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...
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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...
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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,...
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Canada is a large and sparsely populated country and a member of the British Commonwealth and NAFTA. It is generally seen throughout the world as a relatively neutral, and therefore non-threatening, nation. However, the tales of Amerindian and Inuit removals and the internment of Canadians with Japanese ancestry in World War II remain whispered tales. Also, Canada's recent skirmishes with European countries, especially Spain, over fishing area hints at larger environmental faults.
Canada's constitution is surprisingly new and unsettled. After steadily gaining nominal independence, discussion of rescinding the British North America Act began in 1927 as the first step toward making Canada independent. Limbo existed until 1981 when the Constitution Act was passed under the Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The Act was in turn accepted by Queen Elizabeth II in the following spring. This effectively replaced the British North American Act as the working document of the Canadian government. Unfortunately, not all of the provinces were ready to accept the Act. Quebec wanted independence and would not sign. To keep Quebec in the union, it was offered the special status of “distinct society” by the Meech Lake Accord of 1987. The Inuit and Amerindians of Canada were also granted “distinct society” status. Quebec's privilege angered the provinces of New Brunswick and...
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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 way to depict Obasan as a character?
5. The Canadian government slowly begins removing Japanese-Canadians’ liberties. Trace the steps the government takes and how this isolates the Japanese Canadians.
1. Uncle’s distress after Aunt Emily’s visit and the way he asks Naomi how old she is, noting she is too young, foreshadow the family conflict surrounding telling the children what happened to their extended family in Japan. Aunt Emily asking Naomi if she wants to know the whole truth foreshadows the fact that there is a “whole truth” waiting to be told. Obasan’s search for documents indicates that they contain significant meaning.
2. Obasan, due to her age, is both slightly deaf and blind. She is frequently silent, stubborn, and communication with her is difficult for Naomi. Naomi is also frustrated by the way in which Obasan never answers her questions, or seems to ignore them, which reminds her of the helplessness she felt as a child growing up in a silent and secretive home. Naomi remembers asking Obasan what happened to her mother and never getting any information.
3. Kogawa’s prologue to the novel speaks extensively of silence. “I am aware that I cannot speak,” admits Naomi. As a teacher, Naomi notes that people who speak of their victimization are rarely as damaged as they claim, while those who are silent have likely suffered the most and might have the most to say. She also observes that Obasan’s form of grief is her silence.
4. Kogawa uses repetition, letting Obasan repeat the same handful of phrases over and over again, like a trauma victim: “Everyone someday dies,” and “There was no knowing,” and...
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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. How does this scene contribute to the image of Japanese Canadians?
5. As the novel progresses, Stephen’s affinity for music makes itself known. How does Stephen’s interest in music serve as a creative outlet for him?
1. Naomi is aware that information is being withheld from her, that the adults and Stephen know things she doesn’t about others’ health and whereabouts. But she also has a growing sense that there is a moral question regarding the withholding of information: Is it a lie if people omit the truth, versus telling you false information? The silence in her home makes her wonder about this.
2. Naomi wants to know where her father is and what TB (tuberculosis) is, but is told only that the family must pray for her father and that tuberculosis is an illness some people judge. She is never told whether her father has tuberculosis, though readers may recognize that his persistent cough and references to his health in other chapters indicate he might have the disease.
3. “Wagamama” is a Japanese word for selfish and inconsiderate, and Naomi is taught that if she is too persistent in asking questions of others, especially her elders, it is impolite. Yet, she also realizes that it is painful to not receive the information she and others need and seems to doubt whether it is “wagamama” to want to know basic facts about her family and environment.
4. Though the Japanese Canadians were treated with great disrespect by the Canadian government and sent off to the interior with little time to prepare, they were supportive of one another and easily formed a sense of community out of their circumstances. Obasan and another...
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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 mother by name? How does it parallel the work of Aunt Emily?
5. At the close of the novel, Kogawa encloses the text of a memorandum several Canadian politicians signed in April 1946 calling for an end to the “Orders in Council” endorsing mistreatment of Japanese Canadians. The memo compares the Canadian government’s actions to Nazism. How were the orders like Nazism? How did they differ?
