Hiroshima John Berger Summary

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“We can only approach it obliquely, from different angles that get closer to a central understanding but never quite touch it. We can only comprehend asymptotically.” Angelica Chong mentioned in her article on Hiroshima, Redux (Chong, 2016). She questions if we can ever understand atrocity and if we can never truly understand it, should we still be responsible for comprehending it?

John Berger’s essay “Hiroshima” talks about how the atrocity of the Hiroshima bombing should be always remembered and the pain felt by the victims should never be watered down by those in power or even statistical data (2015). He adopted a pathos tone throughout and showed how the victims went through (in a way unnecessary) hell and yet those that created hell for them were putting on a mask of innocence to cover up this evil terrorist act which he felt was not right. He then tried to justify and say that by having those in power try to side-track people into thinking about other ‘related’ issues, they are teaching kids a misrepresented version of history. He felt that it was not right because that breeds ignorance. Ignorance in this case is not bliss as it does not necessarily make you 100% innocent as you think you are. Therefore, it is morally right for us to be responsible for making sense of the hell that the victims went through as best as we can. Why is it then that we have to distance ourselves from that reality[footnoteRef:1] in order to come closer to an understanding of the hell that the victims faced? [1: It being the horror and pain that the victims went through and how evil can never be justified.]

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In Richard Tanter’s article, he talked about Wilfred Burchett’s experience as a journalist going to Hiroshima to document the aftermath of what the nuclear bomb did to Hiroshima and the struggles he went through, what he saw during his time in Hiroshima, be it the victims, destruction of the place or the side effects of radiation (Tanter, 2005). He went on to say how an Australian soldier (from the ‘winning side’) was at first fuelled with hatred for the Japanese but after seeing the atrocity of the bomb, “we felt no sense of history or triumph, … only knew shame and guilt ... Our hatred for the Japanese was swept away by the enormity of what we had seen” (Tanter, 2005). This proved that they had to move away from the notion of Japan being the bad guy, to come to a realization that the creation of hell in Japan was executed by their own people. They themselves are the evil wearing this mask of innocence. The severity of damage done was too unbelievable, “Hiroshima does not look like a bombed city, but as if a monster steamroller had come by and squashed it out of existence” (Tanter, 2005), that there was nothing left but for them to reflect and feel guilty and responsible for causing such destruction on Hiroshima. It is because of hatred that we tend to distance ourselves. Only then will we be able to unpack the ambiguity of the interpretation of evil to truly see that reality, acknowledging our limitations of only seeing what we want to see.

This limitation was also discussed by Berger who describes evil to be wearing “a mask of innocence”, allowing it to “look beyond (with indifference) that which is before the eyes” (Berger, 2015). By reading the book that was sent to him, Berger was forced to look at the Hiroshima event from a new angle which led to him recognizing how we are limited by what we want to see. This limitation is what enables evil to continue growing.

In George Gerbner’s article, he uses a logos approach to explain Cultivation Theory and the effects it has on people (MEF, 2010). Cultivation Theory revealed how heavy television viewers perceive the world to be scarier than those who are light television viewers as they are more prone to experience Mean World Syndrome (MWS) than those who do not watch as much television. MWS is defined as people viewing the world to be more dangerous than it actually is due to the long-term exposure to violent content that they watch on television (MEF, 2010). He thinks that MWS is a vicious cycle where “heavy exposure seems to have the ability to brutalise and numb” (ChallengingMedia, 2010). This results in the creation of a culture that deems meanness as the norm and leads us to misinterpret the world to be a dangerous place. It is because of this limitation of our perception of things that we tend to distance ourselves. Therefore, in that sense, we are still limiting or allowing the media to limit what we “want” to see.

Gerbner continues by talking about Desensitization, to normalise and accept violence and crimes resulting from the long-term exposure to violence. “A better word for desensitization is brutalization. We become brutalized to human sufferings as the victimization, which means that we have to give up an essential aspect of civilization [footnoteRef:2]” (ChallengingMedia, 2010). Gerbner thinks we desensitize ourselves to reduce our MWS, which “hardens us, making us less compassionate...” (MEF, 2010). Thus, repeated exposure to pain and violence rather than statistics will not necessarily help us to understand the reality that the victims went through. Since we have grown accustomed towards human sufferings, it would just seem natural. And because of this numbness, we tend to distance ourselves. [2: That is to be helpful and empathetic.]

This contradicts what Berger and Burchett have to say as they feel that giving numbers, instead of focusing on the horror the victims went through, tends to distract us from the details of the bomb dropping and from feeling for the victims. Berger felt that people had to not look at numbers but the pain that the victims had to go through (Berger, 2015), watching other people around them die instantaneously or slowly as radiation side effects kicked in within a few days or years from the time the bomb was dropped. Hence, the only way is to hear them tell their stories or see their drawings of the hell that they were put through. That is their[footnoteRef:3] way of distancing themselves from the notion that they were “taught” to make sense of hell in Hiroshima. [3: The people that was mentioned by Berger, not the victims.]

Burchett further elaborates how this gives evil an opportunity to direct our attention to other seemingly related issues to the matter, invoking a sense of outrage. This sense of outrage leads to two outcomes, “The face of horror, the reaction which has now been mostly suppressed, forces us to comprehend the reality of what happened” and “The second reaction, unfortunately, distances us from that reality” (Berger, 2015). Therefore, people had to first understand and be able to see the effects of what the atomic bomb did to Hiroshima. The process of understanding and seeing is an act of distancing themselves from that reality.

