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Joy Kogawa was born Joy Nozomi Nakayama on June 6, 1935, in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her mother, Lois Nakayama, was a musician, and her father, Gordon Nakayama, was an Anglican minister. During World War II, the Canadian government confiscated the Kogawa family’s home, as it did the homes of thousands of Japanese Canadians. Ordered inland, Kogawa’s family moved to an internment camp in Slocan, B.C. There Kogawa attended elementary school. After the war ended, the government forced Kogawa’s family to move to Coaldale, Alberta. Like many Japanese Canadians, they found work as field laborers on a sugar beet farm. After finishing high school in Coaldale, Kogawa attended the University of Alberta, where she studied education. She taught elementary school for a year and then returned to school for graduate studies, attending the University of Toronto, the Anglican Women’s Training College, and the University of Saskatchewan. In 1957, she married David Kogawa, with whom she has two children. Kogawa and her husband divorced in 1968.

Kogawa’s fiction is deeply influenced by the Japanese Canadian World War II experience. On December 7, 1941, Canada declared war on Japan. The following day, the Canadian government confiscated all Japanese Canadian fishing boats, stating Japanese Canadians might otherwise use them to escape. Because the Japanese Canadians’ economy depended on fishing, the loss of their boats came as a severe blow. Many non-Japanese Canadians believed their fellow citizens of Japanese origin were working as spies for the Japanese government. The Canadian government forced Japanese Canadians to move to labor camps or independent farms. In February 1942, the Canadian government moved 22,000 Japanese Canadians from the East Coast of Canada—from where, it was believed, they might be sending sensitive information across the Pacific Ocean to Japan—to detention camps farther inland. It was the largest human movement in Canadian history. Families were forced to separate: Men worked at road camps or on beet farms, while women and children moved to towns in British Columbia. The government seized and sold off the displaced families’ land, houses, and possessions.

Even after the end of World War II, Japanese Canadians continued to suffer at the hands of non-Japanese Canadians. They were prevented from returning to their homes and forced by the government to continue working in camps or on farms. It wasn’t until four years after the end of the war that the government finally freed its Japanese Canadian citizens. One judge suggested giving Japanese Canadians reparations in the amount of 1.2 million dollars, or $52 per person. The property of Japanese Canadian property was seized under the War Measures Act. It was not repealed until 1987, when the Emergencies Act passed to prevent the violation of civil liberties in the case of future conflicts.

Obasan (1981), Kogawa’s best-known work, tells the story of one Japanese Canadian family living through World War II. Although a work of fiction, Kogawa describes events based on her own life and the novel aims to present an historically accurate picture of the Japanese Canadian wartime experience. During the war, many Japanese Canadians endured brutal mistreatment in silence, rather than voicing their anger or standing up for their rights. In Obasan, Kogawa conveys the devastating effects of silence. Simply by writing the novel, she registers her refusal to keep quiet about the cruelty of racism. The novel won several awards, including the Book of the Year Award from the Canadian Authors Association, and the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. The Literary Review of Canada listed it among the most important books in Canadian literary history.

Kogawa went on to recast the Obasan story as two children’s books: the Japanese-language Ushinawareta (1983) and the English-language Naomi’s Road (1986), adapted into an opera by the Vancouver Opera, and eventually translated into Japanese and published as Naomi No Michi (1988). Kogawa continues Naomi’s story, the main character in Obasan, in her novel Itsuka (1992), which examines Japanese Canadian efforts to win redress from the government. Itsuka was republished as Emily Kato in 2005. Kogawa’s other works include the novel The Rain Ascends (1995) and the poetry collections The Splintered Moon (1967), A Choice of Dreams (1974), Jericho Road (1977), Woman in the Woods (1985), A Garden of Anchors: Selected Poems (2003), A Song of Lilith (2000).

Kogawa participated in the Redress Movement, a demand for compensation that culminated in 1988, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signed a Redress Agreement that allocated $21,000 to each surviving Japanese Canadian interned during World War II. The Agreement also reinstated Canadian citizenship for every Japanese Canadian deported to Japan during the war years. In 1986, Kogawa was made a Member of the Order of Canada. In 2006, she was made a Member of the Order of British Columbia.

Plot Overview

It is 1972. Naomi Nakane, a thirty-six-year-old middle school teacher, recalls visiting a coulee, or ravine, in Granton, Alberta, with her uncle Isamu, her father’s half-brother, who she simply calls Uncle. They made the trip annually, beginning in 1954. The school year begins. Cecil, Alberta, where Naomi teaches, is a claustrophobically small town. Its inhabitants, predominantly white Canadians, are fascinated and a little mystified by Naomi. One day during class, she gets word that Uncle has died. She goes to see his widow, whom she calls Obasan (aunt in Japanese). A loaf of Uncle’s infamously inedible homemade bread sits on the counter. The two women go to the attic, where Obasan searches for something. Naomi thinks about her own mother’s unexplained disappearance some thirty years earlier.

 

 

 

Naomi and Obasan go to bed. Naomi dreams of two couples. One of the men is a British officer. She wakes to find that a package from Aunt Emily, her mother’s sister, has arrived. She reflects on Aunt Emily’s energetic crusades against racism, and for the remembrance and documentation of what happened to Japanese Canadians during World War II. Naomi begins thinking about her childhood, beginning with her family’s beloved house in Vancouver, and her favorite tale of Momotaro, a boy who emerged from a peach. She remembers releasing chicks into a cage with a hen that pecked many of the chicks to death. She remembers Old Man Gower, who repeatedly molested her beginning when she was four years old.

Naomi continues to think back on her past. In 1941, her mother went to Japan to see her own mother, who was ill. She never returned. Stephen, Naomi’s older brother, began to have trouble at school when other kids called him “Jap.” Grandma and Grandpa Nakane, her father’s parents, were imprisoned in Hastings Park, a holding area. Interrupting her memories, Naomi realizes that Stephen and Aunt Emily are on their way to the house.

She looks at one of the items in Aunt Emily’s package: a book of letters Emily wrote to her sister, Naomi’s mother. The letters chronicle the rapid deterioration of conditions for Japanese Canadians following the declaration of war. Their possessions were confiscated, and they were rounded up and sent to labor camps. Some families moved to ghost towns to escape persecution. During that time, Obasan took Naomi and Stephen to Slocan, an abandoned mining town, where they lived in a hut in the middle of the forest. For a time, they shared their living quarters with Nomura-obasan, an elderly woman. While in Slocan, Naomi’s paternal grandmother died. Grandma Nakane had been living in a town called New Denver after leaving an internment camp in Vancouver.

One winter day, Uncle joined them at the hut. Soon after his arrival, Stephen, whose leg had been in a cast for months, recovered. Summer came. One day, Naomi and her friend Kenji were playing by the lake when they encountered Rough Lock Bill, a local resident, who talked to them for a time. After he left, Naomi and Kenji took a raft onto the lake and drifted farther than they intended to go. Kenji abandoned Naomi in order to swim back to shore himself. She couldn’t swim but, afraid of drifting out too far, jumped into the water anyway. Rough Lock saved her from drowning. Naomi woke up in the hospital, where she thought about her father, who she knew was also in the hospital. She also thought about the racism her brother contended with, and the murder of innocent animals.

Germany surrendered. One night at the public baths, Naomi learned that Stephen and her father were sick with tuberculosis (TB). The morning after the war ended, Father came to the cabin. Soon after, the government ordered everyone out of Slocan. Father disappeared again.

Naomi returns to the present day. She recalls asking Aunt Emily what had happened to her mother and grandmother, and failing to get a response.

She remembers going with Obasan, Uncle, and Stephen to Granton in 1945. There they did backbreaking work on a beet farm owned by the Barkers, an ungenerous white family. Naomi’s family lived like animals in what had once been a chicken coop. Japanese Canadians were not allowed to return home until 1949. Naomi’s father died, a fact she didn’t allow herself to comprehend for some time. Stephen attended the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, and went on to become a successful pianist. He rarely returned home, and when he did, he was surly.

Mr. Barker comes to Obasan’s house with his second wife to express his condolences for Uncle’s death. After the Barkers leave, Naomi sleeps and dreams of her mother. When she wakes, Aunt Emily and Stephen arrive along with Nakayama-sensei, an Anglican minister and old friend. He reads aloud some letters from Aunt Emily’s package. They are from Grandma Kato, Naomi’s mother’s mother, to her husband. They explain that Naomi’s mother never wanted her children to know what really happened to her in Japan. In 1945, Mother and Grandma Kato were caught in a bombing in Nagasaki. In that same bombing, Setsuko, Mother’s cousin and a new mother herself, was blinded and maimed. Setsuko’s son survived, but disappeared and was never found. Setsuko’s baby daughter got leukemia. In her attempt to save the children, Grandma was separated from Mother. A few days or weeks later, Grandma found Mother. She was alive, but horribly disfigured and plagued by maggots.

Naomi addresses her mother, who is dead now, and says she feels her presence. In the early morning, she drives to the coulee.

Naomi (Megumi Naomi Nakane) –  The narrator and main character of the novel. Naomi, a thirty-six-year-old schoolteacher, is both tormented and fascinated by her childhood memories. She has endured a great deal, and has coped with her painful past primarily by forgetting it. As an adult, she has made her own way in the world. She feels a strong attachment to Obasan and Uncle, the people who raised her, but does not see them very often. She is not close to her brother, Stephen, and has no family of her own.

 

 

 

Uncle (Isamu/Sam Nakane) –  A boatbuilder. Uncle’s given name is Isamu. He is Grandma Nakane’s son by her first husband, Grandpa Nakane’s cousin. Uncle is older than his brother, Naomi’s father. He marries Ayako, whom Naomi calls Obasan (aunt). Uncle is a quiet, kind, and steady man. A good husband to Obasan, he is also an excellent provider and father figure for Naomi and Stephen.

Obasan (Ayako Nakane) –  Uncle’s wife. Obasan’s given name is Ayako. Like Uncle, Obasan lost her father when she was a child. Although she is quiet and traditional, Obasan is also a woman of steely strength. She takes responsibility for Naomi and Stephen after they are orphaned.

Emily Cato –  Naomi’s fifty-six-year-old maternal aunt. Aunt Emily is unmarried and lives in Toronto. A firebrand and lover of words, Aunt Emily couldn’t be more different than Obasan and Naomi’s mother. She has no patience with notions of traditional Japanese femininity. Instead, she prizes speaking up loudly and often, and standing up for one’s rights. It is she who nudges and prods Naomi toward a full understanding of her personal history.

Stephen –  Naomi’s brother. Stephen is three years older than Naomi. As a child, he reacted to the privations of World War II with quiet sullenness. As a man, he is restless and mercurial. He is very successful and has lived in London, New York, and Montreal. Always musical as a child, he becomes a lauded concert pianist. Spending time with his family makes him deeply uncomfortable, as does anything that strikes him as “too Japanese.”

Read an in-depth analysis of Stephen.

Mother –  Naomi’s mother. A kind and gentle woman whose approach to parenting and being a woman resembles Obasan’s, Mother goes to Japan to tend to her sick mother and never returns. She is the focus of Naomi’s obsessive love and thoughts.

 

 

Father (Tadashi/Mark Nakane) –  Naomi’s father. An elegant man, Father helped Uncle design and build boats. He is something of a dreamer. While in the work camp, he sends Stephen letters full of musical instructions, as if he is writing a leisurely missive from a spa. He comes and goes in and out of Naomi’s life in a way that totally mystifies her. She is almost never sure where he is or what he’s doing.

Grandpa Nakane –  Naomi’s paternal grandfather. Grandpa Nakane was a boat builder and the first of Naomi’s grandparents to move to Canada.

