Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2791
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.
After the joyful reunion, though, Naomi notices a familiar look in father’s eyes—a faraway look—and asks Stephen what is happening, as there are boxes scattered around the house. He tells Naomi they must move once again—and they can’t go back home. Her father is assigned to New Denver, but they are to travel with Uncle, who gets a different letter of assignment: He must go to Kaslo. The letter he receives says the family must leave their furniture and appliances behind.
Nakayama-sensei visits and they pray, taking communion. He says that “there is a time for crying” and also that “someday the time for laughter will come.” The family disperses, as do many of the Japanese Canadians, further into the countryside. Naomi travels with her brother and uncle, wondering where her father is, and they board the train together.
The story shifts back to the present, and Naomi continues reviewing the contents of Aunt Emily’s package. “I am tired,” she writes. “I want to get away from all this.”
Naomi sifts “the facts” of her past, which may be different from Aunt Emily’s ideas about the events of the time. “Reconciliation can’t begin without mutual recognition of the facts,” Aunt Emily says to her.
In the mid-40s, the government’s message to the Japanese-Canadians seemed to be that they should go home. Aunt Emily asks Naomi if, now, in the 1970s, she still has friends from Slocan (she doesn’t) and how she remembers her time there.
Naomi reads Aunt Emily’s account about conditions of the second “repatriation” in press accounts that describe Japanese returning to Japan and learns how racist the entire event was. She asks if anyone got property back, and apparently Uncle Dan tried to but failed: despite the fact that he fought for the Canadian army, his strawberry farm was taken. Aunt Emily continues to push documents written by the Co-Operative Committee on Japanese Canadians on Emily, who acknowledges, “I suppose I do need to be educated.” She talks about the fact that she realizes she needs to understand the Orders-in-Council that justified the internment. “All my prayers disappear into space,” she says.
The story shifts back to the past, to 1945. The family moves: first they stop at a city, Lethbridge, Alberta, and then they travel by truck down a ramshackle road to the countryside—a desert-like, desolate area where they are to live in a hut smaller than their home in Slocan. They begin living in the hut, a dusty and sooty place where animals might have once lived. It sits in the shadow of the nicer house owned by the Barkers, the farmers who own the land where they will work.
The action returns to the present. Naomi reads in Aunt Emily’s newspaper clippings that Japanese labor supplied most of the sugar beet farming labor in Alberta during the mid-1940s. But the conditions were grueling, hot, and difficult enough that some people’s tear ducts dried out. She reads an article that calls the farm laborers “grinning and happy,” despite the fact that they were anything but that.
The Barker farm, we learn, is in Granton, Alberta. In 1948, Uncle stops talking about going back to Vancouver; soon after, a March news article reveals that British Columbia plans to bar the Japanese from returning for another year. One question is never answered in the political debate described in the press: “If the national security is no longer in danger, what is the reason for curtailing the freedom of Canadian citizens?”
Restrictions are finally removed on April Fool’s Day, 1949, Naomi notes. She observes that what led to the exile twice over are universal problems that will recur throughout society—greed, selfishness, hatred—and thus she is unable to believe, as Aunt Emily does, that writing, researching, speechmaking, and analysis will really help prevent these problems in the future. They will resurface, she believes, in new and different forms.
While on the Barker farm in Granton, Naomi hears nothing about the fate of her mother. But the family receives a letter from her father saying that Grandpa Nakane has died of a heart attack—in fact, it had happened the day before they left for Granton. At Christmas of 1949, they hear from him that he doesn’t trust a doctor.
Naomi and Stephen wait for the bus with Penny Barker, who chats with them at home but doesn’t socialize with them in public. Stephen excels at school and wins prizes for his music; Naomi doesn’t do as well.
Stephen and Naomi come home from school one evening, with Naomi first stopping in a swamp and taking a frog as a pet, and Nakayama-sensei, the minister, is visiting. It seems Naomi’s father has died. She says in the chapter that “she is told” but doesn’t reveal what. Instead, she puts her energy into feeding her frog, whom she found injured, and then one day it disappears. Penny Barker may be the one who convinces her that her father has died, and eventually she absorbs it.
