Obasan (Magill's Literary Annual 1983)
On one level, Obasan is a story of the trials of growing up as a youngster of Japanese ancestry and culture in Canada during World War II, when Japanese were regarded as enemy aliens in the land they had made their home and to which they had given their allegiance. Childhood and adolescence have been favorite themes of fiction for centuries, themes that seem continually to strike a vein of interest in readers, since all readers have themselves endured the predicaments, the hopes, and the ambition’s of one’s formative years. In this case, the protagonist of the novel, Naomi Nakane, passes through a childhood similar to that of the novelist herself, although the novel gives little indication of how closely it is patterned after the experiences of the novelist, who was born within a year of her narrator, in British Columbia. Like the author’s family, the Nakane family in the novel were uprooted from their home shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, and were removed to places of internment in the interior of Canada, first across the mountains into the eastern part of British Columbia and later to sites in the prairie provinces and farther eastward.
The title character of the novel is Naomi’s aunt, whom the narrator calls “Obasan,” meaning respected aunt. Obasan, like her husband, whose death precipitates the discovery of the past by the narrator, is an Issei, a native of Japan who has emigrated to North America. The Issei are greatly admired by Kogawa, although in Canada most of them are now gone; some, under pressure, returned to Japan after World War II, while others, with the passing years, have died. The novel’s five-year-old narrator, Naomi, sees her mother leave on a ship for Japan in September, 1941, to take the child’s grandmother to visit Great-grandmother, aged and ailing in the former homeland. The little girl and her brother look to their father’s sister-in-law to take the place of their absent mother. Within weeks, the war begins, and the Japanese are uprooted from their homes. Childless, fifty-year-old Obasan soon finds herself the foster mother of little Naomi and her eight-year-old brother, Stephen. Throughout the war years and after, Obasan is a source of strength, holding the world together for the children, physically and psychologically protecting them from the troubled world in which they live. Much of the time, Obasan is alone with the children. Their father, a victim of tuberculosis, is hospitalized in a distant town. Obasan’s husband, despite his age, becomes a member of a work gang at another location. Obasan and the children must survive in an ancient cabin on a mountain near Slocan, a ghost town from the earlier mining boom in British Columbia that had been turned into a relocation center for displaced Japanese by the Canadian government. After the war, when the remnants of the little family move to work on a sugar-beet farm in Alberta, Obasan continues making a home for her husband and the children, utilizing their slender resources to make a drafty, ill-built chicken house into a place for human beings to live.
Naomi learns this sad history piecemeal, slowly achieving a full awareness of the fate of her people. The novel introduces Naomi in September, 1972, and takes her back through the past on a...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
In Obasan, Joy Kogawa is telling both her personal story and the tale of all Japanese Canadians exiled from their homes during World War II. She was six years old, one year older than the character of Naomi Nakane, when her family was evacuated to the ghost town of Slocan, eastern British Columbia, from Vancouver. Authentic newspaper clippings and real letters of protest written by a Japanese Canadian activist elaborate and enhance her personal memories.
The actual time frame of the story is only a few days, from the phone call that alerts Naomi at school that her uncle has died to the time that it takes family members to assemble in Granton, Alberta, for his funeral. Special emphasis is placed on family unity throughout the novel, with the families of Naomi’s mother and father “knit . . . into one blanket . . . till the fibre of our lives became an impenetrable mesh.” Within that scenario, through a complex series of flashbacks, the migratory saga of both a single family and an ethnic community evolves. The first eleven chapters are an exposition of Naomi’s family history. Her beautiful, idyllic home is described, and there are memories of her mother telling Naomi Japanese folktales at bedtime. There is also a threat—Old Man Gower, who lives next door, abuses Naomi, and she is too afraid and ashamed to tell her mother.
The next twenty chapters convey the devastation that the family experiences following the bombing of Pearl...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Vancouver. Largest city in British Columbia that was home to many Japanese Canadians before World War II. Schoolteacher Naomi Nakane’s grandparents came to Canada from Japan in 1893, and she herself was born in Vancouver in 1936 and has lived there happily through her first six years in a large and beautiful house on West 64th Avenue in the Marpole district.
In 1972—the time present of Obasan—the thirty-six-year-old Naomi remembers the house vividly: its living and music rooms, her father’s study, the kitchen, the playroom, the backyard. She also remembers exploring Vancouver with her family, from Kitsilano Beach to the zoo at Stanley Park. She recalls as well the exhibition grounds at Hastings Park, however, where in 1942 many of the twenty-three thousand Japanese Canadians living along the British Columbia coast “were herded into the grounds and kept there like animals until they were shipped off to roadwork camps and concentration camps in the interior of the province.”
