Thursday, August 6, 2015


HIROSHIMA by John Hersey (1985 ed.)                                                                                                                                                 BLACK RAIN by Masuji Ibuse (1969)                                                                                                                                                       

Japanese Constitution: (1947)                                                 

"The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes."                                                                                                                                                                      Hiroshima(with "target bridge")

There is a bit of a literary and historical paradox when we read these two excellent and important books.                                   Hersey's HIROSHIMA is a non-fiction work that employs some of the techniques of novel writing. It is considered to be a "classic."                                                                                             Ibuse's BLACK RAIN, less well known in the U.S., is a novel written in almost documentary style drawing as it does upon factual source material.

Into the boiling cauldron of Hiroshima Mr. Hersey drops six "characters", though real people, at the exact moment of the Bomb blast. We read and read on following the trail of his sentences as he makes us know the horrors they witnessed and endured and makes us know them - as people, individual human beings - through vivid description and dialogue, their actions and reactions. What they thought and did that morning, at that historic moment, and beyond to Hersey's return in 1985 for his follow-up chapter "The Aftermath."                                                    

"The lives of these six people who were among the luckiest in Hiroshima, would never be the same."                                               

Through empathetic and novelistic writing Hersey makes us care very much about these individuals and the fate of each one of them. We experience them not as abstractions but as living, breathing, suffering, enduring human beings.                                    

HIROSHIMA originally appeared in "The New Yorker" magazine on August 31, 1946, and filled the entire issue. His reportage was a "game-changer" - the first close-up look of the people who survived the Bomb at or near Ground Zero. Personal portraits brought into sharp focus through his skillful use of fiction techniques and simple, powerful sentences.                 

In place of the celebration and relief, anger and for some guilt, felt by Americans in 1945, he tried to provide empathy and closure for his American readers. Gently prodding them to consider again what happened on August 6, 1945 at 8:15 a.m. to the people of Hiroshima and their city.                           

A German Catholic priest, one of his six survivors, tells Hersey that he had to repeatedly remind himself after the bombing: "These are human beings."                                                 

When we read this sparely written, densely factual book, our empathy is engaged. From his pen we learn a few simple, terrible things:                                                                                   That if you wore black that morning, you likely died instantly as dark clothing conducted the Bomb's incredibly intense heat directly into your skin and body. He describes the decorative flowers on women's kimonos as being turned into shadows burnt into their skin.White clothing reflected the heat away from you and you survived at least for a while.                             "Small items of chance or volition meant the difference between life and death."(how you were dressed, whether you were facing away from the blast at that split second or had bent down to pick something up so that a low wall shielded you from the blast).                                                                                                 

Like the American author, the Japanese writer, Mr. Ibuse, was not present in Hiroshima when the Bomb dropped from that blue morning sky its flash-bang detonation quickly burnishing it black while turning morning into near night.                                  

Mr. Ibuse wrote the book separated from his subject by time and place. But as a native of Hiroshima he is as close to his subject as his own mirror. This novel reads as fiction, as it should, though his translator, John Bester, notes in his "Preface", that much of the time it can be read as a "documentary novel" drawn from actual events, records and interviews.                                                 

The journal/diary of Mr. Shizuma provides the author with his chief source of material and did and still does exist. The translator tells us that the novel "is a portrait of a group of human beings; of the death of a great city." That "Against the threat of universal destruction, he sets a love for, and sense of wonder at life in all its forms."                                                                      

Both authors write of the sense of mystery and puzzlement felt by the people of Hiroshima concerning what had happened to them and their city.                                                                                           

Hersey writes of people being bewildered, dazed and apathetic. "They could not comprehend." Plants, he tells us, soon appeared to be growing fast everywhere as if energized by the Bomb. "Wild flowers were in bloom among the city's bones."   Ibuse's characters note the same phenomenon that the "bomb seemed to have encouraged the growth of the same time that it put a stop to human life." And he writes of their confusion about the "black rain" itself that was neither paint nor tar but "something of unknown origin."                                                                       

Both writers also note the overwhelming sense of the suddenness of it all. That everything happened all at once. 

Ibuse's narrator poses the question "Whatever can have happened for everything to be like this all at once?" One of Hersey's survivors wonders how so many could be "killed or doomed at one blow"and be "so suddenly sick?" Hersey states that the people of the city, in his view, "were the objects of the first great experiment in the use of atomic power." 

Both the novelist and the reporter allude to the ABCC, Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission set up by the U.S. and composed of American and Japanese medical personnel. Each stresses that the ABCC offered no help or assistance to the people of Hiroshima affected by the Bomb. The mission was "to carry out studies and gather statistics" but "it did nothing to treat them." (Ibuse)

Hersey concurs writing that this led the victims of the Bomb to feel "that the Americans regarded them as laboratory guinea pigs or rats." Alleviation of their suffering was not part of the mission mandate.                                                                               

Hersey relates the appearance in May 1955 on the hit television show "This Is your Life"of Enola Gay Co-Pilot Capt. Robert Lewis who tells the show's host that in his pilot's log:"I wrote down the words. 'My God, what have we done?' "                                                                                                                     

In his final chapter Hersey tells us that one of his survivors, Rev. Tanimoto of the Methodist Church published a memorandum in Saturday Review magazine, March 1949, quoted by Hersey:                                                                             "The people of Hiroshima... know themselves to have been a part of a laboratory experiment." But "...they have accepted as a compelling responsibility their mission to help in preventing further similar destruction anywhere in the world...."                       

The memo proposed a "peace park" for the city to "serve as a laboratory of research and planning for peace education throughout the world...."                                                                   After many delays the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was erected in the center of the city. And there, today, seventy years after the bombing, there will be a peace ceremony.                                                                     

In 1957 the Japanese Diet passed laws to provide medical and other assistance to the hibakusha atomic bomb survivors listing four categories of victims. Hersey lists the four categories, but I quote here only the 4th and last: 

"Those who had been embryos in the wombs of women" in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the time of the bombings.                          

Both writers touch on the morality of the subject they write about. It appears to be the proverbial "elephant in the room."                                                                                  

"Who cared after all which side won? The only important thing was to end it all as soon as possible: rather an unjust peace than a just war." (Ibuse)                                                                                                                                                                                     "The crux of the matter is whether total war is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result?" (Hersey quoting the German Catholic priest, one of his 6 survivors)                                                          

Finally, John Hersey's comment on the jacket of Ibuse's book can apply to both books:                                                                 "This painful and very beautiful book gives two powerful messages - of drastic warning, yet also of affirmation of life."                  

We end as we began this Blog Post with Japan's "pacifist" Constitution and a headline from the July 17, 2015, issue of the NYTS:"Japan Moves To Allow Military Combat For First Time in 70 Years."(Regarding the efforts of PM Abe to "reinterpret" the Japanese Constitution).                                                                              

Have THEY forgotten? Have WE? Did the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty of the early sixties clear our skies - but cloud our memories? Out of Sight and Out of mind? What should we think, feel, do?                                                                                       

Thoughtful comments welcome. Read On.                                                                                                                                                 


  1. Let's never forget. Keep writing.

  2. Well written and informative.I'd like to know more about the people who worked for the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission and what they thought of the aftermath and whether or not they had an issue with not providing assistance to the victims.