Grandma Nakane –  Naomi’s paternal grandmother and Uncle’s mother. Grandma Nakane was imprisoned in Vancouver Hastings Park, an internment camp, during World War II.

Dr. Kato –  Naomi’s maternal grandfather.

Grandma Kato –  Naomi’s maternal grandmother. Grandma Kato prizes silence far less than her daughter. It is Grandma Kato’s letters that finally reveal the truth about what happened to Naomi’s mother. Initially she agreed not to speak, hoping that keeping quiet would dull the pain, but eventually decides that only by sharing her grief will she ever have any hope of easing it.

Nakayama-sensei –  An Anglican minister. Nakayama-sensei happens to move around more or less in concert with Uncle and Obasan, winding up in Slocan with them.

Nomura-obasan –  An elderly, ill woman with whom Naomi, Stephen, and Obasan share their house in Slocan. Surprisingly, Nomura-obasan recovers enough to return to her daughter’s care.

Old Man Gower –  Naomi’s next-door neighbor in Vancouver. Old Man Gower molests Naomi on multiple occasions. He is a manipulative and cunning man who has the audacity to pose as a generous friend to Naomi’s father.

Rough Lock Bill –  A solitary, gruff, but kind man who lives near the lake in Slocan. Rough Lock Bill saves Naomi from drowning.

Mrs. Sugimoto –  A friend of Naomi’s mother. Mrs. Sugimoto is a fussy, prying woman who falls apart when her husband is forced to move to an internment camp.

Uncle Dan –  An intelligence officer for Canada in the Far East. Naomi is not related to Dan, but calls him Uncle because he is such a close friend of her father.

Eiko and Fumi –  Aunt Emily’s friends during wartime.

Kenji –  One of Stephen and Naomi’s classmates in Slocan. Kenji leaves Naomi to drown in the lake. Under government orders, his family goes to Japan.

Miyuki –  Another Slocan classmate of Naomi’s. Miyuki is delicate and well dressed.

Sachiko –  A high-school aged girl Naomi knows in Slocan. Sachiko cares lovingly for her grandfather, Saito-ojisan.

Saito-ojisan –  Sachiko’s grandfather. Saito-ojisan is an aged, shaky man.

Mr. Barker –  Owner of the beet farm on which Naomi’s family works. Mr. Barker is a man of good intentions, at least when World War II is a distant memory. However, the fact remains that he allowed his workers to live in subhuman conditions.

Mrs. Barker –  Mr. Barker’s first wife. Mrs. Barker dislikes Naomi and Stephen and doesn’t want her daughter to play with them.

Vivian Barker –  Mr. Barker’s second wife. Vivian seems uncomfortable in Obasan’s house.

Penny Barker –  Daughter of the Barkers, the beet farmers Naomi’s family works for. Penny is cruel to Stephen and Naomi.

Setsuko –  Naomi’s mother’s cousin. Both Setsuko’s eyes are gouged out during the bombing, and her skin comes off in strips.

Tomio –  Setsuko’s son. Tomio survives the bombing, but wanders off and is never found.

Chieko –  Setsuko’s baby. Chieko closely resembles Naomi. The last Naomi hears of her, she is dying of leukemia.

Naomi

Although Naomi is the novel’s narrator, her character is something of a mystery. Indeed, opacity is a key part of her personality. An earnest and quiet, almost silent, child, she turns into a self-contained, unknowable adult. As a girl, she suffers various serious traumas, most notably displacement, internment, and sexual molestation. To live a functional adult life, she shuts herself off from her past and her emotions. In the first chapters of the novel, Naomi tells us next to nothing about herself or her life. We lack basic information about her, an intentional gap Kogawa uses to suggest Naomi lacks basic information about herself.

 

As the novel progresses, Naomi rediscovers that information. We learn a great deal about the questions that preoccupy her. We know she thinks about what happened to her mother, and whether it’s better to leave the past alone or to investigate. We also know she ponders to what extent classic Japanese character attributes oppress young women. Yet by the end of the novel, we don’t know much more about Naomi—her likes and dislikes, her quirks and foibles—than we did at the beginning. This persistent opacity points to the lasting effect of childhood crises.

We do know that Naomi is a survivor. Her life is a catalogue of miseries: Her next door neighbor abuses and possibly rapes her; her mother disappears without explanation; her family is forced to move, and move again; her father dies; she must work her fingers to the bone on a beet farm and live in a chicken coop; her older brother moves away and all but renounces the family; and she endures the casual racism of her students and neighbors. Despite this litany of disasters, Naomi is uncomplaining. She shows flashes of bitterness here and there and feels passionate anger about the most horrifying of the many injustices heaped on her family. However, she endures the outrages in silent stoicism while they happen, looking back on them with careful interest once they are in the past. Refusing to play the role of victim, she is amazingly wry, observant, and lyrical.

Obasan

Naomi’s aunt is the quietest character in the novel, but she is also one of its most forceful personalities. As a young woman, she is almost silent. As an old woman, her silence intensifies because she is nearly deaf and because she intentionally uses wordlessness as a shield against a world in which she doesn’t feel she belongs. Despite the scarcity of her words, Obasan is a source of love and unwavering support for Naomi and Stephen. When their parents disappear, it is Obasan who steps in, selflessly shouldering the burden of caring for the nearly orphaned children. She feeds them, clothes them, and looks after their well-being in impossible circumstances. She is unflaggingly committed to them, even when they neglect her or, as Stephen does repeatedly, treat her impatiently or rudely. According to Naomi, Obasan embodies the Japanese ideal of wagamama: She always thinks of the needs of others. Her every action is geared toward making the people around her comfortable and happy. Despite her silence, Obasan stands at the center of the narrative and of Naomi’s life, making both possible.

Aunt Emily

Aunt Emily is a smart, energetic woman who campaigns relentlessly on behalf of Japanese Canadians. She insists on the importance of facing up to the past, of talking about it, analyzing it, protesting it, and understanding it. All of her conference-attending, letter-writing, and data-compiling is founded on the idea that only by understanding the past can we expunge our anger over former mistakes and thereby prevent ourselves and others from repeating them. A passionate woman, she cares deeply about her family members and their happiness. Her intelligence is admirable, as is her engagement with the world she lives in. Still, her obsession with chronicling the past, and her efforts at advocacy, are treated with deep ambivalence. Emily witnessed plenty of appalling sights during the war, but there is some suggestion that she wasn’t in the trenches with Obasan and Uncle, or Father and Mother, and doesn’t quite grasp how painful it is for other people to remember their wartime experiences. To that end, Naomi remains skeptical about Aunt Emily’s constant flurry of letters and petitions. Aunt Emily is a whirlwind of energy, but it is never clear that her efforts make more of an impact than does, for example, Obasan’s deeply quiet and concentrated focus on her immediate family members.

Stephen

Stephen is a sensitive and talented boy whose personality is warped by the war he lives through. His adulthood is far from unsuccessful. To the contrary, he becomes a celebrated musician and forms a functional romantic relationship. Professionally and personally, his is a more traditionally successful life than Naomi’s. But despite this outward flourishing, Stephen is a troubled, unhappy man. As a college student, he is embarrassed by and impatient with Uncle and Obasan, fleeing from the house when he comes home for vacations, refusing Obasan’s food, and generally behaving badly. As a grown man, he renounces the Japanese side of his identity almost entirely, willfully expunging the language from his memory and exhibiting obvious discomfort whenever a food, gesture, or habit of speech strikes him as “too Japanese.” He hardly ever comes home, and years pass between his visits with Naomi, the one person in the world who best understands what his formative years were like. Like Naomi, he survives by suppressing memories of his childhood and by becoming, to some extent, unknowable. But his suppression and opacity are more dramatic. In addition to turning away from his past, he turns away from his ethnicity, his family, and his country.

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes

The Benefits of Silence

At first glance, Obasan appears to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of silence, a warning to readers that wordless acquiescence to mistreatment can invite greater brutality, and that failure to talk over old wrongs can lead to poisonous anger and resentment. And it does make those arguments. Naomi’s family’s humble, silent acceptance of the Canadian government’s mandates doesn’t prove their loyalty or win them lenient treatment. Rather, it makes them easy to shunt aside. Naomi’s mother’s insistence on modest silence might make Naomi a praiseworthy child in the classic Japanese mode, but it exaggerates Naomi’s natural reserve to a dangerous degree. And the worst part of the sexual abuse Naomi suffers is the silence with which she reacts to it. Unable to tell her mother about Old Man Gower, Naomi soldiers through the disaster without speaking, all alone in her pain.

 

Despite these compelling arguments against silence, however, Obasan takes the nuanced view that keeping quiet has real benefits. Obasan’s silence protects her from the world. As an old woman, she says little and hears less. Muffled in a wordless existence, she doesn’t suffer from racist remarks or thoughtless comments. Keeping silent is also the way she mourns the loss of her husband. Rough Lock Bill, the most admirable white character in the novel, says that talk is often self-centered. He likens the egotistical chatter of city folk to the chirping of birds who can only say their own names. He criticizes his own talkativeness, and praises Naomi’s silence. Rough Lock Bill’s words carry extra weight because, apart from Naomi’s family members, he is one of the few trustworthy adults in her life.

By the end of the novel, Naomi believes that silence does not always prevent understanding. Despite the silence her mother maintained by failing to communicate with her children, and despite the fact that death silenced her forever, Naomi feels she can still communicate with her. Silence is undesirable only if it cancels out understanding, which, for Naomi, it doesn’t always do.

The Dubious Necessity of Remembering

Obasan provides a long answer to the following question: Is it better to remember, or to forget? Each of Kogawa’s characters has an opinion on this matter, and their opinions fall along a spectrum. Uncle and Obasan, who believe that the past should be left in the past rather than dragged out and held up to the light, remain at one end of the spectrum. At the other end sits Aunt Emily, who believes that only by endlessly reconsidering past wrongs can we ensure that they never happen again and leave our bitterness behind. Naomi falls somewhere in the middle. She is torn between her fascination with her past and her conviction that thinking about it will only hurt her. The novel’s structure mirrors this dilemma. In the beginning, as Naomi resists the pull of the past, the narrative is rooted in the present day. As she starts to step backward into her memory, the narrative begins shifting back and forth between past and present. When she allows her childhood memories to immerse her, the narrative gives itself over fully to the past.

Obasan refuses to come down firmly on the side of forgetting or remembering. As a novel that chronicles the experience of Japanese Canadians, its very existence argues the importance of keeping painful memories alive. Naomi is a more peaceful person at the end of the novel than she is at the beginning, a change that comes from her willingness to explore her past and her new understanding of what happened to her mother and other relatives. At the same time, while Naomi does find out the truth about her mother, the timing of the discovery undermines the idea that remembering is therapeutic. Only after she decides that her search for the truth is a desecration of her mother’s memory, and only after she gives up trying to discover what happened, does Naomi learn the truth. What follows the revelation also suggests the relative unimportance of facts concerning the past. Instead of thinking about the details of her mother’s mutilation, Naomi waxes lyrical for a chapter, addressing abstractions to her mother that would have applied equally well had she never learned the truth.

The Difficulty of Balancing Cultures

Kogawa’s characters have varying attitudes toward their Japanese heritage, none of which are completely functional. While Aunt Emily campaigns vigorously for the rights of Japanese Canadians, she rejects the idea that her ethnicity makes her different from any other Canadian citizen. She refers to herself simply as Canadian, and dislikes the idea that her heritage sets her apart from her fellow countrymen in any way. Kogawa suggests that Aunt Emily’s attitude, while logically sound, does not reflect the experiences shared by all Japanese Canadians. Like it or not, Anglo-Saxon Canadians did, and continue to, discriminate against their fellow citizens of Japanese heritage. To object to that is essential, but to simply insist that no one should detect a difference between Canadians and Canadians of Japanese descent, Kogawa suggests, is to refuse to engage with the world as it exists.

