Depiction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japanese and American Literature

Sophia Xiao
March 27, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Atomic cloud over Hiroshima (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Around 8 am on August 6, 1945, a uranium bomb, dropped 600 meters over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, resulting in a series of events that would change the course of history forever. [1] Three days later, another nuclear bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. [1] Between the two bombings, approximately 210,000 people were killed in the months immediately following, and many more survivors who were exposed the the radiation were not only more susceptible to various forms of cancer in the years following, but parents who were exposed and had children years later were at greater risk of giving birth to babies with congenital defects, mental retardation and even cancer. [2]

While the physical damage done to the people of these two towns and their homes and communities were staggering - the explosion of the atomic bomb was described as propagating so forcefully that the blast almost instantaneously demolished buildings and killed people, the trauma experienced by the collective conscious of the Japanese people was even more difficult to overcome. [3] As recorded in a comprehensive scientific report compiled by Japanese authorities in 1981, the bomb took almost a quarter of Nagasaki's inhabitants, "citizens who had lost no family members in the holocaust were as rare as stars at sunrise." [4] And as the Japanese people were overcome with the trauma of this intensely tragic experience, the Western narrative of this decision to use nuclear weapons often insists that the A-bombs were necessary to ensure that Japan surrendered without using an invasion that would have had far greater American and Japanese casualties. [5] Yet as the years pass, more and more citizens of the west are starting to acknowledge that this incident was not the end of global suffering, but rather the beginning. [5]

While scientific reports and historical accounts have always succeeded at making evident the tangible effects of tragedies such as this, it is through literature that people now can better understand the deeper, longer-lasting emotional impact that these bombings had. As such, this report will be an exploration of the depiction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in both Japanese and Western literature in an attempt to see where the portrayals differ, and where they converge.

The Atomic Bombs and Japanese Literature

The literary treatment of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are particularly interesting because these incidences essentially created a particular genre of atomic bomb literature (gembaku bungaku) that was unique to Japan. [6] This genre can be divided roughly into four different groups - the works of those who were directly affected and witnessed the dropping of the bombs themselves; the works of those who witnessed the droppings as children and whose stories are focused on the more long-term effects radiation sickness; the work of those whose authors did not witness the bomb droppings themselves but who worked with primary sources and primary witnesses of the explosion; the last group is made up of those whose authors use Hiroshima or Nagasaki as historical backgrounds to stage their novels. [6] Examples of those who fell within the first category included writers such as Hara Tamiki or Agawa Hiroyuki, who wrote about witnessing the bomb droppings in detail. Tamiki's Natsu no Hana (Summer Flowers) is a prime example of the harrowing accounts produced by these firsthand witnesses. [6] Notable authors who fell within the second category included manga artist Nakazawa Keiji, who documented what he witnessed in his piece Hadashi no Gen. [6] Other writers such as Oba Minako in his 1977 novel Urashimaso used primary sources in order to set the scene such that readers could witness this horror themselves. [6] Lastly, those like Murakami Ryu; and his 1994 novel Gofungo no sekai used the bombings as a backdrop for their novels. [6] Atomic bomb literature both helped underscore that the existence of nuclear weapons was one of the most central problems of society and human civilization, and at the same time, it is also served as a means for those who had been deeply touched by the bombings to make sense of and process the trauma that they had experienced.

The Atomic Bombs and American Literature

While no specific literary genre was given rise to as a result of the atomic bombing during World War II, there were many seminal pieces in American literature that served to convey how devastating nuclear warfare was to those who had not experienced it first hand. For writers who chose to write about the nuclear crisis, their best chance of getting a primary source or firsthand witness of Hiroshima or Nagasaki was through the process of interviewing those who had survived. One of the most seminal pieces of literature on Hiroshima was a feature piece by John Hersey written for The New Yorker that was titled "Hiroshima." [7] Written in 1946, this piece was the first and last single story to have ever completely taken over the The New Yorker's editorial space. [8] When it was finally published, all 300,000 copies sold out immediately, and the article was reprinted in magazines all over the world and even read in its entirety on the radio. [8] Three million copies of it have been sold in its book form. [7] Hersey, a war correspondent, collected the stories necessary for this piece by extensive interviews of the stories of his six survivors. [9] This piece was important because it shaped the way Western viewers understood and responded to this new nuclear threat. Also, as one of the first accounts of the nuclear attacks released to Western audiences, this piece shaped the way nuclear warfare was depicted thereafter. [9] In addition, it emphasized the necessity of an authorial anonymity in order to respectfully and accurately represent the people who were directly affected by this attack, especially so Americans could clearly see what they had done. [9]

Other writers like Kurt Vonnegut took a different approach in this criticism of the incidences in Japan. In his novel Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut used fictional characters and imagined events to satirize and criticize science, religion, and technology - specifically, nuclear warfare. [10] Some American literature on the atomic bombing chose also to focus more on the impact of the bombing on other groups as well. For example, Chaim Potok in Book of Lights explored the meaning of the atomic bomb for the Jews, while Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony explored the psychological impact of the atomic bombings on a Native American veteran returned from WWII to his reservation. [10]


The psychological pain of these bombings were the unseen casualties of this war, and while photographs and newspaper accounts could show what physical damage had been done as a result of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was the literature that came out of these attacks that truly made evident the psychological trauma and suffering endured not only by the survivors and their relatives, but also an entire nation of people. The comparison between Japanese literature and American literature on the nuclear attacks is interesting because they both served to transmit unique individual experiences to a wide reader base, yet they do so in significantly different ways. The genre of Japanese atomic bomb literature distinctly focuses on the author's own experiences while American literature on Hiroshima and Nagasaki instead has a tendency to utilize authorial anonymity, especially since these accounts were written by writers who had not experienced the effects of these attacks firsthand. Ultimately, however, the goal of both Japanese and American literature on atomic bombs during this time was to emphasize the extent of nuclear warfare's destructive ability on a global scale.

© Sophia Xiao. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] M. Rich, "Survivors Recount Horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," New York Times, 27 May 16.

[2] S. Yapa, "Effects on Children Exposed to Atomic Bomb Radiation Through Their Parents," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2013.

[3] D. Guo, "Trauma, Memory and History in Kazuo Ishiguro's Fiction," Theory Prac. Lang. Stud. 2, 2508 (2012).

[4] E. Ishikawa and D. Swain (trans.), Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical, and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings (Basic Books, 1981).

[5] N. D. Kristof, "Hiroshima: A Special Report; The Bomb: An Act That Haunts Japan and America," New York Times, 6 Aug 95.

[6] D. Tan, "Literature and the Trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," Asia-Pacific J. 12, No. 3,1 (2014).

[7] J. Hersey, "Hiroshima," The New Yorker, 31 Aug 46.

[8] J. Rothman, "John Hersey's "Hiroshima"," The New Yorker, 6 Aug 15.

[9] R. Shorto, "John Hersey, the Writer Who Let 'Hiroshima' Speak for Itself," The New Yorker, 31 Aug 16.

[10] J. R. Bennett and K. Clark, "Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Bomb: A Bibliography of Literature and the Arts," Arizona Quarterly 46, No. 3, 33 (1990).