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

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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 bomb’s use. They expressed the Japanese psyche of being resigned to hardships, articulated as “shikataga nai,” or “oh well, it can’t 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

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 Hersey’s 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?

Essay Topics

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.

Selected Answers

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