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Hiroshima | Chapter 1 : A Noiseless Flash | Summary

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Summary

The book opens with a brief introduction to the ordinary lives of six survivors of the bombing on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. Their stories give readers a window into this horrific event as well as into the personalities of each survivor. In this chapter detailed accounts show what each person was doing in the hours leading up to the "noiseless flash" of the bomb as well as at the moment of impact.

Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Methodist minister, carts items to a safer location. He and the other citizens of Hiroshima expect their city will become a target in the very near future. Mr. Tanimoto is described as emotional and weak, but fiery, nervous, cautious, and thoughtful. He studied theology in Atlanta, Georgia, and speaks English very well. He reacts to the flash of light with terror. He dives for cover and then runs into the street in a panic.

Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor's widow with limited resources and three young children, is described as an obedient woman. She takes her children to the safe place at each alarm. However, on the morning of August 6, she and the children are tired from responding to alarms during the night. After receiving permission from the head of the Neighborhood Association, she allows her children to rest while she prepares food. She watches her neighbor through her window when the flash occurs. The blast propels her into the next room as her house is destroyed. She claws through debris to rescue her children.

Dr. Masakazu Fujii is "prosperous, hedonistic, and at the time, not too busy." He had begun refusing new patients in his private clinic so he is left with only two to care for. As he sits on his front porch with the morning newspaper, he sees the flash. Dr. Fujii's hospital falls into the river, and he goes with it. Being caught between two timbers injures his shoulder.

Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a 38-year-old German priest of the Society of Jesus, is feeling ostracized as a foreigner in a land where people were becoming increasingly distrusting of those different from themselves. He has also been ill with digestive afflictions, so he goes to rest on his cot after mass. At the time of the flash he is reading a magazine. The flash brings to his mind a story he had read as a child about a meteor crashing to earth. He believes a bomb had fallen right on the mission and "for a few seconds or minutes, he went out of his mind."

Dr. Terufumi Sasaki is a newly trained and somewhat idealistic surgeon working on the staff of the Red Cross Hospital. He had been practicing medicine in his mother's community, which was short on medical personnel; however, he has no permit and just learned the penalty for this was great. By the time he arrives for his shift at the Red Cross Hospital, he decides to discontinue this unlawful practice. Upon arrival he checks in with the chief surgeon and picks up a blood specimen to deliver to the lab. Then the flash hits. Although the blast knocks his glasses and slippers off, Sasaki is the only uninjured doctor. He immediately begins tending to the wounded.

Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a 20-year-old clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had risen early that day to care for her father and siblings. Her mother was at the hospital with another sibling who was ill. Miss Sasaki turns to talk with a co-worker at the moment of the flash. The bookcases and debris of the collapsing building fall on Miss Sasaki, and she is buried underneath, her leg twisted and broken. She loses consciousness.

Analysis

Chapter 1 presents the initial setting, or exposition: the "ordinary day" of each of the survivors. Keen attention to detail allows the reader to paint a mind picture of a setting that is foreign, yet feels familiar. For example, much like a typical American office worker, Miss Sasaki sits in the personnel office with a bookshelf on one wall. She shuffles papers on her desk, puts some things in a drawer, then leans over to speak to a co-worker. Similar to any American doctor in a U.S. hospital, Dr. Sasaki walks down a hospital corridor carrying blood specimens to the lab. Like any mother of young children living in the West, Mrs. Nakamura stands at her kitchen window watching a neighbor as her children rest.

Next—mirroring a common structural pattern of fiction—conflict is introduced as the "noiseless flash" occurs. In subsequent chapters the problems will be complicated even further before the action falls. A "new normal" emerges, and a sense of resolution—though far from complete, and certainly not happily ever after—closes the story.

Hersey chooses to tell about one event through the lives of six very different individuals. Of the survivors, two are religious leaders, two are physicians, one is a mother, and one an office worker. They differ in age, social class, family status, and personality. Four are men, and two are women. But each overcomes seemingly insurmountable challenges, emerging as true survivors, their lives changed forever by the events of August 6, 1945.

Hersey introduces characters in ways that show—rather than tell—what they are like, eliciting a common sense of humanity. For example, the reader learns that on the morning of the bombing, Mr. Tanimoto felt "tired ... weeks of worry and ... the cares of his parish ... [made] him feel hardly adequate." Similarly, the reader learns of Father Kleinsorge's struggles with diarrhea prior to the bombing. The reader also knows the whereabouts of each member of Miss Sasaki's family, her mundane thoughts about her work, and her proximity to the window when the bomb dropped. Such details serve to create vivid images in the reader's mind, and to encourage points of connection between the reader and the characters.

Americans felt a keen sense of patriotism in the aftermath of World War II. American soldiers returned to a hero's welcome, having participated in the defeat of the Axis powers. By creating connections between reader and the six survivors, Hersey puts a human face on the sufferings of war. The Japanese are shown, not as a faceless enemy, but as real people with strengths, weaknesses, struggles, desires, feelings, and fears. Unlike the sterile facts of a news article, the stories of these six survivors evoke an emotional response. It is easy to identify with a mother clawing her way out of the rubble to get to her children or with Mr. Tanimoto's sleepless nights.

Unlike readers of today, in 1945 most of the world was unfamiliar with the notion of nuclear weapons. Hersey conveys not just the destruction left in the bomb's wake but also the confusion in its initial aftermath. He shows this in the ways the survivors try to make sense of the devastating flash. Mr. Tanimoto "wondered how such extensive damage could have been dealt out of a silent sky." The events made no sense. Bombs were loud, but this flash was silent. Mr. Tanimoto and the others were completely unaware of the potential of splitting atoms. The survivors had never heard terms like "Cold War" or "nuclear holocaust."

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