Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Joy Kogawa’s Obasan has forced critics to include Asian Canadians in their study of ethnic literature; it is such a fine work no critic can ignore it. Kogawa has defined political and cultural connections between the Japanese immigrants of Canada and America. Both groups were held in internment camps during World War II. Their property was seized, and their families were often separated. In Canada and the United States the men of the families fought for their new countries while their wives, children, and siblings remained interred. Arguably one of the finest literary renderings of this experience, Obasan investigates what happened as a result of these practices.
Naomi Nakane, the protagonist of Obasan, appears emotionally paralyzed at the beginning of the novel. Unable to move beyond her own past in the camps and unable to reconcile the loss of her parents, Naomi has retreated into silence and isolation. Canada has essentially told Japanese Canadians that they are untrustworthy, second-class citizens at best, so Naomi retreats from her ethnic identity as well. Her Aunt Emily, however, is articulate, learned, professional, and politically active. Aunt Emily encourages Naomi to learn about the terrible things done to Japanese Canadians and to act on her anger. Naomi gains the impetus for change.
Shortly before the family’s relocation to the internment camps (when Naomi is a child), Mrs. Nakane leaves to visit family in Japan. She never returns and the family carefully guards the secret of her fate. It is only as a thirty-six-year-old adult that Naomi is given the letters that reveal her mother’s story of disfigurement and subsequent death as a result of the atomic bombing. The mother, herself, has imposed silence on the other family members. Naomi tries to engage her mother’s presence, to heal the rift between them, although her mother is not physically there. In writing the novel Kogawa has constructed an elaborate attempt to embrace the absent voice, to contain the mother in some manner useful to Naomi’s own construction of identity.
Poetic passages describe this imagined reunion. Dream sequences also punctuate the narrative, providing the touching lyricism that moves the novel beyond most of the literature written around the internment camp experience. Bound with the sociopolitical analysis provided by Aunt Emily and Naomi’s personal history, the novel sets high standards for literature on ethnic identity.
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Five-year-old Naomi Nakane’s secure life in her Vancouver home is shattered by a series of events far beyond her control. First, a neighbor lures her into an episode of abuse, leaving her with a guilty heart. Then her mother leaves for Japan to help nurse an ailing grandmother. Her Aunt Emily comes to visit, and Naomi overhears frantic, whispered conversations, which she does not understand. The culmination comes when Naomi, her older brother Stephen, and their Aunt Aya (Obasan of the title) are sent to live in Slocan, a near-deserted mining town in the mountains of interior British Columbia. Naomi’s father does not go with them; he is sent to a work camp.
Their assigned home is a sagging, two-room log cabin on the edge of the woods. It is crowded and primitive, even more crowded when an aged aunt and Obasan’s husband, Isamu, arrive, but Obasan’s and Uncle’s efforts soon make it livable. The family group settles in to live there for an unknown duration.
Most of the adults in Slocan have suffered the forced loss of their property, homes, and occupations, but even so a community emerges. Naomi and Stephen do not have a school, except for Sunday School, until May, 1943. Stephen, however, has his music, and Obasan keeps Naomi busy making scrapbooks of the royal family. Naomi has a close brush with death when she jumps off a log raft into a murky lake. Rescued by Rough Lock Bill, a local resident, she ends up in the hospital but learns that not all white Canadians are like her scary Vancouver neighbor.
When the war is over, there is hope of returning to Vancouver. Unfortunately, it is not to be. Naomi’s father comes for a short visit. He is greeted joyously, but obviously his health is precarious. When the family is removed once again, this time to work in the sugar beet fields of Alberta, he is hospitalized with tuberculosis. Naomi never sees him again. Nor is there ever any word from her absent mother.
Life and work in the beet fields are even more miserable than life in Slocan. The family’s house is a battered one-room chicken...
(The entire section is 853 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Naomi Nakane is in the middle of teaching her fifth- and sixth-grade class in the small town of Cecil, Alberta, when she receives word that her uncle has died in Granton, 150 miles south. Going home for his funeral means for her a sad reunion with several family members, notably the quiet widow, the “Obasan” of the book’s title, and Stephen, Naomi’s older brother. Obasan and Uncle Isamu had raised Naomi and her brother from the time that they were young children. Flamboyant Stephen, who essentially renounced his Japanese heritage and had been involved for a time with a French woman, developed a national reputation as a classical pianist and now lives in Montreal. Unmarried Naomi, on the other hand, had been stuck in a dead-end teaching job for the past seven years with no prospects of either romance or fame.
Emily Kato, Naomi’s outspoken unmarried aunt living in Toronto, also makes the trip to Granton for the memorial service. Politically active, she had hounded Naomi for years to become more interested and involved with exposing the wrongs of the Canadian government in its internment of Japanese citizens during World War II. She had earlier sent Naomi a large box of newspaper clippings, letters, and government documents, which had been stored unread by Obasan under the kitchen table.
