Obasan

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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.

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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 of her childhood. Having been but five years old at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Naomi was hampered by her age, as well as by her family’s efforts to shield a small child in her understanding of the effects of war. Naomi Nakane knows that her understanding of her past is limited, so the young woman, prompted by her aged uncle’s death, seeks to recapture her history from the silence in which it has been enveloped. She turns to question Obasan, her beloved and respected aunt, who reared and protected her, only to face the same reticence and silence the aunt has maintained for thirty years. Gradually, however, through the contents of a package of documents from Obasan’s attic, Naomi learns of the past. In the package, she finds letters, journals, clippings, and other documents which eventually help her to discover her past. In the end, when the family’s clergyman reads letters written in Japanese and relates their contents to Naomi and her older brother, they learn how their mother died in Japan after great suffering, a victim of the nuclear blast which devastated Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

Obasan is more than a personal narrative; it is a fictional rendering of the history of the Japanese in North America. The story is told through the experience of a family and their friends, who were torn in haste from their homes and community to be exiled in a much fiercer climate in the interior of Canada, with families separated and sent many ways—the victims, as they saw it, of racial prejudice implemented with bureaucratic coldness and official dislike hardened into law. In the United States, the Japanese were released at the end of World War II to seek their own lives, but in Canada, they were treated harsher. They were urged, in some ways forced, to return to Japan; many of them did, wishing to cooperate with the government of their adopted land. Those who remained in Canada were prevented from returning to British Columbia until April, 1949, more than three years after the end of the war. The novel ends with an excerpt from a memorandum sent by a joint committee to the Parliament of Canada, in which the committee fruitlessly, as it turned out, urged the government to remove the Orders-in-Council which exiled Canadians of Japanese ancestry from their prewar homes. The 1946 recommendations pointed out that the treatment of the Japanese minority was really a threat to the security of all minorities in Canada and was in contradiction to the United Nations Charter, to which Canada had subscribed.

In recent years, in the United States as well as in Canada, people of Japanese ancestry, regardless of age, have actively sought redress for what was done to them in the past. Official commissions in both countries have been reconsidering the treatment of the interned citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II. In this light, there is a special relevance to Joy Kogawa’s novel, which reveals in a detailed way, as only fiction can, how terrible the experience of those innocent persons was during the years of their exile and internment. One problem facing those who are trying to recapture this past is the difficulty which young people in particular have in grasping the terror that gripped the West Coast of North America in the weeks and months after the successful sneak attack by the Japanese Navy on Pearl Harbor. That attack eliminated opposition to Japanese aggression in the Pacific, so that military and naval forces of Japan were everywhere successful in their conquests. There seemed to be nothing to prevent them from landing on the western shores of Canada and the United States. The fear of a possible, even imminent, Japanese invasion was the emotional force which led to the internment of citizens of Japanese ancestry, lest they aid the enemy forces in such an invasion.

As Joy Kogawa’s novel shows, Americans and Canadians of Japanese ancestry were for the most part fiercely loyal to their adopted homeland, but that loyalty was suspect by the rest of the population. Differences in language and culture militated to keep the people of Japanese ancestry apart from the rest of their neighbors, and Obasan shows how the Japanese, proud of their culture and sure of their cultural independence, unwittingly helped to keep themselves apart from other groups. Neither side truly understood the other. Indeed, Obasan suggests that neither side has yet achieved any real understanding of the other.

Although she has been a writer for many years, Joy Kogawa has not published a novel previous to Obasan. She has, however, published three volumes of poetry; she has worked as a writer in the Canadian Prime Minister’s office; and she has been writer-in-residence at the University of Ottawa. Obasan is an accomplished novel, and one hopes that it will not be Kogawa’s last.

Form and Content

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In Obasan, Joy Kogawa is telling both her personal story and the tale of all Japanese Canadians exiled from their homes during World War II. She was six years old, one year older than the character of Naomi Nakane, when her family was evacuated to the ghost town of Slocan, eastern British Columbia, from Vancouver. Authentic newspaper clippings and real letters of protest written by a Japanese Canadian activist elaborate and enhance her personal memories.

