Obasan Additional Summary

Joy Kogawa


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Naomi Nakane is in the middle of teaching her fifth- and sixth-grade class in the small town of Cecil, Alberta, when she receives word that her uncle has died in Granton, 150 miles south. Going home for his funeral means for her a sad reunion with several family members, notably the quiet widow, the “Obasan” of the book’s title, and Stephen, Naomi’s older brother. Obasan and Uncle Isamu had raised Naomi and her brother from the time that they were young children. Flamboyant Stephen, who essentially renounced his Japanese heritage and had been involved for a time with a French woman, developed a national reputation as a classical pianist and now lives in Montreal. Unmarried Naomi, on the other hand, had been stuck in a dead-end teaching job for the past seven years with no prospects of either romance or fame.

Emily Kato, Naomi’s outspoken unmarried aunt living in Toronto, also makes the trip to Granton for the memorial service. Politically active, she had hounded Naomi for years to become more interested and involved with exposing the wrongs of the Canadian government in its internment of Japanese citizens during World War II. She had earlier sent Naomi a large box of newspaper clippings, letters, and government documents, which had been stored unread by Obasan under the kitchen table.

The trip home brings back painful memories to Naomi about growing up without her mother. Studying an old family photograph when she arrives in Granton sparks extended reminiscences: In September, 1941, Naomi’s mother and Naomi’s grandmother, Kato, travel to Japan to care for a relative who is ill, but neither returns. (Naomi, who was five years old at the time, has never been told what became of her mother.) She and her family and her Japanese neighbors are forced by the Canadian government to move inland to internment camps and abandon their successful boat-building business near Vancouver. The family members—Naomi, Stephen, Uncle Isamu, and Ayaka Obasan—are required to sell off their belongings and leave their comfortable home indefinitely. They are moved to an abandoned mining settlement inland named Slocan, and are separated from Aunt Emily for twelve years....

(The entire section is 893 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Obasan (“Aunt”) is Kogawa’s first novel. Written after most of her books of poems, it contains passages of fine poetry. The fragmented narrative reveals partial memories that the narrator revisits and contemplates at various stages in her life. The reader, like the narrator, works at choosing the fragments with value and arranging them into a whole.

Naomi Nakane, like Kogawa, was born in Vancouver before World War II. She is a sansei, a third-generation Japanese born in Canada. Naomi and her brother Stephen live with their parents, who are music teachers, in a large, comfortable home filled with music, books, and toys surrounded by a garden with fruit trees. At the age of four, Naomi is sexually molested by a next-door neighbor. She tells nobody and stops speaking for a while. The Nakanes live in a close extended family within a successful and thoughtful Japanese Canadian community.

Their lives change traumatically after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, when their mother is visiting Japan. The Japanese Canadian families in Vancouver and all along the Pacific coast of Canada are gathered into holding camps and shipped east into the prairie of Alberta. Since their father was sick and kept separate from his family, Naomi and Stephen are raised by Obasan (“Aunt”) and Uncle, their father’s brother, whose two children had died at birth. These almost mythic figures named after family relationships represent Japanese culture. While Naomi feels close to her quiet aunt, Stephen, who is three years older, rejects Obasan and Japanese culture. Stephen yearns for his parents and pursues their passion for music. Uncle, a boatbuilder, yearns for the sea and says the prairie is like the sea. He says that some day (itsuka) he will return to his home by the sea, but he never does. Prime Minister Ian Mackenzie wants no Japanese to return to Vancouver. Far into adulthood, Naomi feels abandoned and betrayed by her mother.

In 1942, Obasan is sent with her niece and nephew to Slocan, a mostly abandoned former mining town in the interior of British Columbia. Uncle is allowed to join them, and life on the heavily forested mountain is a...

(The entire section is 891 words.)


(Novels for Students)

Chapters 1-10
Joy Kogawa's Obasan centers on the memories and experiences of Naomi Nakane, a schoolteacher...

(The entire section is 1382 words.)