The trip home brings back painful memories to Naomi about growing up without her mother. Studying an old family photograph when she arrives in Granton sparks extended reminiscences: In September, 1941, Naomi’s mother and Naomi’s grandmother, Kato, travel to Japan to care for a relative who is ill, but neither returns. (Naomi, who was five years old at the time, has never been told what became of her mother.) She and her family and her Japanese neighbors are forced by the Canadian government to move inland to internment camps and abandon their successful boat-building business near Vancouver. The family members—Naomi, Stephen, Uncle Isamu, and Ayaka Obasan—are required to sell off their belongings and leave their comfortable home indefinitely. They are moved to an abandoned mining settlement inland named Slocan, and are separated from Aunt Emily for twelve years....
(The entire section is 893 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Obasan (“Aunt”) is Kogawa’s first novel. Written after most of her books of poems, it contains passages of fine poetry. The fragmented narrative reveals partial memories that the narrator revisits and contemplates at various stages in her life. The reader, like the narrator, works at choosing the fragments with value and arranging them into a whole.
Naomi Nakane, like Kogawa, was born in Vancouver before World War II. She is a sansei, a third-generation Japanese born in Canada. Naomi and her brother Stephen live with their parents, who are music teachers, in a large, comfortable home filled with music, books, and toys surrounded by a garden with fruit trees. At the age of four, Naomi is sexually molested by a next-door neighbor. She tells nobody and stops speaking for a while. The Nakanes live in a close extended family within a successful and thoughtful Japanese Canadian community.
Their lives change traumatically after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, when their mother is visiting Japan. The Japanese Canadian families in Vancouver and all along the Pacific coast of Canada are gathered into holding camps and shipped east into the prairie of Alberta. Since their father was sick and kept separate from his family, Naomi and Stephen are raised by Obasan (“Aunt”) and Uncle, their father’s brother, whose two children had died at birth. These almost mythic figures named after family relationships represent Japanese culture. While Naomi feels close to her quiet aunt, Stephen, who is three years older, rejects Obasan and Japanese culture. Stephen yearns for his parents and pursues their passion for music. Uncle, a boatbuilder, yearns for the sea and says the prairie is like the sea. He says that some day (itsuka) he will return to his home by the sea, but he never does. Prime Minister Ian Mackenzie wants no Japanese to return to Vancouver. Far into adulthood, Naomi feels abandoned and betrayed by her mother.
In 1942, Obasan is sent with her niece and nephew to Slocan, a mostly abandoned former mining town in the interior of British Columbia. Uncle is allowed to join them, and life on the heavily forested mountain is a...
(The entire section is 891 words.)
Chapter Summary and Analysis
Chapters 1-14: Summary and Analysis
Naomi Nakane (Nomi): The Japanese-Canadian narrator raised in Canada during WWII.
Stephen: Naomi’s older brother, who is three years older than Naomi.
Uncle Isamu Nakane (Uncle, also known as Sam): Naomi’s uncle, a boat builder who helped Obasan raise Naomi.
Aunt Emily Kato: Naomi’s aunt on her mother’s side of the family, two decades older, who focuses fiercely on the past and racial injustices done to the Japanese in Canada.
Obasan (Ayako): Naomi’s aunt who raised her, was married to Uncle, and is known as Obasan throughout the novel and for whom the novel is named.
Grandma and Grandpa Nakane: Naomi’s paternal...
(The entire section is 3853 words.)
Chapters 15-23: Summary and Analysis
Nomura-obasan: An elderly woman in Slocan who lives with the Nakanes.
Rough Lock Bill: A gruff older bachelor who lives in Slocan.
Percy Bower: A white boy and bully who lives in Slocan.
Miyuki: A friend of Naomi.
Kenji: A friend of Naomi who inadvertently nearly causes her to drown.
Yuki and Reiko: Naomi’s schoolmates who snub her at the Slocan bathhouse.
It is 1942, and Naomi, Obasan, and Stephen, whose leg remains in a cast, travel by train from British Columbia east to Slocan, one of several ghost towns to be re-inhabited with Japanese Canadians forced to move from the protected zones of...
(The entire section is 2078 words.)
Chapters 24-39: Summary and Analysis
The Barker family: The owners of the sugar beet farm where the Nakanes work.
Penny Barker: The Barkers’ daughter who alternates between friendliness and snobbery.
Setsuko: A niece whom Mother and Grandma Kato were visiting in Nagasaki.
Chieko: Setsuko’s daughter who resembles Naomi.
It is the autumn of 1945, and Stephen returns home one day thrilled that the war has ended and the Allies are victorious. Though the war ends, the mistreatment of Japanese Canadians does not. Naomi wakes to find a changed tone in the house: her father is back. The family celebrates by playing music on flutes.
(The entire section is 2791 words.)