The actual time frame of the story is only a few days, from the phone call that alerts Naomi at school that her uncle has died to the time that it takes family members to assemble in Granton, Alberta, for his funeral. Special emphasis is placed on family unity throughout the novel, with the families of Naomi’s mother and father “knit . . . into one blanket . . . till the fibre of our lives became an impenetrable mesh.” Within that scenario, through a complex series of flashbacks, the migratory saga of both a single family and an ethnic community evolves. The first eleven chapters are an exposition of Naomi’s family history. Her beautiful, idyllic home is described, and there are memories of her mother telling Naomi Japanese folktales at bedtime. There is also a threat—Old Man Gower, who lives next door, abuses Naomi, and she is too afraid and ashamed to tell her mother.

The next twenty chapters convey the devastation that the family experiences following the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan and their removal inland from the coast for security reasons. One guiding principal explains the stoicism of the adult family members, a Japanese phrase that is repeated throughout the novel: “kodomo no tame—for the sake of the children—gaman shi masho—let us endure.” The endurance takes the form of hiding from the children critical information about their mother, who returned to Japan to help her ailing mother, Grandmother Kato, and never returned. Her fate is only revealed to them after they have become middle-aged adults.

The facts of the family’s evacuation are largely told in letters that Emily has written to Naomi’s mother, Nesan, in Japan and that Grandmother Kato has written home. Dream sequences and flashbacks to Naomi’s childhood are also important to the narrative, as are political documents. Newspaper clippings and misleading photographs touting “grinning and happy” evacuees ironically hide the cruel facts about hard labor conditions and the lack of adequate shelter and nourishment. The path that the novel follows is a downward spiral from a position of familiar and community love and harmony into increasing discomfort and pain. Flashbacks reveal how basic needs are gradually stripped away and the extended family unit is split apart. When the story is brought back to the present time, the events explaining Nesan’s detention in Japan are told, culminating with the description of the bombing of Nagasaki and the horrifying aftermath in which she dies an agonizing death.

The penultimate chapter is a poetic eulogy that Naomi speaks to her dead mother. In it, Naomi strives to make sense of her mother’s death, of the reasons that she has not been made aware earlier of the circumstances of the death, and of her mother’s profound love for Naomi and her brother, Stephen. Though sad, the novel ends in a beautiful affirmation of life and the living, and it is a stirring testimony to the endurance of her mother’s memory. The book ends with the voicing of grief and with the liberating catharsis that follows deep suffering.

Places Discussed

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*Vancouver

*Vancouver. Largest city in British Columbia that was home to many Japanese Canadians before World War II. Schoolteacher Naomi Nakane’s grandparents came to Canada from Japan in 1893, and she herself was born in Vancouver in 1936 and has lived there happily through her first six years in a large and beautiful house on West 64th Avenue in the Marpole district.

In 1972—the time present of Obasan—the thirty-six-year-old Naomi remembers the house vividly: its living and music rooms, her father’s study, the kitchen, the playroom, the backyard. She also remembers exploring Vancouver with her family, from Kitsilano Beach to the zoo at Stanley Park. She recalls as well the exhibition grounds at Hastings Park, however, where in 1942 many of the twenty-three thousand Japanese Canadians living along the British Columbia coast “were herded into the grounds and kept there like animals until they were shipped off to roadwork camps and concentration camps in the interior of the province.”

Slocan

Slocan. Ghost town in British Columbia’s interior to which Naomi and her extended family are sent. In this former mining settlement, they spend three years living in an abandoned two-room shack. Aside from their shack, Naomi and other internees spend some of their time at the Odd Fellows Hall in town, where they watch movies every Saturday night, and in the public bathhouse. (The original Native American name for this village was “Slow-can-go,” meaning “If you go slow . . . you can go.”)