 

 

Neither does Kogawa endorse the attitude taken by Obasan and Uncle, which is the extreme opposite of Aunt Emily’s. They refuse to engage in a different way, by retreating into themselves and failing to grapple with what it means to be Japanese Canadian in Canada. They practice the customs of their Japanese forebears and, in the case of Obasan, meet racism with intentional incomprehension. Their gratitude toward a country that has treated them with such shocking cruelty may protect them from pain, but it requires a distorted view of reality. For someone of the younger generation, like Naomi, Obasan and Uncle’s model of curling back into an old world is a model that is impossible to follow. Naomi must engage with the world around her, and she does so in a way that strikes a balance between Aunt Emily’s repudiation of her Japanese ethnicity and Obasan and Uncle’s collapse into it. She recognizes the racism, subtle and overt, that surrounds her, and she gradually begins to think hard about what it means to be a Japanese Canadian. But even her moderate stance, Kogawa suggests, does not necessarily result in happiness or total enlightenment.

Motifs

Red

The color red is associated with Naomi and appears at both happy and difficult moments in her life. She links red with New Year’s, when her family gives gifts to her and Stephen. Every gift she receives—a change purse, a brooch, a necklace, and others—features red prominently. Red also dominates Naomi’s memory of the train ride to Slocan. She remembers carrying a red umbrella and wearing a shirt decorated with red flowers. When she recalls standing on a bridge with Obasan before Grandma Nakane’s funeral, the “wine-colored loafers” she wore stick out in her mind. The vividness of red, which is among the only colors Naomi mentions consistently, suggests the vividness of her memories themselves. She doesn’t recall everything that happened to her when she was little, but the memories she does have are bright and intense, like the red possessions she treasured as a girl.

Military Men

Men with guns, specifically white men with guns, haunt Naomi. As an adult, she dreams about them often. In one of her recurring nightmares, military men control three naked, powerless Asian women; in another, bloodthirsty armed men watch a private family ceremony. The dangerous men in her dreams point to Naomi’s two central childhood traumas: the abuse she suffered at the hands of Old Man Gower, and the persecution she and her family endured at the hands of white Canadians. The guns represent her tormentors’ potential to do harm. The mastery the clothed soldiers have over the naked women reflects Old Man Gower’s sexual power and abuse, and the women’s humiliation echoes Naomi’s disturbing and shaming response. The fact that Naomi dreams about these men so frequently, even as an adult, shows that while she can suppress her fear during her waking hours, she is subconsciously still in the grips of her difficult childhood. As she says, “We die again and again. In my dreams, we are never safe enough.” She doesn’t live in fear, but some part of her always worries that what happened once could happen again.

The Sea

The sea is an essential and part of Naomi’s family heritage. She comes from a line of fishermen and boat builders who feel most at home on the ocean. The government’s seizure of their boats not only robs them of their livelihood, but also of their connection to the place they feel happiest. Their banishment to the center of the country, first to Slocan with its muddy lake, and then to Granton with its dusty plains, is doubly painful. A forced relocation to anywhere at all would be bad enough, but to be made to move away from the ocean, which fed their families and seemed to embrace them, is almost impossible to bear. The novel’s first chapter, which depicts Uncle on his annual pilgrimage to the coulee, underlines the importance of the sea and the family’s distance from it. The coulee is a special place to Uncle because it reminds him of the ocean. While he does find a measure of peace there, his attachment to it is poignant and sad. It is not the real sea, after all; it is just a pale shadow of the place Uncle loved.

Symbols

Obasan’s House

Obasan’s house symbolizes Obasan herself. It is filled with clutter that to the outside eye might look like trash, but is actually a collection of carefully arranged and catalogued objects. Some objects will be reused for the sake of thriftiness, others remind Obasan of some episode in her life. The old rubber ball, for example, is a toy that survived Naomi and Stephen’s childhoods, seeing them through many painful moments before winding up in Obasan’s home. The library of objects reflects Obasan’s library of memories. And the old, creaky house represents Obasan’s advanced age, her frail body. After Uncle’s death, Naomi briefly wonders whether Obasan could move in with her. The idea seems impracticable, however, because Obasan’s identity is so wrapped up in her home. The house, Naomi says, is Obasan’s “blood and bones.”

Spiders

The spiders in Obasan’s attic symbolize memory. The first two spiders scuttle up when Obasan accidentally brushes their web as she searches through a box, just as memories float up uninvited, triggered by related memories. The spiders are quick, almost violent, just as Naomi’s recollections seem to take on a life of their own, running unbidden through her mind. After she sees the first spiders, she looks up and sees the vast “graveyard and feasting ground combined” that stretches across the ceiling. Naomi’s experience of underestimating and then understanding the number of spiders foreshadows her experience with her own memories, which come slowly at first and then overwhelm her. Like the spiders, the memories are dangerous, and Naomi treats them just as she treats the spiders: with a mixture of reverence, fear, fascination, and repulsion.

Summary: Chapter 1

9:05 p.m., August 9, 1972

The narrator, Naomi Nakane, and her Uncle Isamu go on their annual visit to the coulee (or ravine) near Granton in southern Alberta, Canada. Uncle blames his unsteady gait on his old age. As he crouches on the untouched land, Naomi muses that he looks like Chief Sitting Bull as depicted on a postcard of Alberta, a souvenir made in Japan.

 

She recalls the first visit she and Uncle made to the coulee, in 1954. Two months earlier, Naomi’s aunt, Emily, had visited Granton. Uncle had seemed upset since Emily’s departure, and visiting the coulee calmed him. Naomi, worried about snakes, wondered aloud if the coulee was dangerous. In response, Uncle asked how old she was. When she said she was eighteen, he smiled, told her she was too young, and said “someday.”

Now, at thirty-six, Naomi still doesn’t know what her Uncle thought she was too young to hear. She sits on the prairie grass next to Uncle and asks him why they come to the coulee every year, but he doesn’t answer. She takes his hand and asks again. He seems on the verge of saying something, but then he rubs at his face and shakes his head. Naomi goes to the bottom of the coulee to pick one flower, as she always does on these trips.

Summary: Chapter 2

September 13, 1972

It is the beginning of the school year in Cecil, Alberta. Naomi teaches a class of fifth- and sixth-graders. She has taught in this room for seven years. This year, her pupils include two “Native girls”; Tami, a lovely child who is half European and half Japanese; and Sigmund, whom she identifies as a troublemaker. She tells him the correct pronunciation of her last name (“Na Ka Neh,” with shorts a’s), and he asks her if she’s ever been in love and if she’ll get married. According to his mother, Sigmund says, Naomi looks too young to be a teacher. Naomi wonders to herself whether her youthful looks or her “oriental face” were what caused the parents’ surprised looks when she first started teaching. Sigmund says a friend of his wants to date her.

Naomi recalls going on a date with a widower father of one of her students. He asked, as everyone does, where she came from. She was born in Canada. Her grandparents, who were born in Japan, were Issei (first generation), her mother was Nisei, second generation, and Naomi is Sansei (third generation). The widower peppered her with questions, but never asked her out again.

Sigmund calls Naomi a spinster, an old maid. She admits that she is, as is her Aunt Emily, who lives in Toronto. Naomi wonders to herself whether Emily has ever been in love. In the middle of class, a doctor calls with bad news about Uncle. We don’t yet learn what the news is. Naomi thinks of the people she must call. After school, she leaves for Granton. She is not looking forward to seeing her Obasan (aunt).

Analysis

 

 

The first two chapters introduce us to some of the distinctions between first-, second-, and third-generation Japanese Canadians. For Naomi and Uncle, these distinctions manifest themselves most obviously in speech. Naomi was born in Canada, and English is her first language. The fluency with which she speaks contrasts with Uncle’s halting English. When he stumbles along the uneven ground near the coulee, for example, he says, “ ‘Too much old man.’ ” Uncle’s difficulty with English marks him as a relative newcomer to Canada. For Naomi, in contrast, mastery of the language identifies her as someone intimately familiar with Canada.

Naomi acts as a bridge between us, her English-speaking readers, and Uncle. When he says “ ‘Umi no yo,’ ” for example, it is Naomi’s translation (“it’s like the sea”) that allows us to understand him. Although the first chapter focuses on Naomi and Uncle alone with each other, apart from society, Naomi’s role as a go-between for us and Uncle suggests her larger role as go-between for Canadian society and her Japanese relatives. The Japanese words Naomi and Uncle share also link them to each other. Japanese is the language of their family, and the ability to speak it distinguishes them from other Canadians.

Chapters 1 and 2 begin to tackle the mishmash of cultures, ethnicities, and identities that make up Alberta, and in particular the small town of Cecil where Naomi works. In Naomi’s class alone, there are Native students, a Japanese European student, and a white redhead. Within each ethnic group, there are multiple generations of people at various removes from their countries of origin. Immediately in these chapters, we begin to see the difficulties caused by this diversity. Naomi’s students have difficulty pronouncing her name, for example, and a Native girl sits silently in the back of the classroom. These are small moments, but they suggest that everyday tensions and confusions might accumulate into a significant problem.

Naomi thinks a lot about her ethnicity and her status as an outsider in Cecil. We might interpret her attitude as a bitter one. When the class gasps in response to Sigmund’s announcement that his friend wants to date Naomi, she thinks that their shocked reaction is “[t]ypically Cecil.” She is well-aware that her presence initially threw the townspeople off guard, and their surprise still nettles her. She resents the curiosity everyone exhibits about her origins and her family’s ethnicity. When her widower date asks her where she’s from, for example, she says that she almost expected him to demand ID. But if we can read Naomi’s attitude as sarcastic, impatient, or even angry, we might with equal plausibility say that her attitude is one of wry humor and even restraint. For years, she has endured the stares and intrusive questions of the people in Cecil. It is perhaps a mark of her calm, measured reaction to her outsider status that she even wonders whether her youth caused the townspeople’s initial surprise, rather than concluding that it was certainly her “oriental face” that threw them off.

Chapters 3 and 4

Summary: Chapter 3

Speaking loudly so that her deaf Obasan (aunt in Japanese) can hear, Naomi asks if Uncle suffered. We now understand that Uncle is dead. While Obasan makes tea, Naomi looks around at the familiar clutter of the house. She sees that Obasan’s eyes and mouth are gummy, and notes that she has never seen Obasan cry.

 

 

A loaf of Uncle’s homemade bread sitting on the counter reminds Naomi of his first attempt at baking. Naomi was ten, and wanted to try a recipe for bread. Uncle wound up doing the baking himself, and produced a rock-hard loaf. Naomi’s older brother, Stephen, tried to serve it to her with margarine, but she refused to eat. Over the years, Uncle refined the recipe, but the results were always terrible.

Obasan describes the morning’s events. Uncle was taken to the hospital, where he died. Naomi wonders to herself what Uncle’s last hours were like. She wonders whether he returned to the sea, or to his mother. She thinks about what Obasan will do. She realizes that Stephen won’t help her. He is a moody, restless man.

Obasan says that she is too old, and then goes to scrape the mud from Naomi’s boots. As Naomi wonders if Obasan could live with her, Obasan says that both her body and the house are old. Naomi reflects that the house and all its clutter are inextricably linked to Obasan. Watching her aunt crouch over the boots, Naomi thinks that Obasan is the same as old women in France, or Mexico, or anywhere else on earth.