1. As a character, Obasan chooses to respond to racism against Japanese, the internment, the family’s struggles with health, the family’s separation, and death with silence, which she bears with stoicism. She and the others choose this approach “for the sake of the children”: they choose to show love with silence. But this form of self-preservation is difficult for those who choose it. Obasan shows little emotion, and at the story’s end, and when Obasan can barely cry, Naomi realizes how weary she is from living a life where emotion and history are hidden. Obasan’s pain is a metaphor for what Naomi must break through in order to understand her family’s and culture’s history; like Obasan, Naomi has often been silent and numb about her past. Finally, caring for Obasan following Uncle’s death is a metaphor for the care that the family must take in mourning the many deaths and the negative history in World War II that they haven’t recognized.
2. Uncle’s death creates a rare family reunion among the living Nakane and Kato relatives, and thanks to a visit from Nakayama-sensei, the secret that the family had long kept from Naomi and Stephen as children is allowed to finally surface. Naomi and Stephen...
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The novel is a first-person account of a woman who is breaking silence about several aspects of her life and the history she lived through. As the narrator, the adult Naomi is facing the death of her uncle Isamu, and Obasan feels it is time that Naomi read Emily's parcel full of factual anger. In other words, it is time to deal with the past. But Naomi's response is peculiar. She describes personal memories and childhood experiences that seem to have no place in the story's political commitment. As a result, reading time jumps from the present death of her uncle to points in the past, beginning with herself as a quiet little girl losing her mother. Due to the point of view being Naomi's, who rarely received answers to her questions when she asked them, the recollection is hazy and the characters often remain presences and never become personalities. The result is an almost pure recollection of girlhood whose testimony is more powerful than any of the facts collected by Emily.
The images in the novel are a blend of Christian and Buddhist traditions, coming in the forms of allegorical moments and strict dream visions. However, the central symbol of the work is Naomi's mother. She is not a character in the story so much as a remembered tale. Naomi has few stories of her mother, and she constantly asks others for their recollections of her mother. The effect is to make her more a governing...
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Obasan is a first-person account of a woman who is breaking the silence about several aspects of her life and the history she lived through. As the narrator, the adult Naomi is facing the death of her Uncle Isamu, and Obasan feels it is time that Naomi read Emily's parcel full of factual anger. In other words, it is time to deal with the past. But Naomi's response is peculiar. She describes personal memories and childhood experiences that seem to have no place in the story's political commitment. As a result, reading time jumps from the present death of her uncle to points in the past, beginning with herself as a quiet little girl losing her mother. Due to the fact that the story is related from the point of view of Naomi who rarely received answers to her questions when she asked them, the recollection is hazy and the characters often remain presences and never become personalities. The result is an almost pure recollection of girlhood whose testimony is more powerful than any of the facts collected by Emily.
In the absence of well-defined characters, Kogawa uses powerful images to convey the action of the story. The portrayals in the novel are a blend of Christian and Buddhist traditions, coming in the forms of allegorical moments and strict dream visions. However, the central symbol of the work is Naomi's mother. She is not a character in the story so much as a remembered tale. Naomi has few stories of her mother, and she constantly asks others...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
In Obasan, Kogawa examines the Canadian internment of its Japanese citizens during and after World War II.
1. Research the internment experience of people with Japanese ancestry in both Canada and the United States during World War II and compare them.
2. Who was Sitting Bull? In what ways is the experience of Sitting Bull's people similar to Naomi's family? In what ways was it different?
3. Do some research into the religion of Buddhism and then untangle some of the Buddhist references in Naomi’s story. Is the narrator successful in blending Buddhism with Christianity?
4. If you were going to make Obasan into a film, how would you handle Grandma Kato's letter from Japan?
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Winning both the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Canadian Authors' Association Book of the Year Award, Obasan was the first novel to deal with the Canadian internment of its Japanese citizens during and after World War II. Written by the poet Joy Kogawa, the novel appeared in 1981 while the efforts of Japanese Canadians to win redress from the Canadian government for internment were in high gear. The novel has been the focus of much criticism exploring its treatment of landscape, identity, and mother-culture.
A large and sparsely populated country, Canada is also a member of the British Commonwealth. Although it is generally perceived as a neutral nation, its history is sprinkled with tales of Amerindian and Inuit removals and the internment of Canadians with Japanese ancestry in World War II. Canada entered World War II before the United States, under the premiership of William Lyon Mackenzie King. It contributed more than one million people to the Allies' war effort and lost 32,000. The anti-Asian sentiment in Canada had been prevalent in the late thirties and was officially expressed when the Canadian government confiscated the fishing fleet of its Canadians of Japanese ancestry. This racist policy gained momentum and increased to the point of hysteria with the news of Pearl Harbor's demise on December 7, 1941.
