LITERARY ANALYSIS: HIROSHIMA BY JOHN HERSEY
JAPANESE CULTURE AND LANGUAGE
Japanese cultural factors play a strong part in both the plot and character development of this book. The Japanese attitude toward the dead is very significant in this disaster which kills 100,000. In the third chapter, for example, we see how the Red Cross Hospital staff carefully preserves ashes of each deceased even while there are thousands of living wounded who still require treatment. Proper treatment of the dead, both in respect to the deceased person and to their family, is a moral obligation which often supercedes care for the living. Therefore, the staff is careful to label each corpse and to package some of their ashes for relatives to pick up later.
This attitude toward the dead also influences how the living from Hiroshima are labeled after the bombing, as seen in chapter five. The term survivors was rejected in favor a more neutral explosion-affected persons so as not to dishonor those who had died. Since the dead were sacred, in effect the living received less credit for the hardships they had endured to keep themselves alive.
Another important cultural element is how many of the main characters, and much of the city as a whole, reacted to both the hardships they suffered from the bomb as well as the moral question of the bombs use. They expressed the Japanese psyche of being resigned to hardships, articulated as shikataga nai, or oh well, it cant be helped. This comes from the Buddhist belief that emptying oneself of worldly thoughts, both good and bad, leads to understanding and contentment. It is also a product of a strong central government that is often unresponsive to citizens needs, as well as a disbelief that such horrors could have been caused by real human beings. Hersey point out that to Mrs. Nakamura, for example, the bombing thus felt much like a natural disaster that was unavoidable.
Because of the relative formality of the Japanese culture, the characters in the book are usually referred to by their last names. First names are rarely used, and only by mothers to their children or between affectionate spouses or intimate friends. Other elements of language use in the book include Japanese terms such as hibakusha, or explosion-affected persons.
STUDY QUESTIONS - ESSAY TOPICS - BOOK REPORT IDEAS
1. What aspects of the book make it clearly a non-fictional account under the genre of investigative reporting?
2. The book is marked by realism and the experiences and feelings of individuals. Discuss.
3. Discuss the significance of the Aftermath chapter in relation to the whole text.
4. What realities of modern warfare does Herseys account highlight?
5. Wartime Japanese were willing to sacrifice and even die for their Emperor. Discuss and give examples from the book.
6. How did the way plant life was affected by the bomb eerily contrast to the way humans were affected? Describe.
7. How is Hiroshima essentially a tale of survival?
8. Why do you think this book has remained popular for over 50 years after it was first written?
1. Discuss the fear of attack that the citizens of Hiroshima were feeling before the bomb was dropped. Contrast this to the actual power of the atom bomb and discuss whether those fears were warranted.
2. Choose at least two main characters and describe how their priorities, choices, and reactions after the bomb matched those of their everyday lives prior to the bomb, for better or worse.
3. How were the bomb survivors treated in Japanese society? Contrast this to the post-humus treatment of those who died in the blast.
1. The book is based on interviews of six survivors, with no moral conclusions drawn.
2. The survivors stories are allowed to speak for themselves. The book is not a call to action but an objective reporting of the facts. The author is unemotional even in his telling of a horrific incident. He relates the information in a straight forward way.
3. Hersey highlights the idea that war involves more than battle plans and armies. In Hiroshima, thousands of civilians are killed with a single weapon, and an entire city is destroyed. Hersey also brings up the issue of the use of nuclear weapons in war.
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Hiroshima by John Hersey: Free BookNotes Summary
How do Hersey's six subjects display different ways of coping with tragedy in the years following the bombing?
In the aftermath of the attack on Hiroshima, the six subjects all lead very different lives that reflect both their personal differences from each other, as well as the varying ways of internalizing a tragic event. Some find that the best way to move forward is to remember what happened, by constantly engaging with victims and working to better their lives. Both Mr. Tanimoto and Father Kleinsorge do this, through fundraising and efforts to spread their faith. Others, like Dr. Sasaki, find that remembering is too painful. Dr. Sasaki moves his practice and tries to change his life after he finds that treating hibakusha is too overwhelming for him. For still others, coping with tragedy involves leading a purely selfish and hedonistic lifestyle; one could argue that Dr. Fujii's life of partying and self-indulgence is a product of the shock of being given a second chance at life. All of these are legitimate ways of reacting to a dramatic disaster such as the bombing.
Why does Hersey not take a more anti-American sentiment in this piece?
Though it employs the strategies of New Journalism and is told like a work of prose, Hiroshima is primarily a factual account that is meant to report the truth as it happened. It is subjective in that it relays the feelings and emotions of its subjects, but it does not take a strong stance against the United States' decision to use the bomb. This is fitting with the widespread Japanese reaction to the tragedy: people were more focused on recovering rather than on hating America, and the general mentality was one of pacifism and reconciliation, not a desire for revenge. Many also understood that they had been fighting a total war, and thus they had to expect any kind of attack. Thus, Hersey's piece is more a general statement against the horrors of war in general, not a condemnation of the individual decisions made in this particular one.
Why is it important to the narrative structure that the subjects' stories converge in Asano Park?
Mr. Tanimoto, Mrs. Nakamura, and Father Kleinsorge all end up in Asano Park in the hours immediately following the bombing. This is significant because it allows readers to see how the subjects relate to each other both as victims and as neighbors, helping each other and leaning on each other whenever necessary. This is true of Asano Park as a whole: it represents the setting where victims from all walks of life converge, stripped of the precious distinctions that social class, occupation, gender, or age would have given them, focused solely on the two very human experiences of grief and survival.
How does faith play a role in the survivors' stories?
In the aftermath of a tragedy, faith can be both an uplifting force and a crushing force: people look to a higher power for comfort and hope, but they also wonder how any god could allow them to suffer like this. For this reason, John Hersey chooses two subjects, Mr. Tanimoto and Father Kleinsorge, who are men of faith. Their experiences, along with Miss Sasaki's later in life, generally support the idea that faith is powerful in a positive way during disaster. Faith drives both Mr. Tanimoto and Father Kleinsorge to selflessly help their neighbors in the immediate hours following the bombing, and later to help the hibakusha in the years to come. Miss Sasaki is initially skeptical, but Father Kleinsorge helps to show her the powerful healing that religion can provide her, and she eventually converts to Catholicism and becomes a nun. Faith is important in all of these people's lives, just as it is important to many people following a disaster or war.
How does Japanese culture color the way survivors cope with the bombing?
There is a prevailing sense of shame and honor in Japanese culture, as pointed out in the experience of Mr. Tanimoto: he thinks it is shameful that he is uninjured while so many others are dead or dying. This means that the Japanese victims of Hiroshima did not make a show of their suffering; instead, they endured their pain in silence and stoically attempted to help others. This cultural norm translated into Japanese people's acceptance of their surrender; they viewed it as a sacrifice they had to tolerate for the sake of peace in the world, rather than a terrible disgrace.