On May 21, 1946, 31-year-old journalist John Hersey received security clearance to travel from Shanghai to Hiroshima. It had been eight and a half months since the U.S. dropped the world's first atomic bomb used in warfare over the city, immediately killing an estimated 66,000 people. After the American military started its occupation of the country, the man in charge, General Douglas MacArthur, ordered Hiroshima off limits to freelance reporters and journalists. Only pre-approved personnel were allowed to inspect the destruction.
Hersey was one of them. Before arriving in Hiroshima, he became ill and a friend handed him a short novel — Thornton Wilder’s "The Bridge of San Luis Rey." Winner of the 1928 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the story revolved around the fates of five people who were killed after a rope bridge in Peru suddenly collapsed in the early 1700s. Hersey absorbed Wilder’s message of fate and chaos, with perhaps the last line of the book resonating the most: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
May 1946 was a different time. As scholar Patrick B. Sharp described in his searing 2000 paper "From Yellow Peril to Japanese Wasteland: John Hersey’s 'Hiroshima,'" the American media had for years been treating Japanese people as an enemy to be vanquished in the style of comic strips popular at the time such as "Buck Rogers" and "Flash Gordon." Sharp mentioned that “editorial cartoons [ ... ] showed stereotypical Japanese figures with slant eyes and buck teeth cowering beneath or being blown to pieces…” Even after the war, the American media showed little remorse as they continued to publish patronizing sketches and editorials.
One newspaper in September 1946, for example, published a cartoon of MacArthur near a chalkboard, showing a Japanese man with “slant eyes and buck teeth,” and a message written on the board: “Have you learned your lesson?” This morally superior/we’re-better-than-you tone is of course nothing new when it comes to war between two factions, but the enlargement of its importance can lead to a catastrophic level of hubris.
A chilling example comes from Robert A Lewis, one of the co-pilots of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. When asked to explain how he felt that day, Lewis responded in a way that highlights how utterly detached Americans had become in their feelings toward Japanese people: “… what we saw [on August 6] made us feel that we were Buck Rogers 25th century warriors.”
Ever since talking with New Yorker editor William Shawn in late December 1945, Hersey had been thinking of ways for his reporting in Hiroshima to matter. Both Shawn and Hersey had grown weary of the cold, bloodless reports from West-centric journalists who’d chosen to focus on the rubble and the size of the explosion. Yes, buildings were leveled, body counts given, but none of it seemed to ring true.
John Hersey’s writing had always been devoted to compassion and specificity — especially when it came to people. The first decade of his life was spent living day-to-day immersed in Asian culture, in China with his missionary parents. Although he never latched on to Christianity, echoes of moral sensibility remained. Thanks to an earlier, empathetic Time article written in February 1946 by a German missionary living in Hiroshima named Johannes Siemes, Hersey (who could speak Mandarin but not a lick of Japanese) headed directly to a church. As author Jeremy Treglown described in his engrossing biography, Mr. Straight Arrow, “Hersey quotes from Siemes’s piece, which also crucially alerted him to the Catholic mission as a useful source of contacts.” It’s also not a stretch to say that Hersey’s own childhood experience had “alerted him” to the usefulness of a Christian church in a foreign country.
The first man he spoke with in Hiroshima was a 38-year-old German priest named Wilhelm Kleinsorge, who’d been 1.3 kilometers away from the center of the blast, surviving largely because his Mission house had been “double-braced by a priest named Gropper, who was terrified of earthquakes… ” Kleinsorge ended up becoming Hersey’s connector.
Next, Hersey’s taken to Rev Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Methodist pastor fluent in English. Hersey and Tanimoto develop a friendship and in his eventual story, Hersey describes him with sensitivity: "Mr Tanimoto is a small man, quick to talk, laugh, and cry. He wears his black hair parted in the middle and rather long; the prominence of the frontal bones just above his eyebrows and the smallness of his mustache, mouth, and chin give him a strange, old-young, boyish and yet wise, weak and yet fiery. He moves nervously and fast, but with a restraint which suggests that he is a cautious, thoughtful man."
What Tanimoto related to Hersey became one of the most memorable scenes of suffering in "Hiroshima." In Chapter 2, “Fire,” Hersey reports what Tanimoto explained to him. The result is the first passage to deeply resonate with American readers, shaking them awake from their atomic slumber:
"[Tanimoto] was the only person making his way into the city; he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and every one of them seemed to be hurt in some way. The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of pain, held their arms up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing. On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns—of undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos."
