Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3853
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 grandparents, taken into custody.
Grandma and Grandpa Kato: Naomi’s maternal grandparents, a doctor and his wife.
Mrs. Sugimoto: A nervous, over-protective mother who lives near the Nakanes.
Mr. Gower (Old Man Gower): Naomi’s neighbor, a seemingly friendly but secretly lascivious old man.
Nakayama-sensei: Minister at the Nakanes’ church and a loyal family friend.
Uncle Dan: A friend of Naomi’s father who, though called “uncle,” is not a blood-relative.
Eiko and Fumi: Friends of Aunt Emily, who are feisty like she is.
The story begins in Canada during August 1972 with a scene in which Naomi Nakane, the narrator, visits a hillside and stream with her uncle and reminisces about how the family came to live in Granton, Alberta, some twenty years before. They observe that the landscape and its sea view have not changed over the years.
One month later, Naomi is in a classroom where she teaches in the town of Cecil, Alberta, “defending” herself against her students' childish questions about why she isn’t married. She reflects on her lack of prospects and a recent unsuccessful date with a local widower and acknowledges to the class that she is an “old maid,” as is her Aunt Emily (Emily Kato), who lives in Toronto. But her exchange with the class is interrupted when the principal tells her she has an urgent phone call from Granton: It’s a doctor calling from the hospital to tell her that her uncle has died. Naomi prepares mentally for the trip back home but begins to worry about encountering her Aunt Obasan.
Naomi arrives at Obasan’s house, which is cluttered and untidy. They sip tea, and Naomi notices that a loaf of her uncle’s black “stone bread” sits on the counter uncovered and that baking it was probably one of his last acts while alive. She recalls how he first began over baking bread and how, though it was overcooked, he continued to make it that way, feeding it both to her and her brother, Stephen.
Obasan tries to describe what happened to Uncle: She says that during the morning Uncle called to her for help but that she couldn’t figure out what was wrong or how to respond to him, nor could the hospital personnel who sent her home. “There was no knowing,” she says repeatedly. Naomi worries about Obasan’s welfare, about what she will do in the future, and how or whether the rest of the family will take care of her.
As she waits for the rest of her family to travel to Obasan’s, Naomi reflects on the family’s past. She looks at a photo of her family taken when her brother was a baby and before she was born. Assembled in the photo are the Nakanes (her father’s side of the family) and the Katos (her mother’s side of the family) and her immediate family. Grandpa Nakane was a respected boat builder on Saltspring Island, we learn, and her mother, Obasan, and Aunt Emily all appear happy.
She wonders if the Katos were really a close family, since Grandma was known to frequently travel to Japan and leave behind her husband and daughter Emily, but Emily tells her the Katos were close—especially to the Nakanes. She also looks at pictures of her father and Uncle, remarking on a boat that her father had designed but which was confiscated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
Late that night, Obasan seems to be looking for something in the attic, but Naomi can’t figure out what. She follows Obasan into the attic, where Obasan goes through piles of old letters and papers, tucking Uncle’s identification card into her pocket. This, however, isn’t what Obasan was seeking. Naomi takes Obasan back downstairs and puts her to bed.
Naomi dreams she is in a forest and observes a man and woman forced to labor under the watchful eye of a British martinet. The martinet is accompanied by a dog, which she discovers is a robot. In fact, many figures in the dream turn out to be robots. She sees Uncle in the dream, spinning with a rose in his mouth—a symbolic dance of the dead. Upon waking, she visits with Obasan and learns Obasan found what she was seeking: a packet of letters and papers from Aunt Emily.
Naomi begins to sort through the packet of letters and folders as well as a diary from Aunt Emily, noting that Aunt Emily is a crusader who wants to shed light on the history of Canada’s “Nisei” (Canadian-born children of non-naturalized Japanese living in Canada) and also alert the rest of the family to their own history. Naomi notes that she prefers to take a different approach to her heritage, opting instead for the “safety of invisibility,” and that for her the truth is ambiguous. Naomi doesn’t find herself filled with indignation and pain the way Aunt Emily is.
Naomi compares Aunt Emily and Obasan: “One lives in sound, the other in stone.” She notes that, since 1954, Aunt Emily has made nine visits to Granton. During the last visit, Aunt Emily had traveled to Granton from a conference about the Japanese internment and was freshly angered about what happened during that time. She showered Naomi with brochures and information about Nisei history as they traveled to Obasan’s. “For her the injustice done to us in the past was still a live issue,” Naomi says.
