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Obasan (1981) is a work of historical fiction by Japanese-Canadian author Joy Kogawa (1935-present). Partially based on Kogawa's experiences growing up in an internment camp during WWII, the novel follows Naomi Nakane's journey into the past as she tries to come to terms with her family's collective trauma.
It's 1972. Naomi Nakane is a Japanese-Canadian woman working as a middle school teacher in Alberta. She receives news that her Uncle Isamu, also known as Uncle Sam, has died. Naomi's Uncle and Obasan (aunt) Ayako helped to raise Naomi and her brother, Stephen, during WWII.
What do we learn about Naomi's personality and outlook on life in the book's opening chapters?
When Naomi returns to the town of Granton to help arrange the funeral, she reconnects with her Obasan, who remains stoic and silent in the face of grief. Naomi's Aunt Emily is an outspoken activist who wants to talk about the family's experience during WWII. At first, Naomi refuses to engage with her childhood's painful, repressed memories. Naomi's attitude begins to soften when she receives a box of letters written between her Aunt Emily and her estranged mother. The letters force Naomi to begin thinking about her family's traumatic experience.
Her grandparents had emigrated to Canada from Japan and became highly successful. Naomi's parents enjoyed a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, raising the family in a beautiful house near Vancouver. Their lives were forever changed by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. Due to the threat of invasion by Japanese forces, the Canadian government enacted harsh laws that prohibited the freedoms of Japanese Canadian citizens.
Since Naomi's mother was in Japan at the time of the attack, she could not re-enter the country. With their father hospitalized, Naomi and Stephen are forced out of their home to become refugees. The government decrees that all Japanese Canadian citizens must remain in internment camps for the duration of the war. The children are sent to a camp in Slocan, British Columbia, where they reunite with Obasan and Uncle.
Over the next three years, the camp becomes a bustling town, and Naomi begins to feel connected to her community. On the other hand, Stephen becomes increasingly bitter and ashamed of his heritage. Their father arrives, but the family cannot find anything out about their mother in Japan.
How does Naomi cope with the absence of her mother?
After the war ends, Japanese Canadians are given a choice to return to Japan or stay and work on beet farms. On the farm, the family faces terrible living conditions and low wages. Completely separated from her community, Naomi grows bitter and heartbroken when her father dies in the hospital.
The restrictions on the Japanese Canadian community are finally lifted in 1949. Naomi and Stephen move to Granton, where Uncle and Obasan raise them. The older family members do not speak about their traumatic time in the internment camp, but the experience left deep scars. Stephen begins to withdraw from others but shows talent as a musician. He eventually moves to Toronto to live with Aunt Emily and study music.
At Uncle Sam's funeral, a family friend reads two of his letters which hint at the destiny of her mother and grandmother. Naomi begs her family to reveal the truth. She learns that most of her family who'd been in Japan were killed by the atomic bombing at Nagasaki. Her mother was left horribly disfigured by the bombing. Deeply ashamed of her appearance, she hid from her children and remained silent for the rest of her life.
What is the relationship between silence and secrets in Obasan? Does Kogawa argue that secrets and silence are sometimes necessary?
Naomi struggles to come to terms with the past and the family's secrets. Eventually, she can find some peace by communicating spiritually with her mother. By breaking this silence, Naomi learns how important it is to face the past and avoid secrets.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the American and Canadian governments officially classified all citizens of Japanese origin as enemy aliens. In 1942, the Canadian government introduced a series of laws that forcibly removed around 22,000 Japanese Canadian citizens from the coastline of British Columbia. The government unfairly suspected that some members of the community might offer support to invading Japanese forces.
Many discriminatory actions against Japanese Canadians mirrored similar measures enacted by President Roosevelt against Japanese Americans. Under the guise of security, citizens were forced out of their homes and placed in internment camps. The families' homes and businesses were often sold to pay for their forced imprisonment.