Granton

Granton. Small town in southern Alberta, not far from the city of Lethbridge. From 1945 to 1951, Naomi, her brother, her Uncle Isamu, and her Aunt Aya (the “Obasan” or “aunt” of the novel’s title) live in a hut on the Barker farm, some seven miles outside of Granton. Prohibited by the Canadian government from returning to Vancouver (where their home has been confiscated) after the war, Naomi and her makeshift family live in “a small hut, like a toolshed, smaller even than the one we lived in Slocan.” Naomi’s father, who has been hospitalized for years, dies of tuberculosis in 1949. In 1951, Naomi and Stephen and their uncle and aunt finally move into a house in Granton itself. It is on a bluff a half mile from the Barker farm to which Naomi and her uncle go, at the beginning and end of the novel, to stand at the edge of the Canadian prairie that reminds Uncle Isamu of the Pacific coast, where he worked as a master shipbuilder and fisherman before the war. It is to this house that Naomi returns to be with Aunt Aya when her uncle dies in 1972.

Cecil

Cecil. Small rural town some 150 miles northeast of Granton, where Naomi Nakane is a single school teacher in the time present of the novel.

*Nagasaki

*Nagasaki. Japanese city on which the United States dropped an atom bomb in 1945. After the war ends, Naomi learns that her mother died a horrible death as a result of that atomic attack.

Her mother had returned to Japan in 1939 to nurse her mother and was trapped in Nagasaki by the war. The novel personalizes the bombing, but, even more directly, questions the internment of loyal Canadian citizens who were uprooted from their coastal homes and forced to spend the remainder of their lives in internal provincial exile. At the end of the novel, in a metaphor that taps the earthy imagery used throughout Obasan, Naomi muses:Where do any of us come from in this cold country? Oh, Canada, whether it is admitted or not, we come from you we come from you. From the same soil, the slugs and slime and bogs and twigs and roots. We come from the country that plucks its people out like weeds and flings them into the roadside. . . . We come from Canada, this land that is like every land, filled with the wise, the fearful, the compassionate, the corrupt.

Context

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Though some of the men in Kogawa’s novel are admirable—Naomi’s father and Reverend Nakayama, for example—they clearly play a secondary role in this story of a woman’s maturation and fulfillment. Naomi has two female role models, one reticent and one motivated. The novel recounts Naomi’s nascent, blossoming self-image and identity as she is guided by first one and then the other of these figures. She learns that the past cannot be denied, that she cannot change her history and that, if she lets it, her history can even provide some direction for her future. Stephen, who has sublimated his ethnicity in adulthood, cannot repudiate the remarkable childhood that he has shared with his sister. It was an experience which, at least on a subconscious level, binds them with a terrible glue. Denying it makes him ill at ease; accepting it gives Naomi knowledge and power.

Kogawa’s saga is useful on at least three levels. First, it shows how a woman is empowered and nurtured by her female ancestors, both in life and in death. Second, it shows how inner strength can deliver an oppressed people out of a bondage of racism and abuse; in particular, the novel is an illuminating historical chronicle of the Japanese internment during World War II, told with the objective facts of journalism and with the subjective evocation of poetic language, scripture, and reverie. Third, the multiple linguistic forms give the work a richness.

In the United States, many eloquent first-person narratives, some more fictionalized than others, offer telling documentation of the horrors of incarceration suffered by Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in the 1940’s, but in Canada, 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 short-story collection Yokohama, California (1949), Mine Okubo’s nonfiction work Citizen 13660 (1946), and Yoshiko Uchida’s autobiography Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family (1982).

Historical Context

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Canada
Canada is a large and sparsely populated country and a member of the British Commonwealth and NAFTA. It is generally seen throughout the world as a relatively neutral, and therefore non-threatening, nation. However, the tales of Amerindian and Inuit removals and the internment of Canadians with Japanese ancestry in World War II remain whispered tales. Also, Canada's recent skirmishes with European countries, especially Spain, over fishing area hints at larger environmental faults.