Berger concludes that “evil is relative and therefore under certain circumstances justifiable” but in the case of Hiroshima, evil cannot be justified here. It is only when people “look beyond or away” can they judge whether evil can be justified (Berger, 2015).

Most importantly, Tanter feels that the dropping of the nuclear bomb was not justifiable. Such an incident should be evaluated from both sides in order to tell who evil truly is. Burchett shows that evil portrayed Japan as the enemy so that we would alienate and hate them “an alienation experienced as hatred, fear and a sundering of any possibility of communion or fellow feeling” (Tanter, 2005), which would help justify their reasoning for dropping the bomb. But the atrocity of the damage done to Hiroshima overrides the negative portrayal of Japan during the war, which awakens our empathy towards others, despite the prior hostility expressed to them.

Gerbner says that the most prevalent consequence of MWS is the “sense of victimization of a sense of vulnerability of a sense of risk” (ChallengingMedia, 2010). This misrepresentation of the real world that people see on their television creates an irrational perception of the world is a bad place, and is “essentially image-driven, that speak action in any language which is definitely led by violence” (MEF, 2010). Such storytelling could spark guilt in those that were responsible which in turn would lead to action being taken. So even though the catastrophe (could have been prevented) happened and resulted in disastrous effects on the victims, people could have been motivated to do something. Evidence that proved this doing nothing was how a man was caught on CCTV punching another man to the ground, who was knocked out, and for 19 minutes there was no one stopped to help the man who had been knocked out despite how there were passers-by who saw what happened but did not do anything. “The consequent of regular viewing television is to normalise unhealthy and violent behaviour” (ChallengingMedia, 2010). This shows the dangers of masking evil with innocence, they could not see the reality[footnoteRef:4] that evil was being carried out at that moment - ignorance. As mentioned above, ignorance does not necessarily make you 100% innocent. Ignorance in a way is a choice we subconsciously must make, just as Burchett mentioned alienation, it was a choice people of that time made as well. What they choose to do has consequences and they must be responsible for it at the end of the day. Whether their choice indirectly contributes to the reality that victims went through or if it was justifiable really depends on how one understands this reality. [4: The reality of them not doing anything.]

People distance themselves from reality as it helps them deal with unpleasant experiences such as guilt and moral responsibility. To do that, they have to use their adaptive self-reflection which is responsible for handling difficult emotions positively (Shatz, n.d.). However ultimately, they must be responsible for the acts indirectly caused in order to understand what their victims faced. The three articles showed how people had distanced themselves from reality to try to make sense of the hell that victims went through. By first acknowledging that we are (limited) and trying to see both sides of the story, not just what the media shows, are we heading in the right direction of understanding hell better? To decide if statistical data or showing the atrocity of the matter is a better way to get people to take action can still be argued. And whether their choice for indirectly contributing to the reality that victims went through (not doing anything) or if evil was justifiable really depends on how one understands this reality.

I think that evil is not justifiable for Hiroshima and therefore the only way to better understand what the victims went through is to see the event from a distance - to go far just to come nearer. I agree with Berger that there is an importance in trying to understand the victims struggles. But I do not think that there is a limit to how close we can get to fully understanding the chaos that the victims went through, unlike what Chong had to say at the start of this essay. For me to get a better grasp of an issue, I usually would examine what is causing the issue, whether it is just one or a few clauses; what are the few solutions I can come up with to solve this issue, and which solution would be the most optimal. In that same sense, we need to go the extra mile to distance ourselves from such an atrocious event and see things from different perspectives before coming to a better understanding and conclusion. Only by distancing oneself can you tune out the unpleasant experiences and focus more on what truly matters.

I think the way Berger skewed his article to cater more to our emotions so whatever was written was quite one-sided from a sympathetic point of view for the Japanese. It was good in helping me see the “other” side but not good enough in helping me see the point of view from the US. Therefore, relying solely on empathy as a judgement tool to understand the whole event is not good enough of a reason. Nevertheless, we still need to be responsible for coming closer to understanding the hell that the victims went through. It is possible to fully understand the hell that the victims went through if we are determined to. Because if we do not try our very best, what makes you think that future generations would even bother trying? Who would be doing justice for the victims then?


  1. Berger, J. (2015). Hiroshima. In J. Beger, Hiroshima (pp. 15-20). Boston: Pearson.
  2. ChallengingMedia. (2010, February 18). The Mean World Syndrome - Desensitization & Acceleration (Extra Feature). Retrieved from Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=msfu8YCCc8Q
  3. Chong, A. (2016). Hiroshima, Redux. In S. Donatelli, L. V. Dean & A. Parks (Eds.), Mercer Street: A collection of essays from the expository writing program (pp. 219-224). Retrieved from New York, NY: New York University: http://cas.nyu.edu/content/dam/nyu-as/casEWP/documents/mercer2016/chonghiroshima.pdf
  4. MEF. (2010). The Mean World Syndrome: Media Violence & the Cultivation of Fear. Retrieved from Media Education Foundation: https://www.mediaed.org/transcripts/Mean-World-Syndrome-Transcript.pdf
  5. Shatz, I. (n.d.). Self-Distancing: What It Is and How You Can Use It to Make Better Decisions. Retrieved from Effectiviology: https://effectiviology.com/self-distancing-rational-decisions/
  6. Tanter, R. (2005). Voice and Silence in the First Nuclear War: Wilfred Burchett. The Asia-Pacific Journal | Japan Focus, 1-27.
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