The camps were often overcrowded, and internees were forced to survive in poor conditions. At the war's end, anti-Japanese discrimination was still rampant in Canadian society and politics. The Prime Minister, MacKenzie King, decreed that Japanese Canadians could either settle east of the Rocky Mountains, far from their homes, or return to Japan. 4,000 Japanese Canadians chose to return to the uncertainty of life in post-war Japan rather than face discrimination in Canada.
As with the Japanese American community, Japanese Canadians remained largely silent about the trauma of the war years for decades afterward. It wasn't until 1988, in both America and Canada, the country's leaders formally apologized to survivors of the internment camps. The Canadian government issued each survivor $21,000 in reparations.
Here is a look at the most important characters from Joy Kogawa's Obasan.
The narrator and protagonist of the book, Naomi, is the literary stand-in for author Joy Kogawa. As a 36-year-old, Naomi prefers to avoid the past and feels it is morbid to dwell on her time in the internment camps. However, this staunch resistance to looking back masks her inability to cope with the trauma inflicted on her family during WWII. Despite the past, Naomi has forged a respectable living for herself as a dedicated middle school teacher. She prides herself on her ability to work hard and fit in.
Although Naomi is the novel's narrator, she reveals little about herself to the audience. This silence reflects a cultural and personal coping strategy that allows Naomi to function despite the past. Naomi is part of the family's Sansei, or third generation. Though she feels connected to her Japanese heritage, Naomi feels torn between her Canadian and Japanese identities.
Obasan is Naomi's aunt and wife of the recently deceased Uncle. When Naomi and Stephen become separated from their parents during WWII, Obasan acts as a surrogate mother to the pair. She is tremendously generous and supportive and bears the burdens of life in the internment camp with patient silence.
Obasan was born in Japan and is part of the Issei, or first generation. She embodies a traditional Japanese approach to life, remaining stoic and silent in contemplation even in the face of massive trauma and hardship. Though this trait offers Obasan and the family a grew deal of strength, Naomi believes this silence has a damaging impact in the long run.
Unlike Obasan, Naomi's Aunt Emily is an outspoken woman of action who refuses to remain silent on the treatment of Japanese Canadians. Emily is a member of the Nisei, or second-generation Japanese-Canadians, but sees herself as wholly Canadian. Rather than practice the stoic silence of Obasan's generation, Emily becomes an activist for women's rights and is dedicated to exposing the truth about the internment camps. In the beginning, Naomi views Emily's quest as a pointless wallowing in the long-gone past, but as she comes to terms with her trauma, she recognizes the importance of breaking the silence of shame.
Naomi's journey into the past raises many important questions about identity and the danger of memory.
Throughout the book, Naomi faces the struggle for identity on both a personal and group level. Her family is made up of people who were born in Canada of Japanese descent and Japanese people who emigrated to Canada. Those in the first group have a strong sense of Canadian identity and patriotism, while those born in Japan, the Issei, have a stronger connection to their homeland.
During the war, the family's divisions become less important as everyone is viewed with suspicion because of their connection to Japan. This traumatic experience is rooted in identity and has a different impact on the various members of the family. Naomi finds some sense of belonging within her community but not in her home country, while Stephen rejects his Japanese heritage and attempts to blend into White Canadian culture.
Aunt Emily first sees herself as a Canadian and downplays the significance of her Japanese heritage. Uncle Sam and Obasan are traumatized by their treatment and become closed to their Japanese identity, refusing to partake in any Canadian customs. Ultimately, Kogawa shows that none of these identity approaches are healthy.
In the beginning, Naomi is hesitant to face the past. She believes it is healthier to live in the present and ignore the pain she worked hard to forget. Naomi views those who focus on history as weak; however, with her uncle's death, she is forced to face the painful memories caused by her family's time in the internment camp.
Many of the characters in Obasan have their method of dealing with the past. Naomi's relatives represent the two extremes. On one side, Obasan and Uncle Sam work hard to forget the past and focus instead on happier memories; on the other, Aunt Emily is a tireless campaigner for justice who believes everyone should face the past head-on.
