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Free Study Guide: Hiroshima by John Hersey - Notes / Book Summary

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FREE LITERARY CRITICISM - HIROSHIMA BY JOHN HERSEY

OVERALL ANALYSIS

CHARACTER ANALYSIS

Miss Toshiko Sasaki

The book introduces Miss Sasaki as a personnel clerk at the East Asia Tin Works factory. She is in her early twenties and lives with her parents and young siblings at the time of the blast. She is a hard worker, and engaged to be married. When the atomic bomb falls on her city, her left leg is severely injured from bookshelves that fall on her from the impact of the bomb, and she is left crippled. She has a strong spirit, however, and overcomes her hardships to become a Catholic nun who is very active in helping orphaned children.

Hersey’s account of Miss Sasaki’s life is perhaps the most inspirational of all the main characters. Her choices after surviving the A-bomb demonstrate that the disaster strengthened her instead of making her bitter. In her initial deep despair, she finds hope in the Catholic faith and her life takes a very different turn. This change in her outlook is largely due to Father Kleinsorge’s dedicated and sacrificial witness to her. Miss Sasaki’s admirable work with orphans, the elderly and the dying uses her talents to the fullest; she most likely would not have had these opportunities to blossom had she been spared the bomb, married the fiancée who rejected her, and settled down as a typical Japanese housewife. In this way, she allows the horrors of the atomic bomb to fortify her as a human being, and in turn uses this strength to heal others. Her character represents the triumphant human spirit, which overcomes difficulty to carve out a meaningful life after tragedy.

Dr. Masakazu Fujii

Dr. Fujii is a middle-aged physician who is comfortable financially even in the last days of Japan’s losing war, since he owns his own private hospital clinic. Hersey describes him as being rather self-absorbed, enjoying fine whiskey, relaxation, and the company of foreigners. He is not completely unsympathetic to those around him, but throughout the book is fairly focused on himself. His hospital is completely destroyed in the blast and he is moderately injured, but he soon recovers both his health and fortune and continues to live a pleasure-filled life. Hersey supposes that Dr. Fujii’s pleasure-seeking lifestyle may have served as a way to forget his psychological trauma from the bombing. Yet it seems to the reader as only an exaggeration of his pre-bomb tendency toward leisure and good whiskey. Dr. Fujii’s choice of how to live his life after the atomic bomb contrasts starkly to most of the other characters. While the atomic tragedy strengthens Miss Sasaki and spurs her on to help others, for example, Dr. Fujii sinks further into a self-absorbed life that keeps him distant even from his own family. Mrs. Nakamura toils amidst illness for her children’s survival, yet Dr. Fujii suffers no such hardship.

Dr. Fujii is not only the most self-serving but also the most tragic character for the reader. It is significant that Dr. Fujii is the only one of the major characters to avoid any physical illnesses from his radiation exposure. Yet ironically, by the end of his life he is a vegetable because of a freak gas leak accident that was perhaps due to his eagerness to move into his new, grandiose home. Sadly, his marital relationship sours over the years as he focuses on material possessions and earns a playboy reputation. His legacy, moreover, is marred when his widow fights her own son over the possessions he left behind. His character represents the emptiness and futility of living life only for oneself.

Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura

Mrs. Nakamura is a tailor’s widow with three young children, whose husband has died in the war. She struggles to make ends meet both before and after the atomic attack by using her husband’s sewing machine to get tailoring work. She suffers mild radiation sickness for most of her life, which makes it very difficult for her to support her children, but four decades after the bomb was dropped, she is an active citizen whose children have grown and found happiness. In telling Mrs. Nakamura’s story, Hersey makes the point that although her quality of life gradually improves over the years after the bombing, she can never really escape her atom bomb experience. She struggles less and less financially and even the terrible memories recede in her mind as her life regains a sense of calm normalcy. However, her body remains weak, and when she faints while dancing at the flower festival in 1985, she is unpleasantly forced to remember her limitations during an otherwise happy event.


The reader’s impression of Mrs. Nakamura is a woman of great perseverance and courage. Although Hersey gives few revealing insights into her thoughts or feelings, as compared to the other characters, the reader nonetheless admires her selfless work to support her three children. In this sense, Mrs. Nakamura’s story is the truest survival tale of any of the characters.

Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge

Father Kleinsorge is a thirty-eight year-old German missionary priest with the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Immediately after the bomb hits, he focuses on helping the wounded and over the years develops an even greater dedication to the Japanese, which leads him to seek citizenship and adopt the Japanese name of Father Makoto Takakura. He incurs only small cuts from the atomic bomb, but suffers years later from debilitating effects of the radiation, and dies in the 1970s with a loyal Japanese nurse by his side.

Father Kleinsorge’s is a story of a devoted pastor and missionary whose A-bomb symptoms greatly slowed his work but who never put his own frailties before the needs of others. If his body would allow it at all, he was absorbed in serving other people. His atomic experience changes him: As he cares for the wounded in Asano Park, he realizes that although he used to become queasy at a cut finger, in the crisis he found new strength to help gruesomely maimed people. The priest’s adoption of Japanese citizenship is a telling demonstration of his dedication to the Japanese people. Father Kleinsorge’s close relationship to Yoshiki-san is a touching picture of his love for Japan being requited. She loyally serves him in his infirm state, and stays with him until his death. The reader is moved by this woman’s dedication, but also feels that her care is a fitting tribute to Father Kleinsorge’s lifetime of work for the Japanese people. Hersey’s portrayal of Father Kleinsorge is inspirational, emphasizing his dedicated ministry to others even in the face of his own overwhelming physical debilitations. Although the bomb seems to “win,” as complications from radiation sickness take his life at a relatively early age, Father Kleinsorge’s story is still one of personal triumph, as hundreds remember him and his influence in their lives as he lays dying.

Dr. Terufumi Sasaki

Dr. Sasaki is an idealistic, young surgeon working at the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital. He is the only uninjured doctor from the bomb, and in the chaotic aftermath, he treats thousands of victims from all over the city for three days straight with no sleep. After 5 years of continuing to treat bomb victims at the Red Cross Hospital, he escapes from the memories of the attack by starting his own private clinic outside of Hiroshima. He prospers greatly and tries to forget that he is a hibakusha, or bomb victim. The theme for Dr. Sasaki’s life is that he tries so hard to forget, yet cannot fully. Even after decades have passed, he is still haunted by his failure to properly label all the dead at the Red Cross Hospital, so that they could be properly honored. Other than this one memory, however, he is fairly successful in distancing himself from his trauma with the A-bomb. He achieves enormous financial success as a doctor and entrepreneur.

The reader feels that Dr. Sasaki is foolish to pretend he did not live through such a life-altering experience as the atomic bomb attack. In focusing on material success as he tries so hard to move on, he misses opportunities for greater closeness with his wife and children. After avoiding work with hibakusha for decades, in his 40s he is forced to reckon with his own physical vulnerabilities as a hibakusha. It is only then, faced with his own possible death, that he changes his ways and devotes more energy to loving his family and caring compassionately for his patients.

Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto

Rev. Tanimoto is a hard-working and thoughtful pastor. He is largely unhurt by the atomic bomb attack, and spends the first several days afterward compassionately caring for the wounded and destitute of the city. He studied theology in Atlanta and corresponded with American friends until the war broke out, and after the war ends he returns to the U.S. several times to raise money for various Hiroshima peace causes. Rev. Tanimoto’s story is marked with well-intentioned efforts for Hiroshima and world peace, but also with a stark disconnection from the feelings of the people of Hiroshima and the actual developments in peace efforts in the city. He has good ideas, but moves them forward independently and often inappropriately. By the twilight of his life, it is obvious that his efforts strayed from the mainstream of Hiroshima’s wishes and did not amounted to much. In this sense, Rev. Tanimoto’s life is one of good intentions but few results.

Yet his benevolent heart shines through even as his failures mount. His decision to adopt an abandoned baby when he is middle-aged, for example, reminds the reader of his compassion. The scene of him comforting his dying nemesis, Mr. Tanaka, with a psalm, is moving as it poignantly shows that in death all people are equal and old wounds are more easily forgotten. Rev. Tanimoto’s service to Mr. Tanaka shows his pastor heart and Christian forgiveness, as well his recognition that all people deserve help when they are in desperate condition.


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