “explosion-affected persons.”

The government didn’t provide any special relief for the hibakusha for years. Many of the hungry, impoverished victims turned to theft or black market sales. People developed a prejudice against the hibakusha and wouldn’t hire them, calling them unreliable workers. Some of Hersey’s subjects threw themselves into roles as activists and peace promoters in the years following the bombing. Others tried to avoid memories or discussions about the bombing as much as possible.

Miss Toshinki Sasaki’s leg was badly injured in the bombing. She was transferred from hospital to hospital as doctors tried to pinpoint the problem. Her fiancé failed to come see her, and she became severely depressed.

When she met Father Kleinsorge, who was making rounds in one of the hospitals, she asked how God could let something like this happen. He talked to her about God’s plans and purposes, and her health and emotional state began to improve. In time, she was baptized and converted to Catholicism.

She moved back home to take care of two younger siblings. Her fiancé broke up with her when his family feared she couldn’t bear healthy children. An acquaintance urged her to place her siblings in a local orphanage, since she seemed too frail to be taking care of children. She did but then got a job at the orphanage and was able to see her siblings regularly.

Once they were settled, she took another orphanage job and was able to receive professional childcare training. She underwent 14 months of major rehabilitative surgery on her injured leg. It was better afterward, but it never fully healed. She went on to study finance and then became a nun.

Because of her tenacity and strength, she was immediately given a position directing a home for the elderly. She raised money for building projects and discovered her giftedness in comforting the dying. After retiring and being awarded a trip to the Vatican, she spent a few years as Mother Superior at the convent where she’d trained.

She went on to work for the school where her brother had studied music. Her sister married a doctor who was able to help Toshinki through many of the ailments that still afflicted her. When honored at a dinner for 25 years of service, she noted she felt like she’d been given a spare life. She vowed to move forward and not dwell on the past.

Dr. Sasaki, an idealistic 24-year-old, had just completed his training in China and worked in Hiroshima’s Red Cross hospital prior to the bombing. Although it was illegal, he spent many evenings providing medical care to people in his mother’s small town outside of Hiroshima. When the bomb exploded, he was the only uninjured doctor at the Red Cross hospital.

Tens of thousands of wounded victims began pouring into the hospital, and the dazed physician did his best to patch up everyone he could. He tried to sleep after 19 straight hours of work but was back up tending to wailing patients within the hour. Dr. Sasaki worried his mother would think he had died since he didn’t come home. He continued to work long shifts, and he lost a lot of weight in the weeks after the bombing.

Six months after the bombing, things began to return to normal for him. He got married and gained back some of his weight. It took him another 10 years to complete his doctoral degree. He went on to build several successful clinics and bathhouses. A near-death experience in his 40s caused him to take a more people-focused outlook on his life and work. His biggest regret concerning the bombing was that he wasn’t able to keep track of the identities of all who died on his watch.

Dr. Masakazu Fujii ran his own private hospital. When the bomb hit, the hospital fell into the river. The doctor found himself wedged upright between two long timbers in the water. After some time, he escaped. He went to his parents’ home and then to a friend’s house to recover.

A typhoon sent his friend’s house into the river and washed it away, just like his clinic. He bought a clinic in a Hiroshima suburb and often entertained members of the Americans forces, who were occupying Japan. He liked learning and practicing foreign languages and often entertained the German Father Kleinsorge. His interest in other languages led to the government questioning him more than once. They wondered if he was involved in spying.

He opened a new practice on the site of his old hospital in 1948. His five children all married doctors or became medical professionals themselves. He had a playboy reputation and spent a great deal of time and money indulging in the pleasures of life, from alcohol to houseguests to sporting events.

One highlight of his life was visiting America as a chaperone for a group of young, female bombing victims who needed plastic surgery. Back in Japan, his relationship with his wife grew strained. He built an American-style house and drank a lot. One New Year’s Eve, family members found Dr. Fujii unconscious in a gas-filled room. The family didn’t believe it was a suicide attempt. The doctor seemed to recover a bit but then spent 11 years in a vegetative coma. An autopsy showed he had cancer and other conditions, and his family quarreled over his estate.

