One-Minute Book Reviews

May 1, 2008

Diary: John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’ — Are People Who Live Through Disasters ‘Survivors’ or ‘Victims’?

Filed under: Classics,Diary,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:35 pm
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Perhaps no book has had more uncredited influence on the best accounts of 9/11 than Hiroshima. In this great book John Hersey tells the true stories of six people who escaped death when the atomic bomb fell on their city. One line deals with the confusion that arose, right after the blast, about what to call people who lived through the events of August 6, 1945: “In referring to those who went through the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the Japanese tended to shy away from the term ‘survivors,’ because in its focus on being alive it might suggest some slight to the sacred dead.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. I fear the word “survivor” is used so often and for so many things that it may end up becoming watered down one on hand and a word of denial on the other. It’s hard to find the truth in a word that’s at once used to describe those who emerged alive from 9/11 or an abusive childhood and those who have been voted off during the tribal council of one of CBS’ popular reality shows.

    When people tell in an overly aggressive fashion that they are survivors, I wonder if they have denied to themselves that they were victimized and, in so doing, have given themselves no time for grief, for healing, for recapitulation of the event, forgiveness, and perhaps atonement. We tend in these days to look down upon victims and so we run from the realities of having been one a little sooner than we may be ready.

    Hard choice, victim/survivor. Survivor seems more apt, for it’s true, but only after we have come to terms with what it was that we survived and no longer use the word as an excuse to act differently as though being a survivor grants us special priviledges other than the continuing freedom to remain (or become) whole.


    Comment by knightofswords — May 1, 2008 @ 4:05 pm | Reply

  2. I can’t help but wonder: why either/or?

    Why ‘survivor’ or ‘victim’?

    How about ‘Participant’? ‘Affected by’? “…those who experienced 911/Hiroshima/abusive childhood”?

    Comment by ggelliott — May 1, 2008 @ 5:33 pm | Reply

  3. Malcolm: Your first paragraph sums up a lot of what’s going on now. People often do seem to “look down on” or pity victims. And people who define themselves as a “survivors” may be trying, with good reason, to avoid that. But I agree with you that the labeling is often premature. So many effects of a disaster — physical or emotionally — may not appear for years. The word “survivor” has also become such a cliche, I try to avoid it just for that reason.

    GG: Yes, exactly. Why “either/or”? This dichotomy might never have occurred to a lot of people if there hadn’t been so many post-Sept. 11 articles on the theme of, “What do we call them?” (People had a similar question about the dead: “Do we call them victims or heroes?”)

    At one point in John Hersey speaks of the people who “went through” the bombing. I loved that for its simplicity. It’s about as brief and accurate as you can get.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — May 1, 2008 @ 11:58 pm | Reply

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