Canada's constitution is surprisingly new and unsettled. After steadily gaining nominal independence, discussion of rescinding the British North America Act began in 1927 as the first step toward making Canada independent. Limbo existed until 1981 when the Constitution Act was passed under the Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The Act was in turn accepted by Queen Elizabeth II in the following spring. This effectively replaced the British North American Act as the working document of the Canadian government. Unfortunately, not all of the provinces were ready to accept the Act. Quebec wanted independence and would not sign. To keep Quebec in the union, it was offered the special status of “distinct society” by the Meech Lake Accord of 1987. The Inuit and Amerindians of Canada were also granted “distinct society” status. Quebec's privilege angered the provinces of New Brunswick and Manitoba, who refused to ratify the Act. Another compromise came in the Charlottetown Accord of 1992, but that was rejected by referendum.

World War II
Canada under the premiership of William Lyon Mackenzie King entered World War II earlier than the United States. It contributed more than one million men to the Allies' war effort and lost 32,000 men. The anti-Asian sentiment in Canada had been prevalent in the late thirties and was officially expressed when the Canadian government confiscated the fishing fleet of its Canadians of Japanese ancestry. This racist policy increased to the point of hysteria with the news of Pearl Harbor's demise on December 7, 1941. In the United States, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, calling for the immediate evacuation and internment of 110,000 West Coast Japanese, despite the fact that fully two-thirds of them were American citizens. In Canada, where evacuation had been underway, the process was speeded up. Thus, 21,000 Canadians of Japanese ancestry were forced into work camps and interment camps far from the West Coast. Of those removed, 17,000 were Canadian born; therefore, their removal was a gross violation of human rights and civil liberties. Unlike internment in America, Canada still restricted Japanese-Canadian movements for many years after the war. Furthermore, the United States returned confiscated property—Canada never did. Therefore, the Japanese community in the United States recovered much faster.

The illegality of the removal was not unnoticed even by members of King's own government. Asian immigrants, however, had long been seen by both the United States and Canada as “sojourners,” or as immigrants who would eventually return home. In addition, before the early part of this century, Asians were subject to various mandates that effectively barred them from citizenship and limited their property owning capacity. Therefore, the allowing of Asian immigrants the same status as immigrants from anywhere else in the world was a recent development. This does not excuse the internment, but it offers some explanation to the perception of Asians as foreigners, and consequently as a potential threat to security during World War II. In other words, the resentment against “foreigners” taking away the jobs of citizens contributed to the enthusiasm for scapegoating certain people. The idea of ruining the prosperous Japanese-Canadian community by taking their land, ships, and fishing areas so soon after the depression years helped to drive the removal hysteria.

National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC)
The NAJC achieved the Redress Agreement in 1988 with the Government of Canada on behalf of all Canadians of Japanese ancestry. This agreement was a settlement of the conditions of restitution to those Japanese Canadians illegally interned and dispossessed of their property during World War II. As a result of the Agreement, the Government of Canada formally apologized for the violation of human righis committed by the act of internment and dispossession. In addition, the government paid out symbolic amounts to those Japanese Canadians affected; it established a $12 million community fund to be administered by the Japanese Canadian Redress Foundation. Lastly, the government established the Canadian Race Relations Foundation for the purpose of researching and fighting racism.

Canada's Liabilities
In addition to the demand for redress from those Canadians affected by the government's actions during World War II, Canada has had to deal with other cultural stresses. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the indigenous peoples of Canada won many court battles and were given money and land from the government. Their success was helped by the concurrent move in America by tribes to have treaties honored. But for a few exceptions, this remained a legal struggle with a happy outcome. Another problem that persists is oil revenue. Alberta and Newfoundland have various disagreements with the government over regulation, pricing, and revenue sharing. In Newfoundland, this prevented the exploitation of the vast Hibernia oil reserves offshore until the 1980s.

A more violent stress in Canada has been Quebec and French-speaking Canadians generally. The problem here is a larger one because it involves a problem in the working document of government and the status of Quebec. During the 1970s, the Quebec Liberation Front performed various terrorist acts which led to the invocation of the War Measures Act in peace time and the banning of the group. The declaration of French as the official language of Quebec helped calm some anxiety. In 1976, the separatist Parti Quebecois, under the leadership of Premier Rene Levesque, was elected to power in Quebec and immediately proposed independence. The ballot measure was defeated in a referendum with an 82% turnout.