“I felt I would like to write about what happened not to buildings but to human beings…and I cast about for a way to find a form for that…[It was this] struggling effort to understand what they must have felt that produced whatever I was able to produce.” ~John Hersey
As Hersey walked around the wounded Hiroshima with a notebook and translator, he simply could not absorb the “terrifying notion” that “these ruins [around me have] been created by one instrument in one instant.” Through the help of Kleinsorge and Tanimoto, he spoke with dozens of survivors. It’s unclear how long he stayed in Hiroshima. Several sources say three weeks, others six. Regardless, Hersey understood more than any other American the degree of human suffering, such as that of Ms Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk. In the following passage, Hersey manages to communicate the suffering she experienced after the bomb fell yet subtly nudges the American reader to see her as an equal:
"Everything fell, and Miss Sasaki lost consciousness. The ceiling dropped suddenly and the wooden floor above collapsed in splinters and the people up there came down and the roof above them gave way; but principally and first of all, the bookcases right behind her swooped forward and the contents threw her down, with her left leg horribly twisted and breaking underneath her. There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books. "
Hersey eventually made his way back to America by boat. He had time to go through his notes and create an outline for his story. As he clarified what he felt was a “terribly complicated” story, he was given reinforcement to stick with his “effort to understand what [Japanese people] must have felt.” On July 1, 1946, nuclear weapons tests occurred near the Marshall Islands, the most famous being the Bikini Atoll detonation. The still-tone-deaf media offered radio listeners a chance to tune in to a station and hear “the sound of the explosion.” By July 1946, nuclear weapons tests were starting to receive Hollywood-level coverage.
Hersey’s “Hiroshima” appeared in The New Yorker’s Aug 31, 1946 issue. At the time, The New Yorker was a magazine most subscribers read to enjoy light, breezy yet intellectual pieces, and, wisely, editor William Shawn resisted a stark, “explosive” cover, choosing instead an overhead sketch of people enjoying various summer activities. Hersey’s article takes up just about the entirety of the magazine, stretching across 53 pages.
When I stare at the cover of that edition of The New Yorker today, however, I see a slight circular shadow in the middle of all this summer fun. Perhaps Shawn felt that once a reader finished reading Hersey’s story, they would close the magazine and realize the magnificent privilege so many in America rested within, and, if they noticed that slight shadow, how the power of one weapon could wipe it all away.
Needless to say, the issue sold out within days, the book form of the article eventually selling over three million copies. Hersey’s article brought the issue of humanity (and radiation) back to the center of the nuclear weapons debate. Albert Einstein ordered a thousand copies, but after hearing they were sold out, accepted reproductions of the article. He sent it out with a Sept 6, 1946 cover letter attached to the top:
"I believe that Mr Hersey has given a true picture of the appalling effect on human beings in a modern community subjected to the unprecedented destruction achieved by the explosion in their midst of one atomic bomb. And this picture has implications for the future of mankind which must deeply concern all responsible men and women. Faithfully yours, A. Einstein."
Despite its popularity, and only after pushing censorship obstructions linked to Occupation bureaucracy, a Japanese translation of "Hiroshima" did not appear in bookstores in Japan until 1949. The first print run of 40,000 copies sold out in a week. As Treblown mentions in his book, the print run was small because “paper was still rationed.”
Hersey’s career changed overnight. Until his death from cancer in 1993, his name would be tied to the city of Hiroshima, where for a few weeks in 1946 he chose to sympathize with victims and help them to recover. When newspapers and magazines asked to reprint his story, Hersey, instead of accepting what would have been a very nice commission, asked the print companies to make a donation to the Red Cross. In the final 47 years of his life, Hersey remained private and respectful of his Hiroshima story and the survivors he described. He let his writing speak for itself, only giving two interviews. His son, Baird Hersey, remembered his father having a “strong moral compass,” and told The New Yorker this story:
“We were on Martha’s Vineyard, where he always spent his summers. I had built up a body of work as a musician. I had just had a record come out that had gotten some attention but didn’t break out. I was in that phase of my career, trying to figure it out. I guess I had something in me that pulled me toward wanting fame. I wanted to know how he had managed things early in his career. And what he said, essentially, was you can’t look to the outside world to make you whole. That affected me profoundly.”
Although Hersey’s "Hiroshima" affected the general American public profoundly, it would take decades for the American media to rid itself of Asian insensitivity. One hideous example of this was in 1955, when the program "This is Your Life" invited Rev Kiyoshi Tanimoto to be a featured guest. Tanimoto accepted, mainly because he was attempting to help raise money and awareness for the Hiroshima Maidens, a group of around 25 Japanese young women who had been disfigured from the bombing and were looking for help from doctors and plastic surgeons.
The show went ahead and organized a surprise encounter with Tanimoto and Enola Gay co-pilot Robert A Lewis. Here, around the 16-minute mark, is one of the more cringe-inducing moments in television history, and perhaps a reminder of how not great America was back in the 1950s:
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Patrick Parr is the author of “The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age.” His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Politico and The Boston Globe, among others..© Japan Today