The family moves from her father’s farm to a house in town in 1951, and Penny comes to visit. Their new house is an improvement. Stephen has his own room and practices music. Naomi learns her father died after an extensive unsuccessful operation and was buried by her friends. Meanwhile, the family knows nothing of their mother and Grandma Kato. In 1949, Nakayama-sensei went to Tokyo to find them but was pick pocketed upon arrival and was unable to learn much without the information that had been stolen from him. They assume that both must be dead.
In Aunt Emily’s file, Naomi learns that her mother and grandmother did survive the war. Naomi doesn’t understand, mostly, her mother’s complete lack of communication with the family. There is a confusing correspondence about an adopted Japanese national child and about the family’s application to return to Canada.
In 1954, the house grows quieter. Stephen has been off in Toronto for two years studying music. Stephen becomes an international success as a musician, and Naomi notices, though, that he doesn’t seem to have changed much physically, and personally his main change seems to be that he is less surly. He still doesn’t go out of his way to communicate with Obasan. At this time in her life, Naomi doesn’t know Aunt Emily well because she had been so little when she was last around her aunt. So she asks Stephen what she is like, and he indicates she is different from Obasan and Uncle. Aunt Emily is coming to visit, though, he says. Naomi observes that Stephen is uncomfortable when people or speech around him are “too Japanese.”
Naomi is studying for finals and doesn’t get to visit with Aunt Emily much, but Aunt Emily approves of her hardworking approach. Naomi overhears Aunt Emily talking to Uncle, something having to do with Japan and “Nesan” and how the children (meaning her and Stephen) should be told. Naomi spies as they pray and Aunt Emily cries. Aunt Emily is holding the Japanese letters that Naomi had seen earlier in the story, when she initially looked at Aunt Emily’s packet.
The action returns to the present, to Obasan’s house. The gray folder is in Aunt Emily’s package: Naomi watches Obasan read it and asks what it says, but she doesn’t find out. Mr. Barker, the former farm neighbor and employer, stops in with his new wife to ask how the family is doing after the death. He calls Obasan “Mrs. Nah Canny” and asks after Stephen, whom Naomi hasn’t seen for eight years, the last time being when he brought a French girlfriend home for an awkward visit.
The Barkers make small talk, but it offends Naomi, especially the apologetic comments about what the country did to the Japanese. “These are icebreaker questions that create an awareness of ice,” she writes. She ruminates on the meaning of her heritage, asking where anyone comes from in Canada. She notes the Japanese culture’s place in Canada’s and that Obasan resides in a silent place, not participating in either culture.
While Obasan and Naomi wait for Stephen and Aunt Emily, they take a nap and Naomi has violent dreams involving soldiers and danger. “In my dreams, we are never safe enough,” she says. The Grand Inquisitor appears as a figure in her dreams, opening her mother’s mouth and Naomi’s eyes, perhaps a symbol of something unsaid in the family. As the chapter closes, the Barkers leave and Obasan is reading the contents of the gray envelope.
Nakayama-sensei arrives at the house. For a long time he has made monthly visits to see Obasan. Behind him are Stephen—heavier, with gray hair—and Aunt Emily. Nakayama-sensei glances at the letters Obasan is reviewing and reads part of them, then asks if the children know. Aunt Emily says that they ought to but that they had discussed not telling the children because they had already had so much disappointment. The letters in the folder are from Grandma Kato. Sensei reads and tells the children their mother is speaking and to “listen carefully to her voice.”
The children learn that their mother and Grandma Kato are the only members of their family to have survived the war. The first letter is short and says that there have been lots of death in the family. The next letter is dated 1949 and sent from Nagasaki. The extended family died in the 1945 bombings.
Grandma Kato was traumatized by what they had been through, and though she and their mother didn’t speak of what had happened initially, later Grandma wanted to discuss it in order to rid herself of her feelings of trauma. Mother, however, maintained a vow of silence and even asked that the children be spared the details. Mother and Grandma Kato had spent time with niece Setsuko, her dentist husband, and their two children. The daughter, Chieko, reminded Mother and Grandma Kato of Naomi very much. On the morning of August 9, 1945, Grandma Kato was cleaning when she heard a child yell “Look at the parachute!” Then a blast followed. She found and touched Setsuko, and her skin peeled off. People were begging for water and writhing in pain, and those that could walk headed to an air-raid shelter, their hair and skin falling off. She let the children drink from a tap. The next day, after resting, she learned that Setsuko’s husband has died. She found Mother, who survived but has disfiguring scars, and Chieko, dying of leukemia.
Naomi speaks, directly addressing her mother, calling her “you” and reflecting on the silence that has separated them. She learns from Aunt Emily that a missionary found her mother’s name on a plaque of the dead.
Later that evening, she sees Obasan awake, looking at photos of Uncle and beginning to grieve. She drives to the coulee she first visited with Uncle at the start of the book to reflect on what she has learned about her past.
In the last section of the novel, Kogawa integrates Aunt Emily’s facts and accounts with Naomi’s impressions and hunches. The result is that Naomi is finally given factual answers to all of the questions that had plagued her previously and which she had convinced herself of being irrelevant. Equally important, the adults who conspired to protect her and Stephen from the truth agree it is time to disclose the truth to them.
The chapters begin with Naomi acknowledging that the process of reviewing Aunt Emily’s package is tiring, that she wants to get away from it. But as she reviews the diary and the news clippings, she begins to lose herself in the facts of what have happened.
The story grows grimmer, and the facts grow grimmer, too. Though the war’s end should have been a time of joy, especially for a population of Japanese Canadians exiled over war-related racism, the Nakanes’ trials worsened, she learns. She also revisits the trauma of working on the beet farms in Granton, how their living conditions were difficult and grueling, how Obasan’s tear ducts dried up in the heat.
As she reads, Naomi acknowledges that perhaps this education is necessary, and she is roused to anger at the remarks of white Canadians (the Barkers) who try to be conciliatory about the abuses heaped on the Japanese Canadians during World War II. This is a departure from her prior childhood feelings about what would have then been “wagamama” behavior. Though she remains polite to the Barkers, she is aware of her feelings about her history—a breakthrough for her development as a character.
When Nakayama-sensei, the family minister, comes to visit, it sparks a conversation between him, Obasan, and Emily about the family past and the fact that it is “time” to discuss it with Naomi and Stephen. Here Kogawa acknowledges for the reader as well as for Naomi and Stephen a sense that there has been a hidden story all along, that Naomi’s hunches existed for a reason and did have a foundation in reality. The scene in which the disclosure begins is also a contrast to prior scenes in which Naomi learned about the impending internment or her family’s separation. In earlier parts of the book, Naomi must hide and eavesdrop to gather information, and now it is going to be presented to her, almost as an act of apology for the fact of the decades-long concealment.
The facts are stark and awful: Her mother and grandmother were caught in Japan during wartime and ended up living through the nuclear holocaust wrested on Japan by the American-led allies. Her mother was disfigured by the effects of the nuclear bomb, but survived, for a time; her name was later found on a public gravestone. Her cousins on her mother’s side died of nuclear-related illnesses, and the baby that most resembled her died of leukemia. The information is devastating to Naomi and especially to the reader, who has been eavesdropping on Naomi’s process of seeking information throughout the novel.
In the next to last chapter, Naomi speaks directly to her mother, commenting on her feelings of connection, her feelings of loss during her mother’s absence, her compassion for why her mother chose to remain silent after her suffering in Nagasaki. The chapter functions as a soliloquy—a passage in fiction or drama in which a character speaks directly to him or herself. This time, it is the reader audience who “overhears” and Naomi who does the talking.
Naomi, who has long been silent and passive regarding her past, unable to take charge of her love life or personal life, here is given room to address the past and come to terms with it. For the reader, this passage provides a glimpse at her progress and growth as a character—like Aunt Emily, she is able to “speak her mind.” But unlike Aunt Emily’s prior rants, which were made in anger and frustration and were sometimes unproductive, Naomi is here able to connect her emotions with her thoughts and make linkages about her personal development and the events of history. Naomi triumphs by learning to name and recognize her pain.
In the final chapter, Naomi revisits the coulee and landscape she visited with Uncle at the launch of the novel. This visit completes the dramatic arc of Obasan by resolving it in a manner that fits Naomi’s character. As a child, Naomi enjoyed the story of Momotaro because her mother told it in a “perfect circle,” resolving the plot and bringing it to a close that made sense to her. Kogawa seems to be making the same effort in bringing Naomi back to a place that, just a month before, she had visited while under a completely different understanding of the world than she now has. It is Kogawa’s “perfect circle” for the reader.
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