Naomi recalls how Aunt Emily described the conference and how some of the speakers angered her, noting that it seems some of them encouraged people who felt as she does to back down from their strong emotions. Naomi said perhaps that’s not a bad idea and maybe this person wanted to take a conciliatory approach, but Aunt Emily bristles and disagrees. Naomi backs down and lets her continue talking until they reach Obasan’s, where Aunt Emily begins eating Uncle’s black bread and debating what she has learned with Uncle, all the while supplying Naomi with papers to read.
Naomi notices a letter discussing her family’s property that is signed by a man named “B. Good.” He is a custodian for Canada and has informed the family that as Japanese nationals some family members are not allowed to own property in Canada and that it will all vest (or be held and owned) under the custodian’s power. Aunt Emily compares the government’s gestures to Nazism. Naomi reads an essay that Emily has written about the Nisei and their struggle under the Canadian Orders-in-Council, the government ruling that allowed their property to be seized and for their families to be exiled, among other injustices. Emily has underlined “I am Canadian” several times.
Naomi and Aunt Emily continue to disagree on how to approach the problem of Japanese-Canadian history within the country, Naomi saying it makes more sense to focus on the present than the past. Obasan does not participate in the argument, saying she has only gratitude for her life. “The past is the future,” says Aunt Emily.
As Aunt Emily leaves, she asks Naomi if she wants to “know everything,” and Naomi says yes, but it is a lie. As she continues to sift through Aunt Emily’s papers, she wonders what her aunt wants to accomplish. She continues to make her way through Aunt Emily’s papers, coming across a grey folder that holds two letters written in Japanese, which she can’t read. She asks Obasan to translate them but doesn’t succeed.
Naomi then begins to read Aunt Emily’s diary addressed to Nesan—a word that Emily uses for her sister, who is Naomi’s mother. Obasan hands her a picture, taken when Naomi was a toddler of two or three, and tells Naomi it was made during the “best times” in the family’s life.
Naomi reviews the family picture Obasan has handed her, remarking how she and her mother avert their gaze from the camera as well as when they are out in public. The family is not modest at home, though, appearing naked in front of one another, and with Naomi frequently bathing alongside Grandma Kato, scrubbing one another till their dead skin falls off. She reminisces about their spacious house, the rooms where Stephen played music and her father had his study, her bedroom with a peach tree right outside the window. She knows her memory is fragmented, incomplete.
Naomi reflects more on her childhood, how every night she asked for the same story, called “Momotaro,” in which two grandparents go into the woods to perform chores, and the grandmother sees a gigantic peach flow over a waterfall. She takes it home to show her spouse, and when he arrives, they comment on its wonder—then a little boy emerges from the peach pit. Eventually, the grandparents let him travel along on his way. The point of the story, Naomi recalls, is that childhood is sacred, and the boy is to behave with honor. She can’t recall being punished or reprimanded by her parents, though she suspects she must have been. Aunt Emily surprises her by telling her “Momotaro” is a Canadian, not Japanese, story.
Naomi recalls life outside her home, how the environment outside her house was more unpredictable. One day she places a group of baby chicks in the hen’s cage, only to see the hen systematically begin killing them by pecking them to death. She has to fetch her mother, who rescues some of the chicks and retrieves the dead, but recalls how her mother remained calm and didn’t rebuke her. Her mother says instead that something wrong has happened without assigning the blame to Naomi. Mrs. Sugimoto, a nosy neighbor, and her boys also observe this happening, which makes the problem worse.
Naomi enjoys her open relationship with her mother and how she has no secrets from her—except for one: her neighbor Old Mr. Gower is a pervert and frequently approaches her or carries her to his house, starting when she is about four years old. She does not detail what he does but explains how it separates her from her mother somehow, makes her feel disconnected from her family. Soon she goes willingly to Mr. Gower, a further secret.
In 1941, her mother and Grandma Kato depart on a steamer ship for Japan to care for Grandma Kato’s mother. Her father tells her that her mother will return soon, and Naomi has no doubt of it; but in remembering the time, she wonders who needed her mother more—her, or her great-grandmother? After her mother leaves, she feels that the atmosphere in the house has changed. Obasan comes to live with them, and she shares Naomi’s room with her. Naomi wakes at night during a blackout required due to wartime, and she goes into the living room to see Old Man Gower talking with her father.
Stephen comes home from third grade one day, crying and with his glasses broken. He tells Naomi that a classmate has told him all the Japanese are bad and are going to be sent away. She asks her father if they are Japanese, and he says no, they are Canadian. She recalls how Stephen tells her the situation is a riddle: “We are both the enemy and not the enemy.”