Slocan. Ghost town in British Columbia’s interior to which Naomi and her extended family are sent. In this former mining settlement, they spend three years living in an abandoned two-room shack. Aside from their shack, Naomi and other internees spend some of their time at the Odd Fellows Hall in town, where they watch movies every Saturday night, and in the public bathhouse. (The original Native American name for this village was “Slow-can-go,” meaning “If you go slow . . . you can go.”)
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Though some of the men in Kogawa’s novel are admirable—Naomi’s father and Reverend Nakayama, for example—they clearly play a secondary role in this story of a woman’s maturation and fulfillment. Naomi has two female role models, one reticent and one motivated. The novel recounts Naomi’s nascent, blossoming self-image and identity as she is guided by first one and then the other of these figures. She learns that the past cannot be denied, that she cannot change her history and that, if she lets it, her history can even provide some direction for her future. Stephen, who has sublimated his ethnicity in adulthood, cannot repudiate the remarkable childhood that he has shared with his sister. It was an experience which, at least on a subconscious level, binds them with a terrible glue. Denying it makes him ill at ease; accepting it gives Naomi knowledge and power.
Kogawa’s saga is useful on at least three levels. First, it shows how a woman is empowered and nurtured by her female ancestors, both in life and in death. Second, it shows how inner strength can deliver an oppressed people out of a bondage of racism and abuse; in particular, the novel is an illuminating historical chronicle of the Japanese internment during World War II, told with the objective facts of journalism and with the subjective evocation of poetic language, scripture, and reverie. Third, the multiple linguistic forms give the work a richness.
In the United States, many eloquent first-person narratives, some more fictionalized than others, offer telling documentation of the horrors of incarceration suffered by Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in the 1940’s, but in Canada, Kogawa’s novel is by far the most significant account. Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter (1953) is perhaps the closest to Obasan in tone and purpose. Among other compelling accounts are Toshio Mori’s short-story collection Yokohama, California (1949), Mine Okubo’s nonfiction work Citizen 13660 (1946), and Yoshiko Uchida’s autobiography Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family (1982).
Chapters 1-14: Questions and Answers
1. The book’s first section offers several instances of foreshadowing that hint at discoveries the narrator will make later. Give at least three examples of foreshadowing.
2. Upon learning she must travel to Granton for her uncle’s funeral, narrator Naomi says she is not in a great hurry to see Obasan. Why is this?
3. Characters throughout Obasan—including Obasan and Naomi—have trouble speaking about the past or breaking their chosen silence about the past. Cite examples of their reticence or inability to access the past and what this says about them.
4. Obasan is an elderly woman who is not always lucid. How does Kogawa nonetheless find a...
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Chapters 15-23: Questions and Answers
1. The King bird is an imaginary creature who judges others’ truthfulness, especially in children. Why does Naomi become preoccupied with the bird after she and her friends think they see him?
2. During the mid-1940s when Naomi lives with her family in Slocan, she is old enough to notice that her questions go unanswered or are not addressed directly. Name at least two examples of questions no one will answer for her.
3. What does the word “wagamama” mean, and in what instances does it apply in Naomi’s life?
4. On the train to Slocan, Naomi and Obasan pay attention to the young mother of a newborn baby, noting she lacks the resources to care for him....
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Chapters 24-39: Questions and Answers
1. Obasan is a story told through the voice and eyes of Naomi and in many ways is about Naomi, yet the book is named after her aunt. Why has Kogawa named her book Obasan? What does Obasan represent?
2. The central event that frames the novel is the death of Uncle, Obasan’s husband. What symbolic significance does this death have in the book, and how does the family’s reunion to mourn Uncle create an opportunity to mourn other events in the book?
3. Why might a Grand Inquisitor be prying open Naomi’s eyes and her mother’s lips in her dream?
4. What is the significance of the chapter in which Naomi speaks directly, addressing her...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Canadian Forum. LXI, February, 1982, p. 39.
Cheung, King-Kok. Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. Enhances understanding of the writing of three significant Asian American women. The forty-page chapter devoted to Obasan examines the negative and positive aspects of silence in the novel.
Chua, Cheng Lok. “Witnessing the Japanese Canadian Experience in World War II: Processual Structure, Symbolism, and Irony in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan.” In Reading the Literatures of...
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