In the United States, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, calling for the immediate evacuation and...
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Topics for Further Study
- Research the internment experience of people with Japanese ancestry in both Canada and the United States during World War II and compare them.
- Who was Sitting Bull? In what ways is the experience of Sitting Bull's people similar to Naomi's family? In what ways was it different?
- Do some research into the religion of Buddhism and then interpret some of the Buddhist references in Naomi's story. Is the narrator successful in blending Christianity and Buddhism?
- If you were going to make Obasan into a film, how would you handle Grandma Kato's letter from Japan?
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Kogawa has drawn upon her own life for most of her writing, including her first collection of poetry, published in 1967, titled The Splintered Moon. In this collection, the writer reflected upon her marriage. Her next three collections were also autobiographical in nature, and she began exploring many of the themes she later fleshed out in Obasan. She wrote of living a hybrid life as a Japanese-Canadian Nisei; divorce; an abortion in 1971; deaths in her family, specifically her uncle and mother; the silence of Obasan, her aunt; and the militancy of women seeking justice and redress.
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In 1992, Kogawa continued Naomi's family tale in Itsuka as they try to win redress from the Canadian government for the unjust internment. Other books that explore similar themes include Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, the story of a Native-American man trying to recover from his experience fighting in World War II for the U.S. Army in the Pacific against the Japanese. His redemption lies in his struggle and ultimate success in returning to his tribe's traditions. There is also Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy, a tale of another girl coming of age while dealing with sexual nightmares. Lucy's sexual secrets, like Naomi's, make the already difficult task of coming to womanhood as a racial minority all the more difficult.
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What Do I Read Next?
- Kogawa's Itsuka (1992) continues the story of Naomi's family as they try to win redress from the Canadian government for the unjust internment.
- Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony (1977) is the story of a Native-American man trying to recover from his experience fighting in World War II for the U.S. Army in the Pacific against the Japanese. His nightmares involve the frightening idea that as a sometime enemy of Americans, he was killing an enemy that looked like him. Eventually he is able to regain his mental health by returning to his tribe's traditions.
- Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy (1990) is a tale of another girl coming of age while dealing with sexual nightmares. Lucy's sexual secrets, like Naomi's, make the already difficult task of coming to womanhood as a racial minority all the more difficult.
- An American who wrote of a character trying to restore the Japanese community to its pre-internment state was John Okada. His 1957 novel, No-No Boy, takes place in the United States.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Cheung, King-Kok. "Attentive Silence in Joy Kogawa's Obasan." In Listening to Silences: New Essays in Feminist Criticism, edited by Elaine Hedges and Shelley F. Fishkin. Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 113-29.
Fujita, Gayle K. "To Attend the Sound of Stone: The Sensibility of Silence in Obasan." In Melus, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp. 33-42.
Gottlieb, Erika. "Silence into Sound: The Riddle of Concentric Worlds in Obasan." In Canadian Literature, No. 109, Summer 1986, pp. 34-53.
Harris, Mason. "Broken Generations in Obasan." In Canadian Literature, No. 127, Winter 1990, pp. 41-57.
Kelman, Suanne. "Impossible to Forgive." In The Canadian Forum, Vol. LXI, No. 715, February 1982, pp. 39-40.
Potter, Robin. "Moral—in Whose Sense? Joy Kogawa's Obasan and Julia Kristeva's Powers of Horror." In Studies in Canadian Literature, 1990.
Quimby, Karin. "'This is my own, my native land': Constructions of Identity and Landscape in Joy Kogawa's Obasan." In Cross-Addressing: Resistance Literature and Cultural Borders, edited by John C. Hawley. State University of New York Press, 1996, pp. 257-73.
Rose, Marilyn Russell. "Politics into Art Kogawa's 'Obasan' and the Rhetoric of Fiction." In Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of...
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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 Asian America, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. Explores the form and the symbolism in Obasan, concentrating on Kogawa’s biblical references.
Davidson, Arnold E. Writing Against the Silence: Joy Kogawa’s “Obasan.” Toronto: ECW Press, 1993.
Horn Book. XLVIII, October, 1982, p. 553.
Jones, Manina. “The Avenues of Speech and Silence: Telling Difference in Joy Kogawa’s “Obasan.” In Theory Between the Disciplines: Authority/Vision/Politics, edited by Martin Kreiswirth and Mark A. Cheetham. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. Discusses the...
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