Months pass since her mother’s departure, and Naomi and her brother participate in their church’s Christmas pageant. During the holidays, they are showered with gifts, and one of them is a book with tales of children and martyrs. Naomi reflects on whether or not she could become a martyr and make sacrifices for her family, and who among her family could do that. Naomi observes that things are changing, that her family used to have guests but no longer does.
Aunt Emily visits one night. Because Naomi can’t sleep, she eavesdrops on a conversation Aunt Emily has with her father by hiding beneath a cot nearby and playing with a ball given to her by Uncle Dan. They talk of the Sick Bay and Grandpa Nakane being there, which is confusing to Naomi, who identifies it with other bays around Vancouver. Aunt Emily expects that people from Saltspring Island were rounded up and sent there. Naomi notes she has only seen her Nakane-side grandparents once since Christmas, and Obasan has told her they have gone to visit friends on Saltspring Island.
Aunt Emily talks of getting Naomi’s grandparents out, and Naomi’s father says he has to let Emily decide because “his time is up” and others have gone in his place. Aunt Emily protests that her father’s health isn’t good enough, then Stephen comes running to say a curfew is on, and Aunt Emily departs.
Naomi learns that Sick Bay is a hospital for interned elders and also about the “Pool”—a prison in Hastings Park where her Nakane grandparents and many other Japanese Canadians have been taken. Families could leave for interior Canada voluntarily, but otherwise, many were taken to the Pool. She notes that the tension in the air was not completely apparent to her and that, in retrospect, it is not much clearer.
The story returns to the present time in Obasan’s house, and Aunt Emily calls to say she has reached the airport. Naomi bathes Obasan and puts her down for a nap, then resumes reading Aunt Emily’s diary, which is written in the form of letters to Naomi’s mother. She reads Aunt Emily’s description of how the children are reacting to her absence and the war-required blackouts: Naomi, Aunt Emily writes, grows upset in the dark and recently cried for the first time. Stephen, initially well-behaved, has grown sarcastic and even asked Obasan to “talk properly.” She writes that the Japanese media has been shuttered and racist letters are appearing in other media, but that she believes the RCMP (the Canadian police) support the 23,000 Japanese living in British Columbia.
The Canadian government begins seizing property owned by the Japanese, and many shoppers are avoiding small businesses that are run by Japanese Canadians. Grandpa Kato, she learns, must report to the RCMP each month because he hasn’t been naturalized. All the Japanese Canadians will have to leave the “protected area” near the British Columbia coast, and one option is to join the Civilian Labour Corps, but both Naomi’s father and Uncle Dan are suspicious of its potential to send them back overseas.
Aunt Emily writes that the Nisei are bitter, that curfews are in force, and that while things aren’t as bad as they are in Nazi Germany they have changed for the worse for Japanese Canadians. Nisei can be imprisoned if they refuse to leave, and soon they must begin carrying permits. Limits are placed on their travel abilities. Eventually, Aunt Emily writes, the deadline for all Japanese to move is set for some time in July 1942.
Aunt Emily’s diary entries continue: Stephen is developing a limp, and Mrs. Sugimoto is beginning to show signs of nervous distress with her husband gone. The health conditions at Hastings Park Pool are very unsanitary, she learns. Uncle Dan has to report to find out where he will be assigned within twenty-four hours. Aunt Emily writes that her entries are the “reportage of a caged bird.” She says the Japanese Canadians have three options: to pay Mr. Morii, a man taking bribes to prolong Japanese-Canadian families’ freedom; to join a council fighting to protect Japanese-Canadian freedoms; and the rest, who are unsure how to respond.
Uncle Dan gets arrested trying to circumvent a train to a work camp and is sent to Hastings Park Pool. He is released from the charges and begins working with a lawyer to assure he can stay with his parents, one blind and another who doesn’t speak English, but is told the government plans to make it hard for the Japanese. Grandpa Kato, meanwhile, has been working long hours as a doctor. There are few ways for the Japanese Canadians to get news in an environment with heavy censorship. Mrs. Sugimoto hears from her husband, but Uncle (Isamu Nakane) is missing.
Aunt Emily gets a pass to see people being kept at Hastings Park Pool, among them Uncle Dan and her friends Fumi and Eiko. She says conditions are horrible, no one has privacy, and Grandma and Grandpa Nakane aren’t doing well there—though everyone had thought they were at Saltspring. Eiko has gotten feisty and is labeled as a troublemaker. “It’s people like us … who have had faith in Canada … who are the most hurt,” she writes. Naomi’s father goes off to the camps, despite his poor health, and Naomi hardly talks or smiles. She writes that the family is separated when they leave Vancouver, with Obasan, Stephen, and Naomi headed to Slocan, while Aunt Emily heads elsewhere en route to Toronto.