Summary: Chapter 4

Naomi thinks about Grandma Nakane, Uncle’s mother. She was imprisoned in Vancouver Hastings Park, an internment camp, during World War II. Naomi remembers a family photograph depicting her closest relatives. Dr. and Mrs. Kato were her maternal grandparents, and Mr. and Mrs. Nakane her paternal grandparents. Grandpa Nakane, a boat builder, moved to Canada first, in 1893. He married his cousin’s widow, who had a son by her first husband. This son, Isamu, is the man Naomi calls Uncle. He married Ayako, the woman Naomi calls Obasan. Obasan has told Naomi that she married Uncle for the sake of Grandma Nakane, who shared Obasan’s love of music. Obasan bore two stillborn children. After the second birth, Aunt Emily gave Uncle and Obasan a puppy.

In the photo, Naomi’s father holds baby Stephen. Naomi’s mother is next to her sister, Emily. Naomi sees no resemblance between Aunt Emily, who is chubby, and Mother, who is delicate. Even as a girl, Naomi sensed tension and unhappiness in the family. Naomi’s mother and father, who were the first in their community not to have an arranged marriage, worked hard to draw their two families together. Naomi makes a vague reference to a worrisome letter from Japan that arrived after her own birth. She says that if her family was once close, it isn’t anymore.

 

 

Naomi tells us that, despite her stellar academic performance, Aunt Emily couldn’t get hired as a teacher. Naomi also tells us that her father helped Uncle build boats. He designed a beautiful one, a work of art praised by an RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) officer. In 1941, Uncle was taken away while in his boat. He never returned to the sea. At this point in the narrative, we don’t discover what work Aunt Emily eventually took up, or what became of Uncle.

Analysis

Because of its lyricism and nonlinear construction, Obasan sometimes reads like a transcript of Naomi’s thoughts. It wanders back and forth in time, it leaps from subject to subject, and it jumbles up the chronology of its stories. Like a train of thought, it takes its direction from images and associations, rather than from the orderly progress of time. For example, the family photo makes Naomi think of her father’s career, which makes her think of the boat he and Uncle built, which makes her think of the praise of the RCMP officer, which makes her think of Uncle’s imprisonment. This construction can make the narrative feel disjointed and jumpy, but it also makes us feel that we’re getting intimate access to Naomi’s inner thoughts.

Naomi infuses her story with small mysteries. We learn in Chapter 2 that she has received bad news about Uncle, for example, but not until Chapter 3 do we learn for sure that he has passed away. We know that Uncle was taken away in 1941, and that he never returned to boatbuilding after his imprisonment, but we don’t know exactly what happened to him. Uncertainty also surrounds Uncle’s relationships with Emily and Obasan. We know that Emily is Naomi’s aunt, that she came to Alberta for a visit shortly before Naomi’s first trip to the coulee, and that her departure left Uncle unhappy. We also know that Obasan is the woman he was married to until his death. What we don’t know, yet, is the exact nature of the relationships between these three people. Obasan is not a plot-heavy novel, but these minor mysteries give the narrative forward movement, and keep us turning the pages.

Chapter 3 gives us our first good look at Obasan. Naomi seems both repulsed and fascinated by her aunt’s physical presence. She provides a detailed description of the gunk that clogs Obasan’s eyes, the chapped skin on her lips, her sticky saliva, her ropy neck, and so on. In part, it is Obasan’s age, rather than anything about Obasan specifically, that makes Naomi uneasy. Her uncle has just died, and perhaps for this reason, Obasan’s decrepit body, evidence of her proximity to death, upsets Naomi. While Obasan’s age fills Naomi with revulsion, it also, paradoxically, inspires her deep respect. As she watches the elderly woman scraping the mud from her boots, Naomi muses that old women the world over, regardless of their nationality, are the ones who hold the keys to the universe. They are, she thinks, the ones who know secrets and hoard details.

The family photograph in Chapter 4 gives us a glimpse into Naomi’s family and its tensions. Naomi provides a few intimations about the conflicts that exist. We know about Obasan’s two stillbirths and Stephen’s honored status as grandson, for example. But Naomi raises more questions than she answers. Was Aunt Emily’s gift of a puppy cruelly or kindly intended? Was Naomi’s own birth unimportant compared to Stephen’s? What did the mysterious letter from Japan say? By raising these questions, Naomi puts us in the same position she was in during her childhood: aware that various conflicts existed, but prevented by the adults (or, in our case, the narrator) from understanding them fully or grasping the details.

Summary: Chapter 5

Obasan wakes Naomi. They go to the attic, where Obasan searches for something. Naomi sees the tools Grandpa Nakane brought from Japan. Obasan finds an old ID of Uncle’s, signed by an RCMP inspector. As Obasan looks through old possessions, Naomi muses that she and Obasan are trapped by memories of their dead relatives. A glimpse of an old quilt makes her return to the old question of why her mother never came back. As a child, Naomi asked Obasan about her mother, but Obasan provided no information. Now, Obasan can’t find what she is looking for, and Naomi helps her back to bed.

Summary: Chapter 6

 

Naomi dreams that she and a man encounter another couple in a forest on a mountain. Together, the two couples work at some unknown but necessary task. Suddenly, Naomi sees a giant animal that may be a combination of lion and dog. The animal belongs to the other man, who resembles a British officer. When the animal yawns, Naomi realizes that it is a robot. In an ancient language, the other woman explains a contract between herself and the man. Then Uncle appears with a rose in his mouth, performing a death dance. Naomi sees that the man is wearing an army uniform.

Naomi wakes and goes downstairs. A package from Aunt Emily has arrived. Obasan points to an orange box and says it is what she was looking for in the attic.

Summary: Chapter 7

The package contains a scrapbook, a folder, an envelope, and a journal. On a scrap of paper, Naomi sees that Aunt Emily has written, “ ‘Write the vision and make it plain. Habakkuk 2:2.’ ” Aunt Emily believes in the strength of the Nisei (second generation Japanese Canadians), whereas Naomi thinks the Nisei want only to pass unnoticed. Aunt Emily is a woman of many words, constantly writing, crusading, and attending conferences.

Naomi recalls Aunt Emily’s last post-conference visit to Granton. Aunt Emily had shown Naomi a pamphlet on racial discrimination during and after World War II. According to Aunt Emily, Canada is more racist than the United States. While Japanese were interned in both countries, American Japanese were allowed to retain their property and to form large communities after the war. As Aunt Emily talked about using language to disguise racism, Naomi felt unmoved.

At home, during the same visit, Aunt Emily showed Uncle a WWII-era form letter from the government, demanding that the Japanese hand over their property. There was also a form letter from an official named B. Good explaining that Aunt Emily’s mother’s house now belongs to Canada. Aunt Emily mentioned that the government gave Grandpa Kato three dollars for his Cadillac. Another letter tells Uncle to register as an Enemy Alien. A sixty-page manuscript by Aunt Emily asserts that despite everything that has happened to her, she identifies strongly as a Canadian. Finally, Aunt Emily showed Naomi a scrapbook full of racist newspaper clippings. Naomi wondered if they should leave the past in the past. Uncle said he considered Aunt Emily’s efforts unladylike and un-Japanese. Obasan did not join the conversation. Both Uncle and Obasan expressed gratitude toward Canada.

Analysis

 

 

Obasan is something of a mystic. She doesn’t talk a great deal, and when she does, she speaks in abstractions. Her deafness only adds to her enigmatic quality. Because she can’t hear, she can’t engage much with the world around her. Effectively unable to take in verbal information, she can only output words. Therefore, what she says often seems disconnected from everyday life. She makes obscure pronouncements such as “ ‘Everything is forgetfulness’ ” and “ ‘Everyone someday dies.’ ” She says these vaguely spiritual remarks unprompted, in response to nothing in particular. While Obasan’s deafness may account for her unmoored speech to some extent, opacity seems to have been a hallmark of her character even when she was a young woman. We learn, for example, that she refused to answer Naomi’s questions about her mother’s disappearance. If we as readers have a difficult time understanding Obasan, so too do the people who know her best.

Naomi’s dream reflects some of the themes Kogawa has introduced. The British officer is the authority figure, the person directing everyone’s actions, just as in real life Naomi’s family has often had to bow down to the wishes of Canadian authority figures. Uncle’s death dance suggests his recent passing. Naomi’s dreamed interest in puzzling out the relationships between people demonstrates her need to understand the relationships between the members of her own family. And the delay she experiences before she recognizes the truth—the animal is actually a robot, the officer is actually wearing a uniform—suggests her real-world difficulty in understanding family mysteries.

Aunt Emily, Naomi, and Uncle and Obasan hold very different views on what Japanese Canadians should do, and how they should feel, about Canada’s racist past. Aunt Emily believes that until Japanese Canadians process what happened to them and to their forebears, and deal with their repressed feelings, they are doomed to pass on anger and resentment to future generations. She is furious about the crimes committed during WWII, and believes Japanese Canadians should keep what happened then in the forefront of their minds. Naomi can’t work up much passion about events that happened so long ago. She feels that there’s no sense in raking up past injustices. On the other end of the spectrum, farthest from Aunt Emily, Obasan and Uncle are full of affection for Canada, and feel blessed to be allowed to live in the country in the first place. Far from wanting to debate the matter or defend their beliefs, they would rather not mention the topic at all. By giving her characters such opposing views, and then putting them in a room together and letting them fight it out, Kogawa is able to capture the different sides in the debate on racism and how it affects Japanese Canadians.

Aunt Emily is a particularly useful character for Kogawa. By making Emily an activist who is constantly attending conferences, Kogawa can justify inserting lots of background information into her narrative. Newspaper clippings, passages from books, form letters, and general history are constantly fluttering out of Aunt Emily’s voluminous library of material and into the novel. The device may be slightly clumsy, but it provides us with a primer on the issues so close to Aunt Emily’s heart.

Obasan saves the twine from Aunt Emily’s package, as she saves everything: string, thread, tiny amounts of leftover food. Naomi reflects that perhaps painful memories, like Obasan’s most disgusting bits of forgotten food, are horrifying only if brought out and looked at.

 

 

Obasan says, “ ‘Everyone someday dies,’ ” a sentence she has been repeating almost like a mantra. She leaves the room. Naomi realizes that the book Aunt Emily included in her package consists of letters from Emily to Naomi’s mother, whom Emily called Nesan (older sister). Obasan comes back holding a photo Naomi has seen before. It is of her mother, and herself as a toddler.

Summary: Chapter 9

Naomi vividly remembers the moment the photo was taken. A boy was staring at her and her mother as the picture was taken, and she was full of fear. Her Japanese relatives taught her that staring is rude and aggressive. Naomi remembers a man winking at her as she rode a streetcar with her mother. She thinks about taking scorching hot baths with her Grandma Kato, who used to scrub her clean with washcloths. Naomi doesn’t think it’s a good idea to dwell on her childhood home in Vancouver, but recalling Aunt Emily’s exhortations to remember the past, she forces herself to continue. She remembers the house as filled with paintings, records, musical instruments, and plants. She remembers listening to her mother, father, and brother play music, herself sitting as silent as the goldfish and the statue in the room despite her family’s attempt to draw her in. She remembers her toys and her pretty bedroom.

Summary: Chapter 10

Naomi thinks of the stories her relatives told her at bedtime when she was a child. She always asked for the tale of Momotaro. She recalls looking at the peach tree in her window while her mother told her about two old people, Grandmother and Grandfather. One day Grandmother was washing clothes when a peach (momo) floated to her down a waterfall. When Grandfather came home, she showed him the fruit. As they looked at it, a boy, Momotaro, jumped out of the peach. Eventually Momotaro had to leave, and Grandmother gave him rice balls for his trip. She and Grandfather said goodbye without sadness, so as not to weigh him down. They hoped that he would behave honorably, which is the most important thing.

Naomi thinks of the way her mother and grandmother anticipated her needs. She never cried, because they knew when she was hungry, cold, tired, or uncomfortable and solved the problem almost before she had noticed it herself. Naomi doesn’t remember ever being punished. According to Aunt Emily, she never talked or smiled, either.

