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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
CHAPTER FIVE: The Aftermath
Forty years later, Hersey returns to Hiroshima to interview again the book’s six main characters. He uses this material to fill in the gaps of their lives from 1946, where he completed his original volume, to 1984. This final chapter tells the rest of the story of Hiroshima, chronicling the six characters’ lives from one year after the bomb to four decades later. The reader gets a broad perspective of both the bomb’s societal impact as well as its powerful effect on individual lives over an entire lifetime. The bombing was not simply a disaster that faded away when the rubble was removed and buildings rebuilt. It changed the course of people’s lives, shortening some, as in the case of Father Kleinsorge, or led them in a new direction, as in the case of Miss Sasaki’s religious conversion.
Hersey carefully weaves together and selects pertinent details from each characters’ forty years’ experience. In telling Mrs. Nakamura’s story, he makes the point that although her quality of life gradually improves over the years, she can never really escape her atom bomb experience. She struggles less and less financially and even the terrible memories recede in her mind as her life regains a sense of calm normalcy. However, her body remains weak, and when she faints while dancing at the flower festival in 1985, she is unpleasantly forced to remember her limitations during an otherwise happy event.
The theme for Dr. Sasaki’s life is that he tries so hard to forget, yet cannot fully. He is still haunted by his failure to properly label all the dead at the Red Cross Hospital, so that they could be properly honored. Other than this one memory, however, he is fairly successful in distancing himself from his A-bomb trauma. He achieves enormous financial success as a doctor and entrepreneur. Yet after avoiding work with hibakusha for decades, in his 40s he is forced to recon with his own physical vulnerabilities as a hibakusha.
Father Kleinsorge’s is a story of a devoted pastor and missionary whose A-bomb symptoms greatly slowed his work but who never put his own frailties before the needs of others. If his body would allow it at all, he was absorbed in serving other people. The priest’s adoption of Japanese citizenship is a telling demonstration of his dedication to the Japanese people. Yet he says that he found a truer identity as a hibakusha, being able to relate to other hibakusha in an instant, with so much shared experience and understanding. Father Kleinsorge’s close relationship to Yoshiki-san is a touching picture of his love for Japan being requited. She loyally serves him in his disabled state, and stays with him until his death. The reader is moved by this woman’s dedication, but also feels that her care is a fitting tribute to Father Kleinsorge’s lifetime of work for the Japanese people.
Hersey’s account of Miss Sasaki’s life is perhaps the most inspirational of all the main characters. Her choices after surviving the A-bomb demonstrate that the disaster strengthens her instead of making her bitter. In her initial, deep despair, she finds hope in the Catholic faith and her life takes a very different turn as a nun. Her admirable work with orphans, the elderly and the dying uses her talents to the fullest; she most likely would not have had these opportunities to blossom had she been spared the bomb, married her original fiancée, and settled down as a typical Japanese housewife. In this way, she allows the horrors of the atomic bomb to fortify her as a human being, and in turn uses this strength to heal others.
In contrast, Dr. Fujii’s post-bomb years are perhaps the most self-serving and tragic for the reader. It is significant that Dr. Fujii is the only one of the major characters to avoid any physical illnesses from his radiation exposure. Yet, ironically, by the end of his life he is a vegetable because of a freak gas leak accident that was perhaps due to his eagerness to move into his new and grandiose home. Hersey supposes that Dr. Fujii’s pleasure-seeking lifestyle may have served as a way to forget his psychological trauma from the bombing. Yet it seems to the reader only an exaggeration of his pre-bomb tendency toward leisure and good whiskey. Sadly, his marital relationship sours over the years as he focuses on material possessions and earns a playboy reputation. His legacy, moreover, is marred when his widow fights her own son over the possessions he left behind. Dr. Fujii’s life story contrasts greatly with the other characters’, markedly Miss Sasaki’s. While the atomic tragedy strengthens her and spurs her on to help others, Dr. Fujii sinks further into a self-absorbed life that keeps him distant even from his own family.
Rev. Tanimoto’s story is marked with well-intentioned efforts for Hiroshima and world peace, but also with a stark disconnection from the feelings of the people of Hiroshima and the actual developments in peace efforts in the city. He has good ideas, but moves them forward independently and often inappropriately. By the twilight of his life, it is obvious that his efforts have strayed Hiroshima’s mainstream and have not amounted to much. In this sense, Rev. Tanimoto’s life is one of good intentions but few results. Yet his benevolent heart shines through even as his failures mount. His decision to adopt an abandoned baby, for example, reminds the reader of his compassion.
Hersey chooses Rev. Tanimoto as the last character in the book to talk about. Hersey makes a specific point as he closes both the book and the narration of Rev. Tanimoto’s life: Forty years after the atomic bomb was dropped, the world’s memory of the horrors of Hiroshima is fading. Hersey ends the book somewhat mundanely, discussing the retired and aging Rev. Tanimoto’s daily habits. Yet it is this transformation of the active and passionate Rev. Tanimoto into a common old man that powerfully illustrates the slide of the world consciousness from moral outrage at the use of the bomb to indifference and even proliferation of nuclear weapons. The last sentence of the book, "His memory, like the world’s, was getting spotty," is a simple yet poignant concluding statement to this thought- provoking book. Hersey keeps his message subtle, true to his non-opinionated journalistic style, but delivers it nonetheless. This demonstrates Hersey’s desire as an author to record the horrors of Hiroshima in order to continue to provoke the world’s conscience for decades after the bomb was dropped.