Literary Style

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Autobiography
The novel is a first-person account of a woman who is breaking silence about several aspects of her life and the history she lived through. As the narrator, the adult Naomi is facing the death of her uncle Isamu, and Obasan feels it is time that Naomi read Emily's parcel full of factual anger. In other words, it is time to deal with the past. But Naomi's response is peculiar. She describes personal memories and childhood experiences that seem to have no place in the story's political commitment. As a result, reading time jumps from the present death of her uncle to points in the past, beginning with herself as a quiet little girl losing her mother. Due to the point of view being Naomi's, who rarely received answers to her questions when she asked them, the recollection is hazy and the characters often remain presences and never become personalities. The result is an almost pure recollection of girlhood whose testimony is more powerful than any of the facts collected by Emily.

Imagery
The images in the novel are a blend of Christian and Buddhist traditions, coming in the forms of allegorical moments and strict dream visions. However, the central symbol of the work is Naomi's mother. She is not a character in the story so much as a remembered tale. Naomi has few stories of her mother, and she constantly asks others for their recollections of her mother. The effect is to make her more a governing spirit than a real person. Words that bring mother to the story are almost prayerful. For example, “Mother, I am listening. Assist me to hear you.… You are tide rushing moonward.”

All such surrounding language matches the superhuman account of Nagasaki, where Mother guarded the children in her care despite the radiation burns. This apocalyptic event, both linguistically and structurally, is the high point of the novel. Amazingly, it is very soft-spoken and written in simple sentences, “it was my mother.” As the symbol of motherhood, mother-culture, and the pre-war bliss, she survived the ultimate weapon with horrible disfigurement. Her survival motivates Naomi to piece herself together and finally offer her story as therapy for the whole community.

Diction
The words forming the novel are carefully chosen and become active players in the plot structure in unusual ways. The reason for this is that the novel is breaking the silence that the victims were intended to keep. Naomi recalls, “We are the despised rendered voiceless, stripped of car, radio, camera and every means of communication.” In keeping silent, however, the victims are not whole. “If you cut any of [your history] off, you're an amputee.… Don't deny the past.” Those are words from Aunt Emily, whose succinct and inflammatory writing style stands in stark contrast to the poetics of the narrative as a whole. Aunt Emily means well, means to tell the truth. But like the two ideograms of love, there are different ways of telling the tale.

Due to the delicacy of the situation—so many want the story to stay silent and be forgotten while others want to scream it out—the words are carefully chosen, and the writing makes liberal use of allegory. The stone bread made by Uncle is like the manna that nourished the Israelites. Uncle is also compared to Sitting Bull and thus the removal of the Japanese is compared to the earlier act of putting the indigenous people on reservations. Similarly, Emily's parcel is like the stone bread as it provides nourishment for the mind. Oftentimes, biblical writing is used. “When I am hungry, and before I can ask, there is food,” recalls the Christian gospel. Allegorical language also serves to blend Buddhist imagery into the tale by introducing the “white stone” and the idea of nature's dancing. The effect of Kogawa's language is to make the barrier between dream or story and reality, present and past, and nature and individual almost nonexistent.

Dream Vision
There are many dreams in the work, but all stem from the two forces driving the novel—sexual abuse and the loss of mother because of the war. The dreams grow out of Naomi's anxiety over sex due to early abuse and whether that initiation into sexuality caused her mother to leave. But her dreams also offer answers by showing the ways in which the family members are linked. It also appears that her uncle is attempting to help her and thus the dream vision is not easily separated from the reality of the story. In one dream, Uncle is making a ceremonial bow as his part of the flower dance. It is Naomi's struggle, then, to realize what the ceremony is that she must complete in order to put the ghosts of the past to rest. She finally does this in the novel's closing epiphany.