Summary: Chapter 11

Naomi recalls an incident from her youth. Her parents had purchased baby chicks, and Naomi moved them from their box to the cage where a hen was already living. As she watched, the hen began attacking the chicks and pecking them to death. Naomi ran to fetch Mother, who was sitting with her friend Mrs. Sugimoto. As Mother calmly rescued the remaining chicks, Mrs. Sugimoto stared at Naomi. Then a group of loud neighborhood boys ran into the yard. Mother didn’t talk about the incident with Naomi until after everyone had left and calm was restored.

 

 

Naomi remembers Old Man Gower, the next-door neighbor who used to “[carry her] away,” as she puts it, always making her promise never to tell her mother. Something similar happened with a boy named Percy, who shoved her against a wall during a game of hide-and-seek. As an adult, Naomi has a recurring nightmare. In its latest variation, “three beautiful oriental women” were naked in a road, guarded by soldiers. One of the women wriggled seductively, feeling both excited and full of hate. Despite her efforts, the soldiers shot at the women’s feet. Naomi returns to her memory of Old Man Gower. When she was four, he took her into his verdant yard, sat her on his lap, and put “his mouth on [her] face.” Soon after, he undressed her on the pretext of fixing a cut on her knee. As usual, he told her not to tell her mother. Naomi tells her secret: She sought out Old Man Gower of her own volition. Not being able to tell her mother what was going on tore her apart.

Analysis

The act of recollecting the past fills Naomi with fear. She equates memories with the long-forgotten scraps of food that fill Obasan’s refrigerator. According to this metaphor, the memories, like the food, are spoiled, repulsive, hidden in dark corners, even terrifying. Interestingly, for Naomi this comparison applies not just to painful memories, but also to happy ones. She is just as unwilling to reminisce about her idyllic childhood home as she would be to clean the farthest recesses of Obasan’s fridge. Dwelling on past happiness is as dangerous for Naomi as dwelling on past grievances. Remembering a childhood spent in the bosom of a loving family only causes pain by stirring up longings that can’t be satisfied.

Despite her reluctance, though, Naomi is half-convinced that Aunt Emily is right, and that to forget the past is to cripple one’s self. In these chapters, she begins a tentative plunge backward into her childhood. It begins with thoughts of her mother, whose presence and absence have been taboo topics up to this point in the novel. Naomi’s new willingness to linger on her mother’s admonitions, songs, stories, and behavior indicates her increasing bravery about facing up to her memories.

We get the sense that despite the happiness of her childhood, Naomi has always felt like something of an outsider in her family. The remembered scene in the music room suggests that Naomi’s mother, father, and brother are unified by their ability to play music together. Naomi sits on the periphery of this charmed circle. The fact that she identifies more with the goldfish and the statue than with the members of her family points to her sense of alienation.

It is not the case, however, that Naomi’s family intentionally excludes her. On the contrary, they try to pull her into the circle. Her father and Stephen interrupt their music to talk to her, and her mother indulges Naomi’s insatiable taste for the story of Momotaro. It seems to be Naomi’s natural diffidence and inward-looking personality that sets her apart from her family. She welcomes their attentions and thrives on their love, but part of her is held apart, observing. As Aunt Emily says, Naomi was an exceptionally silent, serious, and unsmiling child.

Chapter 10 touches on two concepts that are central in Naomi’s family: the necessity of behaving with honor, and the importance of “sensitivity and appropriate gestures.” For Naomi, the concepts are linked. When she wants a real-life example of behaving with honor, she has only to think about the way her mother and grandmother anticipate her needs and try to make her comfortable in any way they can. Naomi suggests that these two concepts, if embraced, lead to remarkably serene households. Children need not cry or rebel if they are cared for vigilantly. When children become adults, they will replicate the loving behavior they learned from their elders, and care for the people who once cared for them.

In the same chapter that contains the upsetting revelation about Old Man Gower, we hear the story of the slain chicks. Naomi’s fate resembles the chicks’. She is a defenseless being, practically a baby, powerless to resist the violent attack of an adult. But there is a key difference between the incident with the chicks and the pattern of Old Man Gower’s abuse. When Naomi was distraught over the dead chicks, she was able to seek refuge in her mother’s presence and calm, and in the knowledge that a loving and responsible adult saw what had happened and cared about it. When Naomi was worried about Old Man Gower, however, his admonitions and her shame prevented her from going to her mother. The silence and the separation from her mother hurt Naomi as much as the abuse itself. She was alone with her grief and confusion.

Naomi’s recurring dream is another key to understanding the abuse she suffered. In the dream, the men are all-powerful. They are clothed, they have official authority, and they bear weapons. The women, who are explicitly identified as “oriental,” are powerless. They are naked, they are captive, and they are unarmed. The invincible, violent men and the helpless women of Naomi’s dream reflect her experience as a victim at Old Man Gower’s hands. Perhaps even more important, though, is what one of the women feels. As she writhes in the street, she is both aroused and angry. These contradictory and simultaneous feelings are what most upset Naomi as a child. When she refers to “the secret,” she does not mean the abuse, but the fact that Old Man Gower’s hands gave her pleasure even as they scared her. This sexual enjoyment, while unwanted and inadvertent, fills Naomi with shame.

Summary: Chapter 12

In 1941, around the time of Naomi’s molestation, Mother disappeared, going with her own mother to see her ill grandmother. Naomi and her family went to the harbor to see Mother off on the ship bound for Japan. When Naomi got home, she tucked away streamers from the harbor and two toy chicks in Mother’s sewing drawer, hoping she would find them upon her return.

 

 

Obasan moved in, but despite her comforting presence, the house still felt empty. One night, during a blackout, Naomi went downstairs and discovered Old Man Gower in the living room, agreeing to hold on to the Nakane family’s possessions. One day Stephen came home with his glasses broken. Naomi wondered if he was feeling the kind of shame Old Man Gower produced in her. A girl in Stephen’s class had told him that he, like the other “Japs,” was bad and would be sent away. Naomi asked Father if they were Japs, and he said they were Canadians.

Summary: Chapter 13

Naomi recalls taking part in a Christmas pageant as her relatives looked on. She remembers the numerous presents she and Stephen received during the holiday season. Stephen got The Book of Knowledge, which contained stories of brave children. Naomi wondered which members of her family could bear up under torture.

One night Naomi was making paper cranes when she heard Father coughing and talking to Aunt Emily. She snuck into Father’s study, where she heard Aunt Emily say that the old people would be left in the Sick Bay, where they would die. Naomi thought Sick Bay must be similar to English Bay or the other beaches she had visited. Aunt Emily wanted to appeal to someone she knew at the Security Commission. Father said his time was up, and that despite his bad health he had to go.

Summary: Chapter 14

Naomi explains that Japanese Canadians along the coast of Vancouver were forced into Hastings Park, a holding area, before being sent to labor and concentration camps. Some families fled to old, abandoned towns Naomi calls “ghost towns.” Naomi’s Grandma and Grandpa Nakane were imprisoned in the holding area. Naomi says she didn’t understand the racism then, and she doesn’t now. What’s real to her is Uncle’s death and Obasan’s solitude. Aunt Emily calls from the airport, where she is going to meet Stephen. Naomi takes a bath with Obasan, whose body reminds her of a prehistoric formation.

She looks at the book of Aunt Emily’s letters to her mother, written when her mother was in Japan. The letters chronicle the deterioration of conditions for Japanese Canadians during World War II. What began with the confiscation of business licenses and cars turned into the forced roundup for Japanese without Canadian citizenship. By March of 1942, all people of Japanese descent were being forced to leave. Conditions in the labor camps were abysmal. Houses were looted. Some families fled, although many Canadian towns barred all Japanese. Ghost towns reopened to accommodate the refugees.

 

 

Through the letters, we learn that Naomi’s family fared poorly: Father and Grandma and Grandpa Nakane wound up in a camp. Father sent letters full of musical exercises for Stephen. Stephen developed a limp. In one letter, Aunt Emily asked her sister if it was true that she was pregnant when she went to Japan. On May 22, 1942, Obasan moved with Stephen and Naomi to Slocan, a ghost town.

Analysis

The specter of racism has flickered throughout the narrative, but mostly in the form of outdated letters and clippings, or old but still painful grievances. In Chapter 12, racism afflicts one of the characters head-on for the first time in the novel. The bodily harm done to Stephen is upsetting, but the hatred voiced by his classmates in the third grade is downright chilling. When the little girl says, “ ‘All the Jap kids at school are going to be sent away and they’re bad and you’re a Jap,’ ” it is obvious that she is repeating the gist of what her parents have told her. The ease with which children soak up racism is on shocking display here. When Naomi wonders if her brother is feeling the kind of shame she experiences, she draws a link between sexual violation and racism. Both are cruel and violent, and both inflict lasting pain on their victims. The exposure of children to racism is particularly awful, just as the exposure of children to sexual molestation is particularly appalling.

Kogawa captures the difficulty with which children piece together what is going on around them. While Naomi understands that something is amiss—they don’t see their relatives nearly as much as they used to, Aunt Emily and Father talk in unfamiliar voices, and so on—she doesn’t know the truth about the internment camps, because the grownups have intentionally shielded her from it. Even when she happens to overhear a frank conversation between Aunt Emily and Father, she can’t grasp what they are talking about. With details such as Naomi’s confusion of the Sick Bay (a place where ill people are kept) with English Bay (a beach), Kogawa shows how frustrating and bewildering it is to be a child living through troubled times.

Chapter 14, which consists mostly of Aunt Emily’s letters to her sister, amounts to an anguished cry of pain and betrayal over the unforgivable persecution of Japanese Canadians. What began with nasty schoolyard remarks in Chapter 12 swells into systematic persecution of an entire race in Chapter 14. The letters written by the energetic and informed Aunt Emily allow Kogawa to provide her readers with an easily digestible history lesson. The letters also allow her to create tension and forward momentum. When she wrote the letters, Aunt Emily didn’t know what would happen, and we watch as her initial optimism turns to despair, disbelief, and fury. Rather than simply summarizing the plight of Japanese Canadians in World War II, the letter device allows us to witness the downward spiral as it happens.

A fuller portrait of Aunt Emily emerges in Chapter 14. She is the most practical and hardworking member of the family. Suffering men surround her—Stephen has a limp, her father’s health is failing, Naomi’s father is ill—and she steps up to the plate and cares for the family, making difficult decisions about where to go and what to do. Neither is she impatient with the impracticality of others. When Naomi’s father sends a letter full of musical instructions for Stephen, Aunt Emily is amused by his abstraction. She doesn’t get angry at his failure to recognize that the world is falling down around their ears. Emily is also a fervent patriot, which makes the situation especially painful for her. She remembers idealizing the Mounties, for example. It appalls her to realize that white Canadians care more for white foreigners than they do for Canadian citizens of Japanese descent. Over and over, she remarks that she is Canadian, that her family members are Canadian. The repetition indicates both her continued love for the country mistreating her and her inability to believe such outrages are being practiced upon Canadian citizens.

Summary: Chapter 15

Naomi remembers taking the train to Slocan in 1942, when she was around five years old. Stephen was on crutches. A young woman on the train had recently given birth to a premature baby and had no supplies. Obasan gave her apples and oranges, and an old woman gave her an underskirt to make diapers. Naomi played with her toys, particularly an ornamental doll, now battered, that Mother gave her before going to Japan.

Summary: Chapter 16

 

 

In 1962, at age twenty-six, Naomi joins Aunt Emily, Uncle, and Obasan and revisits some of the old ghost towns, including Slocan. No trace of the Japanese Canadian presence remained. Naomi remembers arriving at Slocan as a child and bumping into Nakayama-sensei, the Anglican priest from Vancouver. He walked them through the forest to their new house. On the way, Naomi realized she had lost her doll. The two-room hut was crumbling, low-ceilinged, and dark. Stephen and Naomi went back outside, where they saw dozens of butterflies. Stephen slashed at them with his crutch because, he told Naomi, they eat your clothes.

