Study Questions 1. Obasan is a story told through the voice and eyes of Naomi and in many ways is about Naomi, yet the book is named after her aunt. Why has Kogawa named her book Obasan? What does Obasan represent?
2. The central event that frames the novel is the death of Uncle, Obasan’s husband. What symbolic significance does this death have in the book, and how does the family’s reunion to mourn Uncle create an opportunity to mourn other events in the book?
3. Why might a Grand Inquisitor be prying open Naomi’s eyes and her mother’s lips in her dream?
4. What is the significance of the chapter in which Naomi speaks directly, addressing her mother by name? How does it parallel the work of Aunt Emily?
5. At the close of the novel, Kogawa encloses the text of a memorandum several Canadian politicians signed in April 1946 calling for an end to the “Orders in Council” endorsing mistreatment of Japanese Canadians. The memo compares the Canadian government’s actions to Nazism. How were the orders like Nazism? How did they differ?
Answers 1. As a character, Obasan chooses to respond to racism against Japanese, the internment, the family’s struggles with health, the family’s separation, and death with silence, which she bears with stoicism. She and the others choose this approach “for the sake of the children”: they choose to show love with silence. But this form of self-preservation is difficult for those who choose it. Obasan shows little emotion, and at the story’s end, and when Obasan can barely cry, Naomi realizes how weary she is from living a life where emotion and history are hidden. Obasan’s pain is a metaphor for what Naomi must break through in order to understand her family’s and culture’s history; like Obasan, Naomi has often been silent and numb about her past. Finally, caring for Obasan following Uncle’s death is a metaphor for the care that the family must take in mourning the many deaths and the negative history in World War II that they haven’t recognized.
2. Uncle’s death creates a rare family reunion among the living Nakane and Kato relatives, and thanks to a visit from Nakayama-sensei, the secret that the family had long kept from Naomi and Stephen as children is allowed to finally surface. Naomi and Stephen learn that Mother and Grandma Kato traveled from Tokyo to Nagasaki and were there during the U.S. nuclear attack on the city; Mother and Grandma Kato survived, but barely, and took a vow of silence to not discuss the trauma they’d experienced with the rest of the family back in Canada. Grandma eventually decided the family should know and wrote letters that were not translated to the children until the reunion surrounding Uncle’s death. Thus Uncle’s death became a mourning for the death of their extended family, the silence between Mother and Naomi and Stephen, the plight of the Japanese in Canada, the fact of World War II, and, especially, Obasan’s silent, stoic repression of her long-held grief.
3. Naomi has longed to hear word from her mother—if not from her mother directly, then some direct news of what has become of her. The prying open of her mother’s lips is a signal that she wants to hear messages of her. That the Grand Inquisitor pries open her eyes reveals that she knows her eyes need to be opened, she needs to somehow find out what has happened to her mother and that, perhaps, the answer is right under her nose, if only she could look more closely.
(This entire section contains 818 words.)
Aunt Emily’s diary entries are addressed to “Nesan,” the word for “older sister” which is what she called Naomi’s mother. Naomi, for most of the story, has been silent and repressed like Obasan concerning the facts of her past. But once she learns them, she, like Aunt Emily, is compelled to speak of them—and in the novel she is given a chapter (38) in which this takes place. The language is symbolic, indicating that Naomi does have a voice and can speak of what has happened to her and her family, making connections and weaving the threads of this past into her identity.
5. Like the Jews under Nazism, Japanese Canadians in North America were stripped of their property, physically isolated into specific regions of the country, and forced to work for low wages at demeaning jobs. While the internment in Canada was not a government attempt to kill off a race—as was the Nazi movement’s intention in Europe —Japanese in Canada were, like the Jews, stripped of their rights, kept under close watch, and unable to access major media. Families were separated and unable to remain in touch with one another. And prejudice against both the Japanese and Jews grew during World War II.