Social Concerns

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Winning both the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Canadian Authors' Association Book of the Year Award, Obasan was the first novel to deal with the Canadian internment of its Japanese citizens during and after World War II. Written by the poet Joy Kogawa, the novel appeared in 1981 while the efforts of Japanese Canadians to win redress from the Canadian government for internment were in high gear. The novel has been the focus of much criticism exploring its treatment of landscape, identity, and mother-culture.

A large and sparsely populated country, Canada is also a member of the British Commonwealth. Although it is generally perceived as a neutral nation, its history is sprinkled with tales of Amerindian and Inuit removals and the internment of Canadians with Japanese ancestry in World War II. Canada entered World War II before the United States, under the premiership of William Lyon Mackenzie King. It contributed more than one million people to the Allies' war effort and lost 32,000. The anti-Asian sentiment in Canada had been prevalent in the late thirties and was officially expressed when the Canadian government confiscated the fishing fleet of its Canadians of Japanese ancestry. This racist policy gained momentum and increased to the point of hysteria with the news of Pearl Harbor's demise on December 7, 1941.

In the United States, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, calling for the immediate evacuation and internment of 110,000 West Coast Japanese, despite the fact that fully two-thirds of them were American citizens. In Canada, where evacuation had been underway, the process was speeded up. Thus, 21,000 Canadians of Japanese ancestry were forced into work camps and internment camps far from the West Coast. Of those removed, 17,000 were Canadian born; therefore, their removal was a gross violation of human rights and civil liberties. Unlike internment in America, Canada continued to restrict Japanese-Canadian movements for many years after the war. Furthermore, while the United States returned confiscated property, Canada never did. Therefore, the Japanese community in the United States recovered much faster.

The illegality of the removal was not unnoticed by the members of the King's own government. Asian immigrants, however, had long been seen by both the United States and Canada as "sojourners," or as immigrants who would eventually return home. In addition, during the early twentieth century, Asians were subject to various mandates that effectively barred them from citizenship and limited their capacity to own property. Therefore, allowing Asian immigrants the same status as immigrants from anywhere else in the world was a recent development. These factors offer some explanation to the perception of Asians as foreigners and, consequently, as a potential threat to security during World War II. Additionally, the resentment against "foreigners" taking away the jobs of citizens contributed to the enthusiasm for scapegoating certain people. The idea of ruining the prosperous Japanese-Canadian community by taking their land, ships, and fishing areas so soon after the depression years helped to drive the removal hysteria.

In 1988, the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) achieved a Redress Agreement with the Government of Canada on behalf of all Canadians of Japanese ancestry. This agreement was a settlement of the conditions of restitution to those Japanese Canadians illegally interned and dispossessed of their property during World War II. As a result of the agreement, the Government of Canada formally apologized for the violation of human rights committed by the act of internment and dispossession. In addition, the government paid out symbolic amounts to those Japanese Canadians affected; it established a community fund of $12 million to be administered by the Japanese Canadian Redress Foundation. Lastly, the government established the Canadian Race Relations Foundation for the purpose of researching and fighting racism.

Obasan is an autobiographical work that tells the story of a third-generation Japanese-Canadian schoolteacher, Naomi, who was sent to an internment camp during World War II. Before moving to the internment camp, Naomi is sexually abused by a neighbor. When her mother leaves for Japan, Naomi believes it is because of the sexual abuse and blames herself. After the Canadian government interns the remaining family members, Naomi's father dies in a work camp. Later, Naomi learns of her mother's death in Japan. Given the circumstances and historical whims of her story, it is surprising that the novel is not a tragedy. It does not become so because of the silent strength of the title character, Obasan. She holds the keys to the past to which Naomi must reconcile herself. She is finally successful in an epiphanic ending worthy of Goethe, as she embraces and is embraced by the Canadian landscape.