Summary: Chapter 17

Naomi, Stephen, and Obasan shared the house in Slocan with Nomura-obasan, an elderly woman. One day, when Obasan was away, Nomura-obasan had to use the bedpan, but Naomi couldn’t find it anywhere. She helped Nomura-obasan to the outhouse and had to stay in there with her until she finished. Inside, Stephen played the records Mother loved. Naomi had stopped asking about her lost doll.

Summary: Chapter 18

Naomi remembers staring on a bridge in Slocan with Obasan after Grandma Nakane died in New Denver, an hour’s drive from Slocan, following an illness. She thought, then, about the need to put other people’s desires before your own, and to “make the way smooth by restraining emotion.” To do otherwise is to be wagamama—self-absorbed and rude.

During the funeral, Naomi drew and Stephen sulked. Afterward, Obasan explained that Grandpa Nakane was Buddhist, unlike the Christian Katos, and therefore Grandma Nakane would be cremated. She took Naomi and Stephen to the funeral pyre. Stephen was allowed to set the pyre alight. Naomi thought of something Obasan had told Stephen: Just as samurai swords are subjected to fire, people are strengthened by hard experiences.

Summary: Chapter 19

Winter came to Slocan. One snowy day, they learned that Uncle was coming to join them. Obasan rearranged the furniture and cooked. When Uncle arrived, she greeted him in an official-sounding voice. The adults discussed Naomi and Stephen’s father. Naomi asked where he was, and Stephen scoffed at her ignorance. He played the flutes Uncle had brought. In the following days, Uncle made many improvements to the hut. He pulled Stephen on a homemade sled to the hospital, where Stephen’s cast was removed.

Summary: Chapter 20

 

 

With Stephen’s help, Uncle built a garden in the yard. Everyone in the family gathered ferns, mushrooms, and berries to eat. In 1943, Stephen and Naomi started attending an all-Japanese school. One day they played in the woods with Kenji and Miyuki, two of their classmates. They climbed up to Minnie’s Bluff, where they saw a kingbird. Kenji said that according to Rough Lock Bill, an ornery local man, kingbirds slice the tongues of liars in half.

Analysis

In these chapters, Naomi gives herself over fully to the past, immersing herself in memories of her childhood. Perhaps because of the power and immediacy of Aunt Emily’s letters, and Naomi’s own internalization of Aunt Emily’s insistence that the past must be faced, Naomi manages to get over her initial unwillingness to remember old and painful memories. Instead of shifting back and forth between World War II and present day affairs, as in earlier chapters, the narrative in chapters 15 through 20 settles in the 1940s. By sticking with the World War II era storyline, these chapters show Naomi’s new willingness to remember her childhood. At the same time, stepping away from the present day storyline allows us, the readers, to become absorbed in the Slocan plot.

By playing with the ornamental doll, the young Naomi retains a connection to her distant mother. She also channels her own feelings into the toy. She imagines that despite her impassive face, the train ride privately excites the doll. Pretending to make the doll talk, she offers Stephen food and entertainment. Naomi is too retiring and perhaps traumatized to express these feelings and impulses in her own voice, but the doll gives her a vent for her emotions.

The loss of the doll is an important marker of Naomi’s increasing worldliness. Since the doll is associated with Naomi’s mother, its absence suggests the distance Naomi feels from her mother, the ultimate protector of her innocence. Perhaps even more significant than the loss is Naomi’s response to that loss. By Chapter 17, she has stopped asking for her doll, which points to her ability to endure hardship uncomplainingly, and her increasing awareness that adults can’t fix every problem. Earlier in the same chapter, the young Naomi loses another piece of her innocence when she shoulders the adult responsibility of helping the sick, elderly Nomura-obasan use the outhouse.

But Naomi is still unmistakably a child, and her youth can be a source of frustration. Unlike Stephen, she is often left in the dark because adults consider her too young to handle disturbing information. As a result, she doesn’t know key facts, such as where their father is. While she makes tentative steps toward maturity in these chapters, she is still easily confused. When Kenji tells her kingbirds cut out the tongues of liars, she half believes him, lying awake at night and worrying about the lies the bird has heard. On the other hand, Naomi’s youth protects her. Unlike Stephen, she doesn’t quite grasp the reality of death or imprisonment, and the difficulties of their lives don’t fill her with a sense of injustice, as they do him. She sits placidly drawing during Grandma Nakane’s funeral, while Stephen sulks, a tableau that illustrates the siblings’ different attitudes.

Despite the difficulty of the family’s situation, these chapters contain rays of hope. The removal of Stephen’s cast and the onset of spring create a sense of rejuvenation. Most important is the arrival of Uncle. His fatherly presence comforts everyone, and he makes significant improvements to the cabin and the yard. With Uncle and Obasan reunited, the makeshift family is complete. Still, despite the relative cheer of this portion of the novel, makeshift is the operative word. Uncle and Obasan stand in for Naomi and Stephen’s parents, but they can’t replace them.

Summary: Chapter 21

Naomi and Kenji were playing by the lake one summer day when Rough Lock Bill came along. After remarking that he didn’t understand the fuss about skin color, he told them a story about an “Indian brave” who survived a plague and went to look for a friendly place for his people to live. He wound up in Slocan. Its name, Rough Lock Bill said, came from something the brave said to his people: “ ‘If you go slow . . . you can go. Slow can go.’ ” Rough Lock said that he had seen the last remaining Indian, who never spoke, but chirped like a bird. Rough Lock then remarked that Naomi was remarkably quiet.

 

 

Rough Lock went back to his cabin. Kenji took Naomi out on his raft. Kenji fell off and called to Naomi to jump, but she couldn’t swim. Kenji went back to the shore and ran away. Naomi was sure he wouldn’t tell anyone what had happened. Scared and hoping she could swim, Naomi jumped into the water. She began to drown, but Rough Lock Bill rescued her.

Summary: Chapter 22

Naomi woke in a hospital. The beds in the room were packed tightly together. While a nurse combed her hair roughly, Naomi thought about what Stephen told her: Father was in a hospital in New Denver and might never come home. She thought about chicks, and what it meant that they were yellow but eventually turned white. Because Stephen had a game called Yellow Peril, Naomi associated the color yellow with cowardice.

She thought about walking to school with Stephen one day. Two boys stopped them and challenged Stephen to a fight, calling him a “gimpy Jap.” He was going to fight them, but a missionary woman intervened. They got to school, and Naomi approached a circle of boys. She saw that they were torturing a chicken. They had cut its throat and were letting it bleed to death slowly while it struggled. The bell rang, and Naomi dashed to class, where the students sang the Canadian national anthem and the school song. Another day on the way to school, a girl with white hair accused Naomi of throwing her kitten down an outhouse hole. Naomi walked by the outhouse the next day and heard the kitten still meowing.

Summary: Chapter 23

When Naomi returned home some time later, Nomura-obasan had left to live with her daughter. Time passed. Germany surrendered. The Slocan community grew, businesses popped up, and habits formed. Naomi and Obasan often went to the public bathhouse. One night in 1945, they bumped into Nomura-obasan there. Two unfriendly women whispered and stared at Naomi, and hurried two girls, sisters and schoolmates of Naomi’s, out of the bath. Sachiko, a high school girl, came into the bath with her aged grandfather, Saito-ojisan, and helped him bathe. Later, the girls explained that their mother said Naomi and everyone in her family had TB. Naomi ran home and asked what TB is. Without answering her, Uncle said, it’s not shameful to be sick, it’s just unlucky.

Summary: Chapter 24

The morning after the war ended, Naomi had a nightmare about a being that resembled her mother. She got up and went to the outhouse. When she returned, she found that Father was in the cabin. Stephen came in and cried out with delight. He and Father played songs on their flutes.

Analysis

 

 

As the story of Naomi’s childhood in Slocan continues, she delves into memories within memories. Not only does she recall being in the hospital, for example, but she also remembers what she remembered while she was in the hospital. The richness and specificity of Naomi’s memories is partly a result of the novelist’s creative license. Kogawa is writing a work of fiction, not a memoir, and as a result she is free to imbue Naomi with an almost superhuman memory. We might be skeptical about a memoirist who purports to remember the dreams she had as a seven-year-old, but we don’t think twice when a fictional character is doing the remembering.

In addition, the increasing depth of Naomi’s memory underlines the value of delving into the past. At the beginning of the novel, even the most basic facts about Naomi’s childhood were mysterious to us, and perhaps to her. As she continues to think about Slocan and the war years, however, detail after detail comes back to her. Kogawa suggests remembering is a skill, and like any skill, it improves with practice. By this point in the novel, Naomi’s memories have changed from an unknowable blur into a rich tapestry alive with tiny, beautiful touches. She recalls the fascination of Rough Lock’s Adam’s apple, the moisture on the walls of the bathhouse, the tangles in her hair, the sticky rice balls in her lunchbox, and on and on. Remembering was once a painful exercise for her. To some extent it still is, but the sensory richness of her memories now suggests that she takes at least a little pleasure in them.

Chapter 22 shows Naomi languishing in the hospital and presents a powerful study of a child’s suffering. In her weakened state, Naomi is overwhelmed by a torrent of images, all of which feature small, helpless things suffering at the hands of powerful beings. The bleeding, fluttering chicken tortured by the boys, the meowing cat abandoned by the racist white girl eager to falsely blame Naomi, the brother forced to endure the racist insults of bullies, all point to Naomi’s feelings of helplessness and victimization. Naomi identifies with these small beings. Like them, she has been treated badly by people older and stronger than she. In addition, her fixation on these innocents reveals her grim belief that the world is a topsy-turvy place where trustworthy authority figures are nowhere to be found and the defenseless are tortured for sport. Naomi’s solitude in the hospital underlines this idea of a world gone mad. While we know that Obasan has visited her, she does not make an appearance in the chapter, and the only visible authority figure is the nurse who yanks at the knots in Naomi’s hair. Only when her father returns is some sense of order restored to Naomi’s world.

Naomi’s suffering and terror are entirely internal. She is a quiet, stoic child by nature, so she is not given to expressing herself. She sees herself as a survivor. When the nurse rips at her hair, she thinks of the weeds and trees that are ripped from the ground, as well as the pain the fairy-tale character Rapunzel must have endured when her prince used her long hair for a ladder. Naomi tells herself that she too can endure discomfort without complaint. In addition, she has been taught the value of suppressing emotion out of consideration for other people. And finally, she has gathered that from Stephen’s racist game that to be “yellow” is to be cowardly, and she is determined not to be yellow. All of these factors combine to keep Naomi quiet about her fears, doubts, and physical pains. The achievement of these chapters, particularly Chapter 22, is to show us what can roil beneath children’s placid exteriors.

Summary: Chapter 25

Naomi found out that the family had to move. At the time she didn’t understand, but as an adult she has seen the government letters ordering her family out of Slocan. As the family packed, Nomura-obasan, Saito-ojisan, Sachiko, and Nakayama-sensei came over. The minister led a service. By sitting on a box, Stephen accidentally cracked one of his mother’s records. The service continued, and the priest broke the communion wafer. Afterward, he said goodbye to everyone and went off to lead another service.

Summary: Chapter 26

 

 

 

Father disappeared one day. People poured out of town on trains. One day, Naomi and her family left Slocan. No one told Naomi where they were going or where her father was.

Summary: Chapter 27

Back in the present day, Naomi expects Aunt Emily and Stephen to arrive at Obasan’s soon. She feels exhausted with the effort of remembering the past, and more broadly with the burden of behaving politely, not staring, and trying to disappear. She thinks that by delving into the past, she is escaping the present, and vice versa.

