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

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Theme of Survival

One major theme of the book is survival, both of individuals and of communities.

The book describes how people react in crises and what this show of their moral character. How each person chooses to rebuild their lives and also how the city of Hiroshima rebuilds itself after the disaster reveals the priorities of each person and the city as a whole. Dr. Fujii, for example, pours his life into pleasure-seeking activities for himself. He prospers financially and avoids health problems from the radiation; in this sense he “survives” well, but sacrifices closeness with his family and misses the opportunity for a fulfilled life of service. Mrs. Nakamura struggles greatly for the basic needs of survival, working odd jobs to feed her children while suffering A-bomb ailments. Yet after four decades, she has raised three happy children, achieved some material comfort, and feels at peace with herself. Having more truly confronted the sizable material, physical and psychological affects of the atomic bomb, Mrs. Nakamura in this sense has “survived” her ordeal better than Dr. Fujii has.

Part of the theme of survival is the portrayal of the human spirit and the will to keep on living even in the face of so much death and destruction. Survival is also demonstrated in how life slowly returns to normalcy for most, even after they live through severe trauma. Miss Sasaki, who a year after the bomb faced a crippled leg and depressed spirit, not only overcame these limitations but blossomed into a talented, independent woman with a heart for serving others. Her “survival” is much more than continuing to exist; it is triumphant.

The survival of Hiroshima as a city and community parallels the examples of the human characters in the book. Reconstruction of buildings begins almost immediately, with support from the occupation regime. This shows the indelible energy of the people even after most of their homes and numerous family and friends are destroyed. Yet the character of the city, once it is fully rebuilt and vibrant, shows something else.

Hersey describes how decades after the A-bomb fell, Hiroshima has a large entertainment district with flashing neon lights. Moreover, only one in ten residents is a hibakusha. This shows a disconnect between the city’s war-time experience and its modern personality. In “surviving” the atomic bomb, it has become something else. On the other hand, Hiroshima the community does not forget the A-bomb tragedy. Political activism demands compensation for hibakusha, for Japan’s pacifism, and for a memorial in the city to remind the world of what happened there. In this sense, the city is permanently marked by its atomic experience. Perhaps the glitzy new identity of the city, described above, is an effort by the city to forget its painful past even while forced to confront it.

Theme of the Effect of War on Civilians

Written one year after the first atomic bombs were dropped on civilians (or any human beings, for that matter), the effect of total war on regular populations is a major theme of the book. Total war means no one is left untouched. This is emphasized in that even though the atomic bomb was dropped to fight the Japanese, even non-Japanese (the German Jesuits) were affected by it.

Ironically, Father Kleinsorge, the German, seeks Japanese citizenship and becomes Father Takakura later in his life. Yet he states that his greatest identity is as a hibakusha, a survivor of the atomic bomb. The bomb’s affect, as seen in this example, is life-long and life-changing. In fact, most of the major characters’ lives illustrate that the bomb altered and influenced their civilian lives for decades until their very death.

The effect of war on civilians involves constant and fearful anticipation of the attack to come, as seen in the first chapter of the book. Since Hiroshima was one of the few major cities in Japan to be spared an air attack, fears were growing that the Americans were “saving something special” for them. People cannot live peaceful or normal lives as they are forced to be in a constant state of alert for air raids. The night before the bomb hit, for example, Mrs. Nakamura is forced to drag her three small children to an evacuation site after midnight to avoid a possible air raid. This was a frequent and exhausting ritual for her family.

When the city is surprised by the atomic bomb, family homes and businesses are summarily destroyed. Normal civilian life is completely altered and those who escape death must undergo great challenges just to survive. An entire city is transformed from everyday business and living into hoards of grotesquely wounded and thousands of destitute refugees.

Theme of Life’s Frailty and Unpredictability

After the atomic bomb kills 100,000 in Hiroshima, the six main characters of the book wonder why they survived while so many others perished. They reflect that it was small, unconscious, and seemingly coincidental actions that spared their lives at the moment of impact. Dr. Sasaki, for instance, was a step away from a window when the bomb flashed, thereby avoiding cuts or burns. Dr. Fujii awoke much earlier than usual to see a friend off that morning, thereby avoiding being crushed in his bed inside his hospital building. This is the minor theme of how chance can be a powerful force in life.

The theme is also reflected on how many of the characters view the rest of their lives. They see their suffering and hardships from the bomb’s destruction as unavoidable, nobody’s fault, and their fate. They do not have a sense of entitlement nor do they blame others for their problems. This is true especially for Mrs. Nakamura. She expresses the Japanese psyche of being resigned to hardships, articulated as “shikataga nai,” or “oh well, it can’t be helped” and that her experiences are nothing but her fate in life.

The theme of life’s unpredictability is also reflected in how most of the main characters continue to suffer misfortune, difficulties, and death even after surviving the bomb. Dr. Fujii, for example, is forced to escape when the house he is staying in as a recovering bomb victim is washed down the river in a flood. This follows his Hiroshima clinic’s destruction as it was blown into the river by the A-bomb. Miss Sasaki, even after so much hardship, faces her brother’s serious car accident that nearly leaves him impaired. These examples show that surviving the horrific atomic bomb attack did not entitle the characters to easy existences for the rest of their lives. Even Dr. Fujii, who purposefully seeks out pleasure to avoid the trauma of his experience, cannot escape his own mortality; he dies tragically in a freak gas leak.


The point of view of the book is that of an objective observer. The author interviews each main character, and in a journalistic fashion, knits their stories together without adding his own biases or moral judgments. This allows the reader to hear their stories as if from their own mouths, and makes the reader feel closer to the characters without the interference of a third party. The narrating author, however, does have the power to pick and choose different details to emphasize a specific theme or story line in each person’s life, which may not necessarily be that individual’s interpretation if he/she were to tell his/her own story in the first person.

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Wolff, Rachel. "TheBestNotes on Hiroshima". . 09 May 2017