Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 728
In the United States, many eloquent first-person narratives by Japanese Americans, some more fictionalized than others, document the horrors of internment that Japanese citizens endured during World War II, but in Canada, Joy Kogawa’s novel is by far the most significant account. Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter (1953) is perhaps the closest to Obasan in tone and purpose. Among other compelling accounts are Toshio Mori’s Yokohama, California (1949), Mine Okubo’s Citizen 13660 (1946), and Yoshiko Uchida’s Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese-American Family (1982).
Obasan is a complex and artfully crafted work. It is, in part, autobiography. Kogawa was six years old, one year older than the fictional Naomi Nakane, when Kogawa’s family was evacuated from Vancouver to the ghost town of Slocan, in eastern British Columbia. Authentic newspaper clippings, government documents, and real letters of protest written by a Japanese Canadian activist elaborate and enhance Kogawa’s story. Within the framing narrative and the flashback of personal memory, Kogawa infuses rich, deeply layered poetic language, which functions as a keening for the two particular deaths that frame the book, those of her uncle and her mother.
The actual time frame of the story is just a few days, from the phone call that alerts her to her uncle’s death to the family gathering in Granton for the funeral. Special emphasis is placed on family unity throughout the novel, described in images of all members being knit together into one blanket. Thus, the migratory saga of both a single family and also an ethnic community evolves.
The first eleven chapters are more or less an exposition of Naomi’s family history. The following twenty chapters convey the devastation that the family has experienced in being wrenched away from their home. One guiding principal validates the stoicism of the adults during the ordeal: the repeated Japanese phrase, “kodo no tame—for the sake of the children—gaman shimasho—let us endure.” The path of the novel is a downward spiral from familial and community harmony into increasing discomfort and pain, until the most painful and intimate secret of all—the demise of Naomi’s mother—is revealed.
Important symbols enhance Kogawa’s provocative story of belated coming of age and assertion of identity. The dual themes of silence/stone and reporting/acting are separately embodied in the persons of Naomi’s two aunts, who represent conflicting family forces, present within Naomi, that she must ultimately choose between. Naomi has been raised by the silent and reticent pair, Ayako and Isamu Nakane. In the narrative frame of the book, Naomi is constantly eating or serving or thinking about her uncle’s famous stone bread. It is tough and hard, Stephen does not like it, but it is also nourishing. It symbolizes the hardships endured by the Japanese as well as the community spirit with which they band together for support. Ayako is remarkable in her stasis, constantly referring to herself as “old.” Nothing ever changes in her house. Her voice is barely audible, her conversation always oblique. She is forgetful, confused, and bewildered. Vocal Emily Kato is aggressive and opinionated, characterized by vigor and urgency and transformation. She is a relentless attender of conferences and prides herself in sharing with other survivors mutual stories of pain and indignation. She insists that Naomi not only listen to the facts of her ethnic history but act on them.
It is appropriate that Isamu, who has nourished his family with his stone bread, should, by his death, be the occasion of Naomi overcoming the ignorance that has rendered her passive. It is even more appropriate that as all the horrors have been revealed and the novel ends, it is Aunt Emily’s coat that Naomi pulls on for an early morning walk to clear her head. The strong implication is that Naomi is now braced with Emily’s truth and identity, and will choose life and speech over death and silence.
Kogawa’s saga functions on at least three levels. It shows how a woman is empowered and nurtured by her female ancestors. It shows how inner strength can deliver an oppressed people out of the bondage of racism and abuse. Finally, it is an illuminating historical chronicle of the Japanese internment in Canada, told with the facts of reportage and with the subjective evocation of poetic language, scripture, and reverie.