Hatsuyo Nakamura, a seamstress with a rusted sewing machine, struggled for many years to support her children. After the bombing, she suffered from radiation poisoning. She was often sick and got tired easily, making it difficult for her to find sustainable work. She finally got a job at a chemical plant, where she stayed for 13 years and was loved by co-workers. When her children were old enough to support her and the government finally began providing for bombing victims, Hatsuyo enjoyed life a bit more. She took up embroidery and Japanese folk dance with a group.

German priest Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge ministered to and aided many people immediately after the bombing of Hiroshima. In the years that followed, many came to love him for his selfless spirit and service, despite his numerous ongoing ailments. When he wasn’t hospitalized, he was visiting hibakusha or other sick people.

He held retreats for nuns. He gave away lavish gifts from his German relatives and passed his own medications on to others who were ill. His co-laborers always worried about how little he cared for his own needs.

Kleinsorge loved Japan so much, he eventually became a Japanese citizen. He took the name Father Makoto Takakura. He continued to suffer from many varied illnesses related to the bombing. He was given a small parish, where he met a younger woman named Yoshiki-san. She nursed him through many additional hospitalizations and bouts of sickness and was at his side when he died in 1977.

Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Methodist pastor, tirelessly aided victims after the bombing. His church was destroyed, so he worked in Japan and America to raise funds for rebuilding. On his American tour, he met well-known people such as Pearl Buck and Norman Cousins, editor of The Saturday Review of Literature.

Cousins published Tanimoto’s memo promoting peace. Tanimoto toured hundreds of cities, and he and Cousins worked to raise money for World Federalists, moral adoption of Japanese orphans and a peace center in Hiroshima. When the government failed to provide aid for scarred hibakusha girls, he helped find funding that allowed them to receive plastic surgery.

An appearance on This is Your Life helped him raise tens of thousands of dollars for his cause. Tanimoto’s own goals waned as he was swept up into Norman Cousins’ visions. When he finally returned to Japan, he had difficulty finding his place in the various peace movements. He had been gone from the country for too long. He and his family continued to care for orphans, and he retired in 1982.

Christian Beliefs

Father Kleinsorge is a German priest. He prays the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Marys before bed. His housekeeper cries out repeatedly for Jesus to have mercy on them after the bombing. He ministers to Miss Sasaki in the hospital. When Miss Sasaki asks how God could let people suffer this way, he talks to her about how the world has fallen. This isn’t the world God intended, he says. She eventually converts to Catholicism and becomes a nun.

Reverend Tanimoto is a Methodist pastor. He has suffered because of an anti-Christian businessman who tells people Tanimoto is untrustworthy. This same man allows Tanimoto to comfort him as he’s dying from his injuries. The pastor reads to him from the psalms as he dies. Tanimoto prays for his countrymen. As a Christian, he feels compassion. As a Japanese man, he feels shame for not being hurt himself. Some Scripture is quoted in the text.

Other Belief Systems

Many Japanese, like Mrs. Nakamura, hold Buddhist beliefs. Many resign themselves to their circumstances, believing this will lead to clear vision.

Authority Roles

For a long time, the Japanese government refuses to recognize, aid or support the bombing victims.

Profanity & Violence

Disturbing depictions of death and injury appear. Numerous bombing victims suffer deep wounds and severe burns. Many vomit and are covered with tumors, sores, puss and blood. Dead and nearly dead bodies float down the river, and corpses pile up in the overtasked hospitals. A woman carries around her dead baby for days, and it begins to smell. Father Kleinsorge encounters a group of soldiers with melted faces and empty eye sockets.

Sexual Content


Discussion Topics

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Additional Comments

Suicide: Before the bombing, a prominent Navy man killed himself by throwing himself under a train. His death is considered honorable enough to warrant a memorial service.

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