Naomi's painful journey through the past reveals that it is essential to deal with the past and acknowledge suffering and trauma. On a personal level, Naomi can only make sense of herself and her identity when she faces the past. This reflects the broader need of society to face up to its past mistakes to avoid repeating them.
Although Joy Kogawa drew from her own experiences in an internment camp during WWII, the novel is not directly autobiographical.
Historical fiction is a genre that focuses on real-life events or periods of the past. Historical fiction usually includes fictional characters interacting with important historical situations and figures. Famous examples of the historical fiction genre include Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison (1931-2019) and Min Jin Lee's (1968-Present) Pachinko (2017).
While the events of Naomi's life are fictionalized, Kogawa draws from her experiences to paint a vivid picture of life for Japanese Canadians in the internment camps. The novel's themes reflect Kogawa's journey as, just like Naomi, she struggled with her identity as a Japanese Canadian for many years. The author also drew on her family for inspiration as the character of Obasan is based on Kogawa's mother. The writer's journey from denial to acceptance also reflects the journey of the Japanese Canadian community. The novel first appeared in 1981, just as the Japanese communities in Canada and America began to break their silence on the trauma they endured in WWII.
The idea of silence constantly reappears throughout the novel. Kogawa explores how silence can be both beneficial and unhealthy when people are faced with repression and trauma. As the Canadian government began implementing restrictive and discriminatory laws against Japanese Canadians, many within the community remained silent. They believed their acceptance was the best way to display their loyalty to the country. This reflects a broader cultural norm in Japanese culture. Naomi remembers her mother imploring her to remain silent as a sign of obedience and good behavior.
This form of obedience is represented by Uncle and Obasan, who often do not speak out or dwell on the bad memories. Obasan shuts herself off from the world and remains silent to protect herself from racism and violence. While this silence sustains them through tough times, Kogawa shows that, in the end, it turns them to stone. She ends up walled off from the truth of their past and other people.
Most of the time, silence results in negative consequences. As a child, Naomi cannot share her experience of sexual abuse and suffers in silence. Stephen also retreats into silence as a coping mechanism. After she is disfigured in the bombing, Naomi's mother uses silence to shut herself off from her children.
In Obasan, Joy Kogawa draws on her personal experience to tell the story of the Nakane family. Here is a look at some meaningful quotes from the book.
"There is a silence that cannot speak. There is a silence that will not talk." (Prologue)
Silence is both a strength and weakness to members of Naomi's family. While some draw on it as a means of protection, others see it as a way to avoid the real pain of their shared past. In the beginning, Naomi thinks that speaking out about history only serves to reopen old wounds.
"I skimmed over the pages till I came across a statement underlined and circled in red: I am Canadian. The circle was drawn so hard the paper was torn." (Ch. 7)
Aunt Emily fiercely proclaims her identity as a Canadian and often completely ignores her Japanese heritage. Despite the racism and discrimination faced by her family, Aunt Emily still believes in Canada. She argues that everyone needs to be open and honest about the past.
Obasan is a work of historical fiction.
Obasan follows a woman's journey into the past as she recalls her family's experience in a Japanese-Canadian internment camp during WWII.
Obasan explores themes of identity, culture, and memories.
Although Joy Kogawa drew from her experiences, the story of the Nakane family is fictional.
In Obasan, Joy Kogawa covers the internment of Japanese-Canadians during WWII.
As an adult, Naomi works as a __________.
Middle school teacher
"Obasan" translates to English as ______.
As a child, Naomi and Stephen grow up near which Canadian city?
Naomi's community is impacted by which historic event?
The attack on Pearl Harbor
Where is Naomi's mother when the family is sent to internment camps?
After the end of WWII, Naomi goes to live with ________.
Which member of the Nakane family is most outspoken about the family's experience?
Naomi and Stephen belong to the _______ generation of the family.
How does Obasan deal with trauma and discrimination?
Japanese-Canadians have yet to receive a formal apology for their treatment during WWII.
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