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 journey of discovery. This journey helps her to understand the experiences and the circumstances...
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