On May 22, 1942, Stephen, Naomi, and Obasan depart for Slocan—and they don’t see Aunt Emily again for more than 10 years.
Novelist Joy Kogawa uses the first fourteen chapters of Obasan to define the family dynamics of the Katos and Nakanes and the social environment in which Japanese Canadians lived during the early years of World War II. She does this in order to establish for the reader how the family works together and lives in Vancouver. She establishes this context as a foundation so the reader can understand how the family’s later dissolution and separation proves so devastating to Naomi, Obasan, Aunt Emily, and other family members.
The novel is rooted in the recent past, but through Naomi’s first-person voice, the novel looks further backward to inform us of what she understands is happening in the present. The novel is designed to show how narrator (and protagonist) Naomi reviews her understanding of the past against her older Aunt Emily’s account of what happened, an account Aunt Emily has provided for Naomi in letters, photos, and a diary. In this sense, Kogawa constructs a frame story—a structure in which a family gathering to mourn an uncle’s death comes to contain for Naomi a review of and mourning of many past remembered events as well as the fact that she may have misunderstood so many of them. Naomi subtly announces to the reader that her tale is one in which she will gather perspective about the present by learning about the past: “All our ordinary stories are changed in time, altered as much by the present as the present is changed by the past,” she says.
Throughout this first portion of her novel, Kogawa also uses stylistic devices to indicate to the reader that small details observed by Naomi actually conceal much larger meaning—a technique that foreshadows the novel’s overall secrets. Kogawa ends several chapters by noting the discovery of a minor object or concern (a package from Aunt Emily, a family photo, Naomi’s growing worry about her relationship to her mother), then opens the following chapter by taking that small detail and placing it under a brighter spotlight and showing how it actually has much larger significance.
For instance, the package from Aunt Emily contains the family’s entire history, along with much of Canada’s. Naomi’s worry about her mother immediately precedes a chapter that opens with her mother’s departure on an overseas journey that, we later learn, will never bring her home. When Naomi spies on a crucial conversation between her father and Aunt Emily, she plays with a ball given to her by Uncle Dan—which she later finds hidden in Obasan’s things, as if it is a sacred object.
Kogawa’s technique shows the narrator’s knowledge unfolding and expanding as she comes to understand the significance of apparently random facts, objects, and observations recalled from her youth—that each thing may mean more than she thinks it does. These telescoping transitions are appropriate to the tale, for another central theme Kogawa establishes in the first section of the book is that of Obasan’s and the narrator’s silence in the face of devastation, the source of which is the lack of information that Naomi has about her family and the indirection of the answers to her questions.
Silence shrouds much of Naomi’s past, and it is tied to grief over events Naomi doesn’t know in full detail. Repeatedly in the novel’s early pages, we learn that for Obasan, “the language of her grief is silence. She has learned it well, its idioms, its nuances. Over the years silence within her small body has grown large and powerful.” When Naomi asks Obasan questions, she gets “oblique” answers and “the full story never emerges in a direct line.” Further, Naomi knows her own memories were “drowned in a whirlpool of protective silence.” When she reads about herself in Aunt Emily’s diary, she is told she was a little girl who was silent and never cried or showed emotion. The novel, then, is Naomi’s discovery of what the silence conceals and how the silence operates.
The diary written by Aunt Emily and which Naomi reads provides a very different story of the past than the dim recollections Naomi has of her time growing up in Alberta. It is through a review of this material that Naomi will see new depictions of herself, her family, and her history. Just as Aunt Emily’s character is a foil for Naomi’s—a contrasting character that, through opposition, reveals Naomi’s character—Aunt Emily’s account of the past serves to shake up Naomi’s version of events. Finally, Aunt Emily’s anger about the past, which seems out of context to Naomi, begins to seem very plausible and appropriate to the reader in these chapters, though not yet to Naomi, who we sense may change her mind about this.
Aunt Emily’s diary recounts the mounting human rights abuses against Japanese Canadians, including the confiscation of their property, the government’s plan to send 23,000 of them inland, curfews, work camps, and other forms of organized racism that Aunt Emily likens to Nazism. Aunt Emily’s diary also discusses the family’s responses—both active and passive—to the news.
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