Themes

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Last Updated on June 12, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1215

Prejudice and Tolerance The root of the internment lies in prejudice. Early in the novel when Naomi is first browsing through Aunt Emily's parcel, there is a nice encapsulation of the problem. Naomi has noted that every time the words “Japanese race” appeared in the new articles or in pamphlets,...

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Prejudice and Tolerance
The root of the internment lies in prejudice. Early in the novel when Naomi is first browsing through Aunt Emily's parcel, there is a nice encapsulation of the problem. Naomi has noted that every time the words “Japanese race” appeared in the new articles or in pamphlets, Aunt Emily has crossed them out and written “Canadian citizens.” Therein lies the problem. Naomi's family was viewed as visitors and then, with the outbreak of war, as the enemy. There is no good reason for this. Asian immigrants to North America were as recent as the Irish and many of the European immigrants who came after World War I. Yet neither the Italians nor the Germans were interned. The scapegoating of the Japanese appears directly in the confiscation of the fishing boats and then when Stephen gets beat up at school. It is also visible after the war. The Japanese Canadians are still not allowed to return to the coast, and many signs along the highway say, “Japs Keep Out.” Still, little sense can be made out of all that happened, and Naomi thinks of Grandma Nakane in her stall in prison “too old then to understand political expediency, race riots, the yellow peril. She was told that a war was on.”

These forms of intolerance are not the only ones seen by Naomi. There is her brother's developing dislike of his family and his heritage. But the example of Stephen is long in developing. There is one episode, however, that is clear. Near the end of their time in Slocan, Naomi's friend is not allowed to speak with her. Their meeting, therefore, is a very awkward moment in the baths. Once outside, Naomi hears from her friends, “We can't play with you … you're sick. You've all got TB. You and the Nomuras and your dad.” This is news to Naomi, but Uncle Isamu later explains to her, “For some people it is a shameful matter to be ill. But it is a matter of misfortune, not shame.” The attitude of some within the exiled community toward the less fortunate, being expressed by Reiko, lends a great deal of realism to the novel because it shows that the interned group is not faultless. Finally, it hints at how intolerance is transmitted. Reiko admits she knows only what “my mom told me.” Just as Reiko is learning how to judge, Naomi learns to accept those who are ill like old Nomura-obasan, who lived with them for awhile on a cot in the kitchen.

Identity
The second chapter opens with Naomi receiving the third degree from her students about her love life. It is an uncomfortable but usual discussion to her as a teacher. Still, she feels the interrogation acutely because her identity is unresolved. Her tumultuous life has left her “tense” with “a crone-prone syndrome” and many mysteries, silences, and repressed traumas. Just as the young Naomi took a while to realize her father was dead, the mature Naomi has not understood how incredible was the trauma of her sexual abuse, the loss of her mother, and the disruption of community caused by war. She finally resolves these issues when she knows the whole truth and, consequently, faces her history. In the end, she is resolved when she runs out into the night wearing Aunt Emily's jacket to go to the coulee. There, inspired by the silence of Obasan and what Uncle tried to tell her, she finally feels at ease with the land and at ease with herself. The nightmares will now cease, and she will bury her family in Canada, her home.

Justice vs. Injustice
Injustice in the novel is always mirrored by an accompanying act of violation. The official policy of scapegoating the Japanese violates the family in apparent and secret ways. The fishing boats are taken, their civil rights are taken, and Mother is trapped in Japan as war breaks out. But this is merely the background to the violation of innocence represented by the awful scene of the mother hen killing the chicks and Old Man Gower. The sexual abuse of Naomi initiates her into the sexual world at the same time as the world is going through tremendous upheaval.

Sexual violence is the symbolic gesture of injustice as well as being a very personal injustice—rape is the metaphoric and real violation of people in this book, and all are silent as a result (all communications with the camps were censored or silenced). It is not only Mr. Gower. Later in Slocan, a boy named Percy is indiscrete with her. It is Mr. Gower, however, who haunts her and remains the one thing she cannot tell her mother. His assault on her, she fathoms, can be the only explanation for Mother leaving and not returning. Because of Mr. Gower, she feels eyes watching her in the woods and has nightmares of a saw separating her legs from each other and from her mother. Gayle Fujita wrote in Melus, “The resulting cleavage represents not only a natural separation of growing up, but unnatural guilt and fear due to the nature of initiation and its being complicated because it is ‘around this time that mother disappears.’” Sexuality, Mother, and her identity are inextricably linked.

Memory and Reminiscence
“The past is the future,” says Aunt Emily, and indeed it is the whole purpose of the book. One symbol of Naomi's revelation of the past is the sweep of her flashlight across the multitude of spider webs in Obasan's attic. Naomi has followed her aunt up to the attic in the middle of the silent night to find Aunt Emily's parcel that Naomi has been putting off reading for years. Instead, they find only dust and spiders in the attic. Thus the attic has served as the repository of memory, and what it holds has been forgotten—left for the spiders. There is an additional reference to spiders in the “weaving” of stories. This theme recalls Penelope, the wife of Ulysses who wove and unwove a tapestry in an attempt to put off her suitors. Naomi's story itself is constructed like a web. Her mother and father are her needles, but they leave, and it is a long time before Naomi has the pieces from her aunts to finish herself. Also, her story jumps forward and backward, from center to edge, until finally, as a web, it catches the identity created by the story—Naomi.

There is another symbol of this telling in the King bird. He represents the narrator's fear at exaggerating or lying about the tale. This is the reason why the narrator gives way to explanation through fairy tales—Goldilocks, Heidi, and Momotaro. The latter is an oral story from Japan told to her at bedtime. It is the story of a young hero, similar to Hercules who devotes his life to helping people in their battles against greater powers. In many ways, Kogawa's Naomi has a certain affinity with this hero. By her confessed remembrance, she gives strength to the anti-nuclear movement and, specifically, to the redress movement in Canada. As with Naomi, once all the pieces are present and the full story can be told, only then, as Obasan would say, “The time of forgetting is now come.”

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