Literary Precedents

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Kogawa has drawn upon her own life for most of her writing, including her first collection of poetry, published in 1967, titled The Splintered Moon. In this collection, the writer reflected upon her marriage. Her next three collections were also autobiographical in nature, and she began exploring many of the themes she later fleshed out in Obasan. She wrote of living a hybrid life as a Japanese-Canadian Nisei; divorce; an abortion in 1971; deaths in her family, specifically her uncle and mother; the silence of Obasan, her aunt; and the militancy of women seeking justice and redress.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Cheung, King-Kok. "Attentive Silence in Joy Kogawa's Obasan." In Listening to Silences: New Essays in Feminist Criticism, edited by Elaine Hedges and Shelley F. Fishkin. Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 113-29.

Fujita, Gayle K. "To Attend the Sound of Stone: The Sensibility of Silence in Obasan." In Melus, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp. 33-42.

Gottlieb, Erika. "Silence into Sound: The Riddle of Concentric Worlds in Obasan." In Canadian Literature, No. 109, Summer 1986, pp. 34-53.

Harris, Mason. "Broken Generations in Obasan." In Canadian Literature, No. 127, Winter 1990, pp. 41-57.

Kelman, Suanne. "Impossible to Forgive." In The Canadian Forum, Vol. LXI, No. 715, February 1982, pp. 39-40.

Potter, Robin. "Moral—in Whose Sense? Joy Kogawa's Obasan and Julia Kristeva's Powers of Horror." In Studies in Canadian Literature, 1990.

Quimby, Karin. "'This is my own, my native land': Constructions of Identity and Landscape in Joy Kogawa's Obasan." In Cross-Addressing: Resistance Literature and Cultural Borders, edited by John C. Hawley. State University of New York Press, 1996, pp. 257-73.

Rose, Marilyn Russell. "Politics into Art Kogawa's 'Obasan' and the Rhetoric of Fiction." In Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Vol. XXI, Nos. 2-3, Spring 1988, pp. 215-26.

Ty, Eleanor. "Struggling with the Powerful (M)Other Identity and Sexuality in Kogawa's Obasan and Kincaid's Lucy." In The International Fiction Review, Vol. 20, No. 2, 1993, pp. 120-26.

Ueki, Teruyo. "Obasan: Revelations in a Paradoxical Scheme." In Melus, Vol. 18, No. 4, Winter 1993, pp. 5-20.

White, Edward M. "The Silences that Speak from Stone." In Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 11, 1982, p. 3.

Willis, Gary. "Speaking the Silence: Joy Kogawa's Obasan." In Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1987, pp. 239-49.

For Further Study
Chua, Cheng Lok. "Witnessing the Japanese Canadian Experience in World War II: Processual Structure, Symbolism, and Irony in Joy Kogawa's Obasan." In Reading the Literatures of Asian America, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling. Temple University Press, 1992, pp. 97-108. This essay highlights the ritual structure and the "ironic narrative mode" of Kogawa's novel. Chua also contends that Obasan "puts an ironic question to the Christian ethics professed by Canada's majority culture."

Garrod, Andrew. Interview with Joy Kogawa. In Speaking for Myself: Canadian Writers in Interview. St. Johns, Newfoundland: Breakwater Books, 1986, pp. 139-53. A lengthy interview in which Kogawa speaks revealingly about her childhood, her theological and political convictions, and her writing, especially her writing of Obasan.

Grewal, Gurleen. "Memory and the Matrix of History: The Poetics of Loss and Recovery in Joy Kogawa's Obasan and Toni Morrison's Beloved." In Memory and Cultural Politics: New Approaches to American Ethnic Literatures, edited by Amritjit Singh, Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr., and Robert E. Hogan. Northeastern University Press, 1996, pp. 140-74. This essay draws useful comparisons between Obasan and Tom Morrison's Beloved as novels that "enact the process of loss and recovery" through "ceremonial performances of memory."

Kanefsky, Rachelle. "Debunking a Postmodern Conception of History: A Defence of Humanist Values in the Novels of Joy Kogawa." In Canadian Literature, Vol. 148, Spring 1996, pp. 11-36. In her "defence" of a humanist vision in Kogawa's novels, Kanefsky poses a direct challenge to critics who interpret those novels in terms of postmodern views of history and language. Kanefsky contends that both Kogawa and her protagonist finally support a humanist conviction that "What's right is right. What's wrong is wrong."

