John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”

If someone were to write a social history of this pandemic that we’re going through right now, I wonder how it would compare to accounts of other crises of the past. We might read about people who don’t question the government, those who accept their fate, those who seek answers in religion, and those who lost their lives. Hiroshima is a good example of a social history account of how a culture responded to a major wartime crisis. John Hersey’s use of literary devices and writing style represent the theme of Japanese stoicism that still appeals to the Western audience it was intended for.

The Japanese mentality of loyalty to the emperor, suffering in silence to not take attention away from others is central to the book. The people’s unquestioning attitude and stoicism was a key attribute of the characters. For example, Mr. Tanimoto wrote: “Next morning I found many men and women dead, whom I gave water last night. But, to my great surprise, I never heard anyone cried in disorder, even though they suffered in great agony. They died in silence, with no grudge, setting their teeth to bear it. All for the country!” (p. 88) From this quote the reader can get an idea of how important this mentality was to the people of Japan, so much so that even in death they still modeled it.

Emperor Hirohito

His style of writing shows that this is more of an historical account than anything. He does not take away from the event itself by embellishing it. He’s very concise and straight to the point: “Mr. Tanimoto was still angry at doctors.” (p. 50). Here his sentence is short and where other authors may exaggerate how angry Mr. Tanimoto was Hersey uses more simple straightforward words. Doesn’t use a lot of metaphors nor similes, nor does he use a lot of facts or statistics but focuses on the people’s stories and accounts of the event. The book itself was significant for being one the first tellings from the Japanese perspective. Unlike The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, which is more of a textbook, Hersey’s book is a social history.


Writing from the omniscient perspective, where the reader can hear the thoughts and feelings of all characters. Hersey puts the reader one step removed from the story which reflects the stoicism of the characters themselves. This is also characteristic of a historical account where the reader knows more than the characters, as in a historical account. Hersey gives context to the fate of someone even though the person experiencing it doesn’t know it yet. Dr. Fujii says, “He thought he heard the voice of his niece for a moment, but he could not find her; he never saw her again.” (p. 24). Dr. Fujii would not have known at the time that he wouldn’t see her again. At the same time, the reader is empathetic towards Dr. Fujii, knowing this. Hersey uses the graphic accounts of the bombing to draw the reader in. “he saw there were about twenty men, and they were all in exactly the same nightmarish state: their faces were wholly burned, their eyesockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks.” (p. 51) This gives the reader access to the characters’ experience. 

Hersey’s social history includes complex characters. While five out of the six are Japanese, most hold Western beliefs in Chrisitanity. The sixth character, while not Japanese, is a German who eventually becomes a Japanese citizen and changes his name. Father Kleinsorge is German and a Jesuit Catholic priest, as opposed to Buddhism or Asian religions and philosophies so as to not alienate readers in the West. “Father Kleinsorge loved the Japanese and their ways.” (p. 111) so much so that he later changed his name to Father Makoto Takakura when he became a Japanese citizen. The book was originally published in The New Yorker so he wrote his characters to appeal to a more Western audience. However,despite having Western beliefs, the characters are still very Japanese and the culture of stoicism is very prevalent.

John Hersey’s Hiroshima is a social history that appeals to a Western audience while still representing Japanese stoicism. In it, he talks about one of the biggest wartime crises from the perspective of seven people. His style of writing and point of view keeps the reader at a distance while drawing the reader in with intimate accounts from these complex characters so they can experience the horrors of the event from a Japanese perspective. He writes in a concise way which is matter of fact. The book is still relevant today because it was the first Japanese perspective to be told and is historically significant. Especially today, it is always important to see other sides of an event. 

Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar