Characters Discussed

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Naomi Nakane

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Naomi Nakane, the protagonist and the narrator of the prose sections. At the age of thirty-six, she is an unmarried elementary teacher in Cecil, Alberta, and is bored with her dead-end life. She is a quiet, subservient, and evasive adult whose victim-oriented personality has been shaped by childhood abuse of both a sexual and a political nature.

Ayako

Ayako, “Obasan” of the title, is a timid and victimized “everywoman” who endures abuse and believes that the best way to live is to hide unpleasantness and simply endure. The words “silence” and “stone” describe both her and her husband, in whose household Naomi and Stephen grow up.

Isamu

Isamu, the husband of Ayako and uncle of Naomi. Scion of a shipbuilding and shipowning family, he is exiled from Vancouver inland to the prairie during the relocation, which hits him particularly hard. The “stone bread” he bakes symbolizes the hardships that Japanese Canadians endure. His funeral is the narrative frame for the story.

Emily Kato

Emily Kato, Naomi’s unmarried aunt who lives in Toronto. She is an angry and vocal political activist who spends the novel trying to convince Naomi to become more aggressive in defending her heritage and in making her abuses public. She has saved a box of correspondence, newspaper clippings, and political documents that tell an important part of the story.

Nesan

Nesan (“Little Sister”), Naomi’s mother. Naomi has good memories of her. Nesan and her mother (Naomi’s Grandmother Kato) leave Naomi and Stephen, when the children are very young, to tend to Nesan’s ailing grandmother in Japan and do not return to Canada. Their fate is a mystery that is resolved gradually during the course of the story. Emily has written letters to Nesan in Japan, keeping copies for herself.

Mark Nakane

Mark Nakane, Naomi’s father. An accomplished singer and musician, he contracts tuberculosis and does not survive the war. His gradual loss of voice foreshadows his inability to protect his family as well as predicting his own death. Against all odds, he strives to nurture Stephen’s musical talent. He is shown as most happy when he is making music.

Stephen Nakane

Stephen Nakane, Naomi’s resentful older brother, who is so talented at the piano that he develops a national reputation as a Western classical musician and tours frequently around Europe. In essence, he has “sold out,” denouncing his Japanese heritage by criticizing both Obasan and Naomi for not talking “properly,” by preferring Western fast food to Japanese dishes, and by taking up for a time with a French divorcée. At the time of Uncle Isamu’s funeral, he has been away from his family for eight years.

The Reverend Nakayama

The Reverend Nakayama, a spiritual leader who moves with Naomi’s family during their relocation experiences. His gentle leadership, and Christianity in general, is a strength and comfort to the family that cannot be overestimated. It is through his telling that Naomi and Stephen finally learn the truth about their mother.

Characters

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Obasan centers on the memories and experiences of Naomi Nakane, a schoolteacher living in the rural Canadian town of Cecil, Alberta. The story begins in 1972, when Naomi and her Uncle Isamu visit the coulee, a shallow grassland ravine to which they return "once every year around this time." Though Naomi seems unaware of it (until the end of the novel), her uncle returns to the "virgin land" of the prairie each year to mark the anniversary of the dropping of an atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Naomi simply recalls that "the first time Uncle and I came here was in 1954, in August, two months after Aunt Emily's initial visit to Granton." Only at the end of the book does Naomi (and the reader) learn the news that Emily brought on that occasion—this includes the letters of Grandma Kato about the suffering of Naomi's mother and grandmother in the aftermath of the Nagasaki bombing.

One month after her visit to the coulee, Naomi learns of her uncle's death. In the days following her return to Granton to attend to her aunt, Naomi tries to communicate with Obasan, to understand the silent "language of her grief," to penetrate a silence that "has grown large and powerful" over the years.

The death of Naomi's uncle, with whom she had lived as a child, leads Naomi to visit and care for her widowed Aunt Obasan. This character is based on Kogawa's own aunt and is the silent heart of the narrative. Obasan represents more of an attitude than a person embodying the strength of silence. In the novel, Obasan is the daughter of a schoolteacher and is herself a well-educated music teacher. She immigrated to Canada where she met Grandma Nakane. They became fast friends and she married her son, Uncle Isamu. She believes in the tradition of keeping quiet and accepting whatever life offers without protest. She holds to this when her babies die, her in-laws suffer at Nagasaki, the government confiscates the fishing boats, they are removed to the camps, and when her husband dies. According to Obasan, who says little beyond "O," one must accept the injustice. In her character is also a tribute to women and mothers the world over:

Squatting here with the putty knife in her hand, she is every old woman in every hamlet in the world.... Everywhere the old woman stands as the true and rightful owner of the earth. She is the bearer of keys to unknown doorways and to a network of astonishing tunnels. She is the possessor of life's infinite personal details.

For Naomi, she becomes a mother figure when her actual mother is gone. Even so, there always remains "an ominous sense of cold and absence." Obasan does her best, and Naomi takes comfort from her softness and constancy,

Naomi's brief stay with Obasan in turn becomes an occasion for Naomi to revisit and reconstruct in memory her painful experiences as a child during and after World War II. Naomi's narration thus interweaves two stories: one of the past and another of the present, mixing experience and recollection, history and memory throughout. Naomi's struggle to come to terms with both past and present confusion and suffering form the core of the novel's plot.

During her visit, Naomi sifts through the documents, newspaper clippings, letters, and diaries kept by her Aunt Emily, an outspoken political activist determined to air the truth about the Japanese-Canadian experience of persecution. Also included in the package are letters from Naomi's Grandma Kato, the most traditional member of the family and one who never left Japan entirely. It was on one of her frequent trips back to Japan that the war broke out, and she and Naomi's mother became stranded. Unable to bear the suffering of her daughter, Grandma Kato recounts their horrific experiences in letters to the family they have left behind in Canada.

These experiences, recounted in Obasan largely through Naomi's memories of childhood, are rooted in the actual history of 20,000 Japanese Canadians (and 120,000 Japanese Americans). Viewed as a dangerous enemy during World War II, many of these individuals were stripped of their homes and possessions, compelled to relocate to ghost towns or concentration camps, forced to live and work under terrible conditions, and generally denied the rights of citizenship. Throughout Obasan, Naomi's quest to understand the painful personal story of her childhood intersects this larger communal history of suffering.

Between the influences of her two aunts, one suffering in silence, the other a "word warrior," Naomi feels driven to review her life as a child in all of its mystery, confusion, and pain. Naomi's recollections come to her in isolated phrases, scenes, stories, dreams, and fairy tales. A photograph of herself as a child with her mother, given to her by Obasan, prompts Naomi to remember her childhood home in Vancouver and the idyllic life it contained before her family was broken up and evacuated from the West Coast. Naomi recalls steaming-hot baths with Grandma Kato, evenings spent in the family's music room, and bedtime stories told "night after night."

But as the stories of Naomi's childhood unfold, the sources of her confusion and pain emerge. Repeated incidents of sexual abuse by a neighbor, Old Man Gower, produce feelings of shame and confusion in young Naomi that seem to separate her from her mother for the first time. When her mother leaves on a trip to Japan, Naomi feels "an ominous sense of cold and absence," uncertain if her own wrongdoing caused her mother to "disappear." Finally, Naomi is troubled as a child by the growing racial tension that threatens the rest of her family with evacuation and internment, the "riddle" that made them "both the enemy and not the enemy."

When the evacuation commences and Naomi's father and uncle are ordered to report to work camps, Naomi, her brother Stephen, and Obasan board a train from Vancouver to the mountainous interior of British Columbia. In the ghost town of Slocan, Naomi and her surrogate family, along with many other relocated Japanese Canadians, attempt to reconstruct family and community life. In the face of tremendous obstacles, they succeed at least partially. Slocan comes alive, after a time, with new small businesses, new social ties, worship services and schools, and Naomi enjoys "Sunday-school outings, Christmas concerts, sports days, [and] hikes" with newfound friends. But life in Slocan is not free of suffering and confusion for Naomi. In the hospital, after being saved from drowning by Rough Lock Bill, Naomi dreams of all the brutishness and death that she has witnessed since leaving Vancouver. Her hallucinatory dream leads her to understand that "Death comes to the world in many unexpected places," even in the restored community of Slocan.

After several years in Slocan, Naomi and Stephen are overjoyed by the end of the war and the unexpected arrival of their father. But their hopes for a reunited family and a return to their former life are short-lived. Their father is once again dispatched to a work camp, where he later dies before seeing his children again. Meanwhile, Uncle, Obasan, Stephen, and Naomi are "relocated" to a sugar-beet farm in the harsh climate of the Canadian plains. On the Barker farm outside of Granton, Alberta, they struggle to survive under conditions far worse than those in Slocan, without the consolations of community that Slocan had allowed. Eventually, Uncle and Obasan manage to leave the Barker farm and move to a house in Granton, where they remain after Stephen pursues a career in music and Naomi becomes a teacher.

It is this home in Granton to which Naomi returns after her uncle's death to care for Obasan. And it is also in Obasan's home, more than twenty-seven years after the bombing of Nagasaki, that Naomi finally learns the truth about her mother's suffering and the reasons for her silence. Naomi and Stephen had been spared this knowledge by the wishes of their mother, who asked that the truth be kept secret "for the sake of the children" ("Kodomo no tame"). Even as an adult, Naomi is shielded from the truth by Uncle (at the coulee), by Obasan (who gives her pictures in place of answers), and by Aunt Emily:

"What do you think happened to Mother and Grandma in Japan?" I asked. "Did they starve, do you think?"

Aunt Emily's startle was so swift and subtle it barely registered. But I could feel that somewhere, beneath her eyes, a shutter had clicked open and shut at my mentioning Mother and Grandma. It was as if my unexpected question was a sudden beam of pain that had to be extinguished immediately.

She stared into the blackness. Sometimes when I stand in a prairie night the emptiness draws me irresistibly, like a dust speck into a vacuum cleaner, and I can imagine myself disappearing off into space like a rocket with my questions trailing behind me.

When, finally, the remnants of her family are reunited to mourn the death of her uncle, Naomi receives answers to the questions that have followed her throughout her life. At Naomi's pleading, Nakayama-sensei reads the letters sent many years before by Grandma Kato, letters that Naomi had seen and touched but could not translate herself. The letters tell tales of horror, of unbearable experiences and unthinkable memories, and they explain the enduring silence, the "voicelessness," that has tormented Naomi since her mother left her as a child. Although the horror of her mother's fate allows no easy reconciliation with the past or with the powers that brought on that fate, Naomi finally understands that her mother's silence was inspired by her attempt to protect and love her children, not abandon or punish them. At the end of Obasan, Naomi returns to the coulee that she had visited each year with her uncle. She is now aware of the significance of his ritual and able to embrace the past in peace, to put aside "this body of grief," to recognize that "the song of mourning is not a lifelong song."

Character Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2176

Aya-obasan
See Ayako Nakane

Mr. Barker
When the family is allowed to leave the camp at Slocan but still refused access to Vancouver, they move to Granton and work in the sugar beet fields for Mr. Barker. He represents the typical Canadian of the interior. The whole family—Isamu, Obasan, Stephen, and Naomi—work the field of sugar beets. Their work, joined with similar Japanese work across the Canadian heartland, wins the respect of the farmers because the harvest is a record crop. Mr. Barker appears toward the end of the novel to pay his respects to Obasan, but the scene is very awkward, and his wife is extremely condescending.

Rough Lock Bill
Though his appearance is brief, the character of Rough Lock Bill is very important. He stands in direct contrast to the other male symbol of Canada, Mr. Gower. Rough Lock sees people as people and not as races. He also knows some of the stories of the land and it is not the first time that there is a link between the plight of the Japanese Canadians and the Native Americans. Underlining the idea that there is good left in a hysterical Canada, it is Rough Lock who saves Naomi from drowning while Kenji runs away in fright.

Old Man Gower
The next-door neighbor of the house in Vancouver is Mr. Gower. Under the varying pretenses of scraped knees and treats, he lures Naomi close enough to be sexually caressed and undressed. He is also the one who is asked to watch the house when the family must leave. The irony is that all the adults know there will probably never be a return to the house. The experience with Mr. Gower haunts Naomi in Slocan. The forest for her hides his searching eyes and groping hands. Thus, through the horror of Mr. Gower, the wilderness of the Canadian interior is masculinized. This is a novelty on the part of Kogawa because in the history of literature the male protagonist masters a female universe. Here, Naomi will finally master the wilds of Canada when she embraces the earth at the coulee.

Dr. Kato
When Grandma would travel back to Japan, Grandpa would look after Emily. This explains why Emily is less traditional. Grandma's first trip was taken while he was still in medical school. As a doctor, he has certain privileges that his family can take advantage of when internment begins. Thus Emily is able to go to Toronto rather than the camp at Slocan. Emily is unable to take the Nakanes.

Aunt Emily Kato
Governed by the old testament dictum, “Write the vision and make it plain,” Aunt Emily Kato is the political firebrand. She bestows all her papers and zeal on Naomi in the hopes that she will pursue justice with her. At one point, Naomi describes Aunt Emily as “one of the world's white blood cells, rushing from trouble spot to trouble spot.” Ironically, it is not Aunt Emily who makes the story known, it is the daughter of silent Obasan who tells the story. Nevertheless, Aunt Emily is the source of documentation. She offers the headlines, the executive orders, and the piles of letters. Aunt Emily is the character trying to make sense of the government's actions during World War II by gathering the facts. These facts, however, are little comfort to Naomi. Aunt Emily is the opposite female figure to Obasan. She will not be silent, she will demand that justice be done. Still, she kept silent about the death of Naomi's mother, though Grandmother Kato couldn't.

Grandma Kato
The most traditional of the family, Grandma Kato never left Japan entirely. She returned quite often, and when Mother was old enough, she went too. Consequently, Mother was like both Grandmas—yasashi. While on one of these trips, World War II broke out and they were stranded in Japan. Despite being traditional, she cannot bear the suffering of her daughter. Therefore, she writes to the family in Canada describing her horrific fate.

Grandpa Kato
See Dr. Kato

Kenji
Kenji is a playmate of Naomi's who tells her about the King bird who cuts off the tongues of those who lie. Kenji takes Naomi to the lake one summer day and entices her, with promises of caution, onto a raft. He swims her out accidentally beyond the drop-off. Out of fear at what he has done, he runs away, leaving Naomi adrift in the middle of the lake.

Mark
See Mr. Tadashi Nakane

Mother
See Mrs. Kato Nakane

Ayako Nakane
The title character of the book is based on Kogawa's aunt. She is the silent heart of the narrative—more an attitude than a person—and embodies the strength of silence. In the novel, Obasan is the daughter of a schoolteacher and is herself a well-educated music teacher. She immigrated to Canada where she met Grandma Nakane. They became fast friends, and she married her son, Uncle Isamu. She believes in the tradition of keeping quiet and accepting whatever life offers without protest. She holds to this when her babies die, her in-laws suffer at Nagasaki, the government confiscates the fishing boats, they are removed to the camps, and when her husband dies. According to Obasan, who says little beyond “O,” one must accept the injustice. In her character is also a tribute to women and mothers the world over:

Squatting here with the putty knife in her hand, she is every old woman in every hamlet in the world.... Everywhere the old woman stands as the true and rightful owner of the earth. She is the bearer of keys to unknown doorways and to a network of astonishing tunnels. She is the possessor of life's infinite personal details.

For Naomi, she becomes a mother figure when her actual mother is gone. Even so, there always remains “an ominous sense of cold and absence.” Obasan does her best, and Naomi takes comfort from her softness and constancy.

Grandma Nakane
Grandma Nakane was yasashi, soft and silent. This means she was very traditional and, consequently, extremely powerful in nonverbal communication. She was the first to die in the camps, more out of a lack of understanding why she was there than the horrid conditions.

Grandpa Nakane
The first of Naomi's ancestors to come to Canada was a master boatbuilder. He quickly became famous, and many fishermen came to his shop on Saltspring Island. He married a cousin's widowed wife. She brought him a son and bore him Naomi's father. The two sons built a beautiful boat, which was soon taken by the Royal Canadian Military Police in 1941. Grandpa Nakane did not survive the internment camp.

Uncle Isamu Nakane
Born in Japan in 1889, Isamu was a boatbuilder, like his father, on Lulu Island. After the government confiscated the fishing fleet, the Nakanes sought refuge near the Katos. Because of his brother's learning, the government sent him to work camp, leaving Isamu to be stepfather to his children—Stephen and Naomi.

For eighteen years, Naomi and Uncle Isamu made a pilgrimage to a certain coulee near their home in Granton. Not until the end of the story does she realize that Uncle was trying to reveal the fate of her mother. This site then becomes Naomi's touchstone or memorial to her family and to the lost community of Vancouver.

Mrs. Kato Nakane
Mother is yasashi—soft and traditional—like her mother, Grandma Kato. She is the absent presence in the novel. The horrific details of her struggle to protect children in her care at Nagasaki are heart-wrenching, but she doesn't want her children to know. This wish leads to almost thirty years of mystery for Naomi.

Megumi Naomi Nakane
The narrator of the novel is thirty-six-year-old schoolteacher Naomi Nakane. She is called from her teaching by the Principal to receive the news of her uncle's death. She returns to her aunt's house to be with her and to remember. Her story jumps about in time but follows her through her story of being sexually abused, losing her mother, being interned, and working the beet fields. When the whole family is assembled for the funeral, Naomi and her brother Stephen finally hear the story of their mother's death.

In the telling of the story, however, the adult narrator still allows for the collusion of her abuse by Old Man Gower and the departure of her mother. Being so young, she is easily able to accept Obasan as a substitute mother. In addition to her secret, Naomi is haunted by the shadow of the King Bird, which bites off the lying tongue and brings more caution to Naomi's speech. Naomi felt that her secret with Mr. Gower prompted her mother to leave and stay away. She wants the past to stay in the past and is quite bothered by Aunt Emily's insistence that all be told, that facts be known.

Naomi the child was very quiet—so much so that her relatives often thought she was mute. However, she did ask questions, especially about her mother. She never received answers and ceased asking. Similarly, in the chaos of being interned to the camp in Slocan, she lost her doll but only asked about it once because she knew it was lost. This linguistic anxiety clearly marks Naomi throughout the story and even marks the adult Naomi whom we first see troubled by her students' questions about her. In her narration, on the other hand, her voice is steady. She has not raised her voice to tell about the injustice done her people as would her Aunt Emily, nor has she kept silent—which in a Euro-centric culture amounts to passive acceptance. Instead, her writing about a silence and through references to her own juvenile state and the many references to juvenile tales are an even-voiced, steady documentation of a history of a wrong. The result is a declaration of cultural enrichment. She is Canadian, oh Canada, ready or not.

Nomi Nakane
See Megumi Naomi Nakane

Stephen Nakane
The elder brother of Naomi is the musical prodigy Stephen. He has many advantages over Naomi, not least of which is his recourse to music as a voice. Thus, he has two voices when Naomi has trouble enough with her own. Being older, Stephen also had more time to know his mother, and he is better able to understand what is happening. Therefore, he is better able to handle her departure, and he is also able to reject Obasan as a substitute. Through music, he has a ready bond with his father, and when they play, Naomi sits and listens.

Stephen is angry with his family and with Japanese Canadians generally. While growing up, this is exhibited in a sour behavior and is symbolized by his broken leg. This is yet another reason for rejecting Obasan—by doing so, he rejects the mother-culture. His attitude is first displayed when he is beat up before the internment. He is frustrated because he is Canadian, he plays European music, and he has nothing to do with World War II. Still, he has to be shipped off to the camp in Slocan, where he hobbles about in his cast, playing records again and again on the gramophone. Finally, though he does come to the funeral, Stephen stays away as much as possible and only brings his fiancee by for a few minutes. They do not stay to eat.

Mr. Tadashi Nakane
Father was brought up as a boatbuilder, but he is also a musician. For some reason, he is singled out for the camps, whereas his brother Isamu eventually arrives at Slocan. His marriage to Mother is the first non-arranged marriage in the community. Father dies of tuberculosis in the internment hospital after living in a work camp.

Nakayama sensei
Anglican minister based on the author's father, who had been a Buddhist before he became a Christian preacher. Nakayama is the spiritual leader of the Japanese Canadian community and is always willing to help anyone in need. He leads the service at Grandma Nakane's funeral, even though Buddhist rites are performed in accordance to Grandpa Nakane's wishes. At the end of the book, it is Nakayama Sensei who translates the letter Grandma Kato wrote to her husband after the war, revealing the tragic fate of Naomi's mother and the reason the children were never told.

Nesan
See Mrs. Kato Nakane

Nomura-obasan
She stays with the family at Slocan for a time. She is an old friend of the family's from Vancouver and as such is referred to as obasan, aunt. She is frail and has contracted TB. This causes a scene at the baths and is the reason why Naomi is not allowed to play with Reiko.

Obasan
See Ayako Nakane

Reiko
Reiko is another playmate in Slocan. But when her mother finds out that someone at Naomi's house is ill, they can be friends no more. Reiko shows how intolerance is spread because she has learned that sickness is a shame. Whereas, Naomi is taught that it is a misfortune.

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