She remembers talking to Aunt Emily in Granton after the conference first mentioned in Chapter 7. Naomi says that in 1945, families like hers had to choose between moving east of the Rockies and going to Japan. She knows that Kenji’s family went to Japan, where they suffered greatly. She is no longer in touch with anyone from Slocan.

On that night, she asked Aunt Emily if Mother and Grandma starved in Japan. They went for a walk, and Emily said she’d told Naomi all she could. She then changed the topic to Nakayama-sensei and his attempts to keep the community unified. She said no one in the family got their land back, even Uncle Dan, who was an intelligence officer in the Far East.

Naomi wondered if the efforts of letter-writers like Aunt Emily did any good.

Summary: Chapter 28

 

 

In 1945, Obasan, Uncle, Naomi, and Stephen went to the city of Lethbridge, Alberta, and then drove to a farm in Granton. They moved their things into a one-room hut and went to sleep. By morning, dust had coated everything.

Summary: Chapter 29

Naomi mentions a newspaper clipping from Aunt Emily’s package. The clipping describes the industry of “Jap evacuees” who worked on beet farms. Naomi says she can’t stand to remember the hardship: the flies that swarmed everywhere, their house, which was actually a chicken coop; the bedbugs; the muddy water they boiled and drank; the baths taken in the same tub; fainting in the beet fields; and being too tired to sing or talk. They stayed there for three years, until 1948, when Naomi was twelve. Not until 1949 were expelled Japanese Canadians allowed to return home.

Addressing Aunt Emily, Naomi says that the past will no doubt repeat itself in a different guise.

Summary: Chapter 30

In Granton, they received word from Father that Grandpa Nakane had died the day before they left Slocan, and that Father himself had had an operation. In the summer, the only way Stephen and Naomi could cool off was by sitting in muddy water or in the root cellar. In school, children tormented them with racist remarks. All of the Japanese students were called by Americanized versions of their names. Stephen was allowed to play the piano at school.

Analysis

The pace of the narrative picks up significantly in these chapters, and for an important reason: Naomi finds her years on the beet farm too painful to think about. Even as she writes about them, she protests that she can’t talk about them, that it will kill her. Whereas she lingered over small incidents and little details in her chapters about Slocan, she races through three years of life in Alberta in just a few pages. She also returns to her earlier technique of cutting rapidly back and forth between the present moment and past memories. This back-and-forth movement relieves the agony of staying in one place for too long. The fact that Naomi was able to linger for so long in her memories of Slocan suggests that they were relatively happy recollections.

Despite their brevity, these chapters are powerful and moving. Their spare quality is, in part, what makes them so successful. For example, the description of the family’s first night in the chicken coop that would be their house is brief and has little of the lyricism that characterizes much of Kogawa’s prose. In spite of, and because of, this spare quality, it forcefully conveys Naomi’s exhaustion, her mute acceptance of disasters she can’t control, and her full understanding of the dreadfulness of the family’s new living situation. The restraint of the prose reflects Naomi’s wariness, stunted reactions, and willingness to endure hardship without a lot of melodramatic complaining.

As an adult, Naomi faces some of the same stonewalling that made her childhood so perplexing. When she asks Aunt Emily about her mother, for example, she gets little more than a pained stare and a cryptic remark before Emily changes the subject. While Naomi does not react to this kind of evasion in a direct way, she is clearly frustrated with her aunt. In part, her irritation stems from the fact that Emily is more concerned with the broad issues than with specific people—and in Naomi’s view, a bunch of people pecking away at outraged letters will have little to no effect on anyone. She cares about her family members, not about the issues.

In Chapter 29, one of the most arresting in the novel, Naomi gives full vent to her fury. If remembering her time in Slocan was bearable, even sometimes enjoyable, remembering her days on the beet farm is incredibly painful. She lists the hardships she suffered in an anguished torrent, interweaving them with her present-day appeals to Aunt Emily. Naomi is furious at the government and at the cruelty of people, yes, but she is also angry with her aunt for failing to understand the pain and, ultimately, the uselessness of reviewing the past. Reliving what happened won’t give Obasan the youth stolen from her, or bring Uncle back to life. And in Naomi’s view, it won’t prevent future atrocities. As she says, addressing Aunt Emily, “Greed, selfishness, and hatred remain as constant as the human condition, do they not? Or are you thinking that through lobbying and legislation, speechmaking and storytelling, we can extricate ourselves from our foolish ways?” In this impassioned, vivid, cynical, and compelling chapter, Naomi heaps scorn on the idea that the efforts of energetic optimists will enable victims to make peace with their pasts, or stop future disasters from occurring.

Summary: Chapter 31

In Granton, Naomi often went to the swamp to hang out. One evening Stephen came along on his bicycle. She showed him a frog with a broken leg, and he told her to come home. She brought the frog with her, imagining that it might be a prince. Nakayama-sensei was at the house. Naomi says she doesn’t remember when she was told, though at this point in the narrative, we’re not sure what Naomi is referring to. She remembers going outside, gathering water and mud, and making a home for the frog in a glass bowl. She feeds the frog for weeks, until its leg heals and it escapes.

Summary: Chapter 32

 

 

 

In 1951, the family moved to a house in town. Stephen worked on a cantata for a school production. Penny Barker, the daughter of the farmers for whom Naomi’s family worked, came to their house, probably to petition Stephen for a part, and Naomi told her that her father was dead. As soon as she said the words aloud, she felt sick.

Stephen said that Mother and Grandma must be dead, too. Aunt Emily had written hundreds of letters trying to find them, with no success. However, two letters in the package Emily sends to Obasan’s house in the present day concern a request for Mother’s readmission to Canada, which suggests that the sisters had been in contact.

Summary: Chapter 33

After high school, Stephen went to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. There, he won a prize for a piano competition and toured Europe. He also spent time with Aunt Emily, whom Naomi hadn’t seen in twelve years at that point. When he came home to Granton from school, he was surly and quiet. He sometimes refused to eat Obasan’s food. During one of Stephen’s summer breaks, Aunt Emily came for a visit. She was warm to Naomi, but didn’t smile when she greeted Obasan. One night, Naomi hears the adults whispering about whether or not to tell the children something. Obasan prays, and Aunt Emily cries.

Summary: Chapter 34

The cardboard folder Aunt Emily had on that mysterious night is included in her package. Earlier that day, Naomi had seen Obasan reading its contents with a magnifying glass.

Mr. Barker, the family’s former employer, comes over with his second wife, Vivian, to say he’s sorry for Obasan’s loss. Vivian reminds Naomi of the first Mrs. Barker, who didn’t want her daughter Penny playing with Stephen and Naomi. Through Vivian’s eyes, Naomi sees how cluttered and unappealing the house is. Mr. Baker asks after Stephen, but Naomi hasn’t seen him in eight years. The last time he came home, he brought a divorcée from Paris with him.

 

 

Obasan brings tea in dirty cups. Vivian seems ill at ease, and Naomi says she wishes she could banish the offensive smells and sights from the house. The Barkers ask if Obasan will be all right. Deaf, she does not answer them. Mr. Barker praises Uncle, whom he calls Sam, and says, “ ‘It was a terrible business, what we did to our Japanese.’ ”

Naomi thinks about the well-intentioned questions and comments she often gets about whether she likes Canada, how good her English is, and if she’s ever been “back” to Japan. She says she is from Canada. The fact that Obasan is not puts her in “silent territory,” beyond multiculturalism and racism.

Analysis

While Chapter 31 intimates that Naomi’s father has died, we don’t find out for sure until Chapter 32. This uncertainty mirrors Naomi’s own refusal to comprehend her father’s death. Because the news is too staggering for her to take in, she shuts down. Instead of coming to grips with the death of her parent, she channels her attention toward the injured frog. This creature resembles the chicks and kittens of previous chapters in his helplessness and innocence, and becomes a receptacle for the love Naomi will no longer be able to express to her father. His recovery is bittersweet: It is a pleasant surprise, and shows the success of Naomi’s kind ministrations, but it also underlines Naomi’s powerlessness to bring back her father.

Chapter 34 features our first glimpse at an extended interaction between Naomi and white people since Rough Lock Bill saved her life at the lake. While many chapters have contained references to snubs, racist remarks, or the threat of physical violence, these references have been fleeting. Here we get a long look at an uncomfortable meeting of cultures. The interaction is particularly fraught because the Barkers employed Naomi’s family during the war years, which makes them directly responsible for the subhuman living conditions their employees suffered. Mr. Barker’s remark about the bad treatment of “our Japanese” is not only clichéd and offensive, it is dripping in unintentional irony. He fancies himself a kind man who has embraced multiculturalism, and perhaps he is. Even if his intentions are sterling, however, that does not erase the fact that his pleasantry about the poor treatment of Japanese Canadians grossly understates his own part in that poor treatment.

Chapter 34 suggests that good intentions are not enough. It is nice of the Barkers to pay their condolences, but their behavior once they get to Obasan’s house undermines their kind gesture. Mr. Barker hollers at Obasan in broken English, as if she will understand bad grammar more easily; Vivian perches on the edge of her seat as if loath to touch the furniture; both seem ill at ease. Similarly, the good intentions of people who ask Naomi whether she likes Canada, among other questions, do not excuse their cluelessness.

Naomi reacts with irritation to the Barkers, just as she does to the offensive questions. When she says she wishes she could erase the unfamiliar smells of Japanese food from the house, or see the dust she and Obasan are too short to see, she is being sarcastic and displaying her frustration with the stereotypical thinking of white Canadians. But if anything, her reaction is remarkably measured. She wonders if perhaps Vivian is being solicitous, rather than just condescending. She assumes that even her rudest interlocutors have kindness in their hearts.

Naomi sees Obasan’s identity as less complex and tortured than her own. Naomi herself is Canadian through and through—but she faces a constant barrage of questions about her nationality. Her self-image doesn’t match the way many of her fellow Canadians perceive her, and frustration is the result. As Naomi sees it, Obasan doesn’t face the same kind of problems. She is what people assume Naomi is: originally from Japan. That fact, and her silence, makes her inviolate.

Summary: Chapter 35

Naomi dreams of her mother doing a death dance with a rose in her mouth. The rose is connected to Obasan’s twine, which is connected to Aunt Emily’s package. A figure Naomi calls the Grand Inquisitor descends and begins opening her eyes and her mother’s mouth. Naomi wakes. She thinks that to understand her mother, the Grand Inquisitor has to listen to her silence. She thinks that the rose stands for her mother’s story. She decides to stop her inquisition, her search for the truth. Obasan wakes and begins reading the papers from Aunt Emily’s cardboard folder.

Summary: Chapter 36

 

 

As Naomi does the dishes, Nakayama-sensei, Aunt Emily, and Stephen arrive. Naomi is surprised by the gray in her brother’s hair. He seems uncomfortable. Nakayama-sensei says a prayer over the tea and Uncle’s bread. Then he looks at the letters. Aunt Emily says she wanted to tell the children a long time ago. Nakayama-sensei reads the letters aloud. They are from Grandma Kato to Grandpa Kato.

Summary: Chapter 37

Naomi mentions that in high school, she learned that her mother’s grave had been found. The first letter from Grandma Kato is brief. The second says that Grandma Kato and Naomi’s mother decided keeping silent would help the horror abate, but it didn’t. Naomi’s mother specifically didn’t want her children to know what had happened. Grandma hoped by writing about the events to her husband, she would rid herself of some pain.