Kogawa, Joy. "Is There a Just Cause?" In Canadian Forum, March 1984, pp. 20-24. In this compelling editorial, Kogawa writes of her own involvement in and understanding of social activism, affirming "the paradoxical power in mutual vulnerability" and arguing that "our wholeness comes from joining and from sharing our brokenness."

Kogawa, Joy. "What Do I Remember of the Evacuation." In Chicago Review, Vol. 42, No. 3-4, 1996, pp. 152-53. This poem, originally published in 1973, offers an intriguing glimpse at Kogawa's reflections about the evacuation several years before she wrote Obasan. Like the later novel, this poem draws its expressive force from an ironic juxtaposition of "adult" realities and childhood perceptions.

Omatsu, Maryka. Bittersweet Passage: Redress and the Japanese Canadian Experience. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1992. Records the struggle of Japanese Canadians to obtain redress from the Canadian government.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. Random House, 1979. Said details the history of the way in which the Western powers view eastern or oriental people. In other words, it is a history of stereotypes and the attitudes enabling policies like internment.

Sunahara, Ann Gomer. The Politics of Racism: The Uprooting of Japanese-Canadians During the Second World War. Lorimer, 1981. A detailed work on the event of Canadian internment. It is a work that Aunt Emily would appreciate for its careful documentation.

Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia. Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance. Princeton University Press, 1993. Wong offers compelling "intratextual" and "intertextual" readings of Obasan in this study of Asian American literature, focusing in particular on Kogawa's use of the "stone bread" image and her "obsession with mobility" in the novel.

Yamada, Mitsuye. "Experiential Approaches to Teaching Joy Kogawa's Obasan." In Teaching American Ethnic Literatures: Nineteen Essays, edited by John R. Maitino and David R. Peck. University of New Mexico Press, 1996, pp. 293-311. Though primarily intended for teachers, this essay presents a useful model for reading Kogawa's novel through three different frames: "the aesthetic, the historical, and the experiential."

Bibliography

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Suggested Readings

Canadian Forum. LXI, February, 1982, p. 39.

Cheung, King-Kok. Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. Enhances understanding of the writing of three significant Asian American women. The forty-page chapter devoted to Obasan examines the negative and positive aspects of silence in the novel.

Chua, Cheng Lok. “Witnessing the Japanese Canadian Experience in World War II: Processual Structure, Symbolism, and Irony in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan.” In Reading the Literatures of Asian America, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. Explores the form and the symbolism in Obasan, concentrating on Kogawa’s biblical references.

Davidson, Arnold E. Writing Against the Silence: Joy Kogawa’s “Obasan.” Toronto: ECW Press, 1993.

Horn Book. XLVIII, October, 1982, p. 553.

Jones, Manina. “The Avenues of Speech and Silence: Telling Difference in Joy Kogawa’s “Obasan.” In Theory Between the Disciplines: Authority/Vision/Politics, edited by Martin Kreiswirth and Mark A. Cheetham. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. Discusses the power of narrative and the strategies behind storytelling in the novel.

Library Journal. CVII, May 1, 1982, p. 905.

Lim, Shirley Geok-lin. “Japanese American Women’s Life Stories: Maternality in Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter and Joy Kogawa’s Obasan.” Feminist Studies 16, no. 2 (Summer, 1990): 288-312. A primarily feminist reading of two novels of the Japanese internment experience, focusing on the mother-daughter relationship.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 11, 1982, p. 3.

Maclean’s. XCIV, July 13, 1981, p. 54.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, September 5, 1982, p. 8.

The New Yorker. LVIII, June 14, 1982, p. 134.

Rose, Marilyn Russell. “Politics into Art: Kogawa’s Obasan and the Rhetoric of Fiction.” Mosaic 21, no. 3 (Spring, 1988): 215-226. Discusses Obasan in terms of “persuasion” and “history,” and explains how the language illuminates the message of the novel.

Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia. Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.

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