In 1945, Grandma and Naomi’s mother were in Nagasaki, helping Naomi’s cousin, Setsuko, with her new baby, Chieko, who looked just like Naomi. While they were there, many of their family members died in a bombing of Tokyo. One day, as Grandma was getting ready to make lunch, with Chieko strapped to her back, the bomb hit. Grandma was knocked unconscious. She awoke to find a scene of total devastation. The baby was unconscious, but alive. Both of Setsuko’s eyes had been blown out, and her skin came off against Grandma’s hand, but she was still alive and calling for her son, Tomio. Tomio survived unharmed. Everywhere there were people hideously maimed and dying. Grandma headed toward the house of Setsuko’s father-in-law. At a stream, exhausted, she fell asleep. When she woke, she and the baby were at the father-in-law’s house, but Tomio was gone. He was never found. One day, Grandma came across a bald woman who had lost her nose and a cheek. Maggots filled her wounds. This woman was Naomi’s mother.

Naomi’s mother recovered in a hospital. She insisted on wearing a mask after her bandages were off. At four years old, Chieko was dying of leukemia.

Nakayama-sensei says a prayer for forgiveness. Naomi asks her mother to help her listen.

Summary: Chapter 38

 

 

Naomi speaks to her mother as if she were there, telling her she shares her horror. She says that Obasan and Uncle granted her mother’s request for silence. She says that silence destroyed them both.

Nakayama-sensei is still praying. Naomi says she feels her mother’s presence and love.

Summary: Chapter 39

In the small hours of the morning, Obasan looks through a box of photographs. Although Obasan does not weep, Naomi knows she is grieving. She puts on Aunt Emily’s coat and drives to the coulee.

The novel ends with an excerpt from a 1946 memo written by the Co-operative Committee on Japanese Canadians, arguing against the deportation of Japanese Canadians.

Analysis

In a novel largely concerned with the formation and retention of family bonds, Stephen and Naomi’s relationship is remarkable for its coolness. The siblings have lost nearly everyone close to them, including their mother and father, and we might expect them to cling to each other. Yet they see each other about once a decade, and their reunions are passionless events. When Stephen arrives at Obasan’s house, for instance, he doesn’t even greet Naomi. Their remote behavior toward each other may be a casualty of their family’s total failure to communicate. For various reasons, the grownups constantly hid information from Naomi and Stephen throughout their childhoods and well into their adulthoods. This habit of obfuscation seems to have been passed on to the siblings, who never once have a conversation of real import.

In these last chapters of the novel, Naomi is still struggling with the merits of silence versus the benefits of memory. Her nightmare about her mother helps her decide, at least for a time, that silence is best. The evil figure in the dream is the Inquisitor, who brutally opens Naomi’s eyes and her mother’s mouth. He is the villain, but he is also a stand-in for Naomi. For years, she has been metaphorically attempting to force open her mother’s mouth, to wrench the story of those lost years from her absent, and now dead, parent. Over the course of the novel, she has also been forcing her own eyes open, as the Inquisitor does in the nightmare, by making herself revisit scenes from her youth. If Naomi is like the Inquisitor, and the Inquisitor is a terrifying villain, it follows that Naomi’s quest to unearth the truth is ill-advised.

Yet while Naomi understands and forgives her mother’s desire to keep silent about the atrocities she saw and suffered, in the end she seems to feel that the silence was not worth the price. It is better to know all. Chapter 38, a lyrical outpouring of emotion addressed primarily to Naomi’s mother is characterized by Naomi’s longing to share her mother’s pain. In the end, Naomi insists she feels a mystical connection to her deceased mother, as if she is still present somehow. While this is a comforting sensation, its pathos is a strong argument for truth telling. Naomi must talk herself into feeling her mother’s presence, because she has almost nothing else to go on. Hard facts, even the most disturbing hard facts, are precious to her. She clings to photos of her mother as if they are talismans, studying the buckles on her shoes as if they have some deep meaning. We suspect that if she knew more about her mother, if she had been in communication with her while she was still alive, Naomi wouldn’t so desperately need to insist that she can still communicate with her after her death.

The novel ends on a hopeful note. Naomi doesn’t explicitly or even implicitly rescind her earlier assertion that reliving the past will not help prevent future atrocities. But nearly all of the clippings and letters and other historical material included in the narrative to this point have demonstrated the breathtaking racism of Canadians. This final excerpt, in contrast, proves that there were at least some Canadians who were outraged over their country’s treatment of its citizens. The inclusion of this positive excerpt represents a shift, however small, from cynicism about the human capacity for evil toward acknowledgment that some people care about, and fight against, injustice

1. Mother removes the live chicks first, placing them in her apron . . . there is calm efficiency in her face and she does not speak. Her eyes are steady and matter-of-fact—the eyes of Japanese motherhood. They do not invade and betray. They are eyes that protect, shielding what is hidden most deeply in the heart of the child.

Explanation for Quotation 1 >>

This passage identifies the positive and deeply comforting side of traditionally Japanese notions of proper behavior. The preference for tranquility over displays of raw emotion does not necessarily indicate repression. It can also suggest, as it does here, a complete and calm acceptance of another person’s behavior. Naomi’s mother is not faking serenity. The matter-of-fact expression on her face is an accurate expression of her matter-of-fact attitude toward her daughter. Her daughter’s foolishness has just resulted in the death of innocent chicks, but Naomi’s mother is not angry, and she is not simply hiding her anger under a mask of calmness. Whatever Naomi does, her mother will accept. Whatever Naomi thinks, feels, and says, her mother will greet with serenity. It is a policy of total, effortless, and unconditional love. It is also a policy of respect. The eyes that “do not invade and betray” allow Naomi to have her own individual self, separate from her family and as private as she wants it to be.

In the broader context of the novel, the action Naomi’s mother takes in this passage highlights her role as powerful comforter and protector. Throughout the narrative, chicks stand for innocence, and their violent deaths reveal the unrelenting cruelty the world rains on its most undeserving inhabitants. Naomi’s mother has not been able to prevent the death of many of the chicks, which suggests that no one has the power to make an unjust world just, but in this passage she does save some of them. Her ability to scoop up and rescue the defenseless birds is unique. Elsewhere in the novel, no one intercedes on their behalf. The suggestion is that in Naomi’s life, only her mother is truly capable of protecting her. When Naomi’s mother goes to Japan, she leaves Naomi alone in a harsh world.

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2. We must always honor the wishes of others before our own. We will make the way smooth by restraining emotion . . . To try to meet one’s own needs in spite of the wishes of others is to be “wagamama”—selfish and inconsiderate . . . It is such a tangle trying to decipher the needs and intents of others.

Explanation for Quotation 2 >>

Naomi channels the voice of Obasan, and her other traditional relatives, in this explanation of what it means to be wagamama versus what it means to be generous and selfless. According to Naomi’s characterization, it is important to be emotionally restrained not for the sake of your own dignity, but for the sake of other people’s happiness. Those around you will feel comfortable if you are serene, whereas displays of emotion might make them feel awkward. Of all of the characters in the novel, Obasan is most successful at keeping her own emotions in check and putting the needs of others above her own. It is no coincidence that she is also the most silent and inexpressive character in the novel. If restraint of emotion and consideration for others is good, the erasure of visible emotion and the total subsuming of self to others is best by extension.

The final sentence of this passage is itself quiet and restrained, but it hides a world of passionate objection to the beliefs held by Obasan and Naomi’s mother. In fact, we could argue that the last sentence is not restrained at all, but rather that it quivers with barely suppressed anger. What Naomi hints at here and spells out elsewhere in the narrative is that self-effacement and suppression of emotion can lead to utter disaster. If you spend all of your time thinking about what other people need, she suggests, you wind up neglecting your own needs. Moreover, the theory behind this traditional view of good behavior may be fundamentally flawed. To put the desires of other people above your own desires is to assume that other people are just as well-intentioned as you are, and that their desires are just as noble. But what if what other people want is to rob you, drive you from your home, and strip you of your basic rights? Should you then stay silent, suppress your emotions, and put your own needs behind those of your would-be oppressors? For Naomi, the answer is clearly no. She worries that her aunt and mother’s system of thought is part of what left her people so vulnerable to the cruelties of the Canadian government.

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3. Aunt Emily, are you a surgeon cutting at my scalp with your folders and your filing cards and your insistence on knowing all? The memory drains down the side of my face, but it isn’t enough, is it? It’s your hands . . . pulling the growth from the lining of my walls, but bring back the anesthetist turn on the ether clamp down the gas and bring on the chloroform . . .

Explanation for Quotation 3 >>

Chapter 29, one of the most powerful in the novel, features this furious diatribe against Aunt Emily. To this point, Naomi has tolerated her aunt’s insistence that she think back on her childhood. She has sometimes evinced annoyance at Aunt Emily’s pushiness, but her reactions have been notably mild. Here, however, she lets fly with a full-throated rant. She is no longer concerned with keeping up a serene countenance or suppressing emotion for the comfort of those around her. Enraged and speaking honestly, she likens Aunt Emily to a mad doctor armed with folders and filing cards that work like scalpels, cutting into Naomi’s head and forcing out the bloody memories. The deterioration of the grammar toward the end of the passage reflects Naomi’s anger, which overflows the boundaries of commas and periods. The call for ether, gas, and chloroform suggests Naomi would rather die than be forced to relive her childhood any more.

Still, the fury in this passage does not mean that Naomi is permanently angry at her aunt, or that Kogawa wants us to dismiss the work of remembering as painful and unnecessary. Naomi’s metaphor is full of violence and blood, but it does not necessarily cast Aunt Emily as a villain. She is hurting Naomi, true, but she is also like a surgeon performing a necessary operation. She seems to sadistically want Naomi to produce more and more memories, a process that Naomi likens to blood pouring “down the side of [her] face”—but perhaps she is not sadistic at all, but rather intent on removing the poison from Naomi’s system. Naomi says that Aunt Emily is “pulling the growth from the lining of [her] walls,” an image that compares her childhood memories to a cancer that Aunt Emily is rooting out. The fury on display in this passage is directed here at Aunt Emily, but its real target is the memories and the people who forced those memories into being.

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4. And then it’s cold . . . the skin . . . grows red and hard and itchy from the flap flap of the boots and the fine hairs on my legs grow coarse there and ugly.
I mind growing ugly.

Explanation for Quotation 4 >>

The pared-down style of this passage is typical of Chapter 29, which is narrated in a simpler, less lyrical fashion than are many of the other chapters. The unadorned prose reflects the difficulty of Naomi’s life on the beet farm. There is no time for waxing rhapsodic about nature, or making pat observations about animals. She and her family members are doing backbreaking work. They are exhausted and hungry. When Naomi isn’t frozen solid in the winter, she is warding off fainting attacks in the summer. In the paragraph immediately before this one, she describes the way the intense heat made her tear ducts dry out. Now, in this paragraph, she describes the sudden onset of winter, which brings its own set of discomforts. The straightforward prose style here also reflects Naomi’s dull anger at Aunt Emily, whom she addresses periodically throughout the chapter. There is a sense that with each new appalling detail, Naomi is asking her aunt, “You want to hear what it was like? This is what it was like.”

Naomi addresses her physical appearance in this passage, something she almost never does. She tells us early on in the novel that she is small and slight, but beyond that, she makes almost no remarks about her own body. What little information we do get about the way she looks is confined to descriptions of her clothing and shoes. The scarcity of physical details elsewhere in the novel makes this description of her raw skin and hairy legs almost shocking. The sentence “I mind growing ugly” is moving because of its remarkable frankness and simplicity, and because it marks one of the only moments during which Naomi analyzes her own body, and her natural girlish vanity, with unswerving honesty. The sentence is set apart on its own line, as if Naomi is forcing out this honest declaration word by word, with difficulty.

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5. Obasan . . . does not dance to the multicultural piper’s tune or respond to the racist’s slur. She remains in a silent territory, defined by her serving hands. She serves us now, pouring tea into Mr. Barker’s cup. She is unable to see and stops halfway before the cup is full.


Chapters 1 and 2

 

 

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