"That there is brokenness," [sensei] says quietly. "That this world is brokenness. But within brokenness is the unbreakable name. How the whole earth groans till Love returns."
So says Nakayama-sensei, the Anglican minister who has shepherded his Japanese-Canadian community through the pre-World War II times, through the internment during the war years and after, and still through the unsettled freedom that followed. It is a prayer; it is a benediction, a bringing together of the final threads of the past into an understanding, where understanding is the beginning of healing.
This evocative memoir by Joy Kogawa, published in 1981, has been acclaimed everywhere as a definitive recollection of the shameful treatment of more than 21,000 Japanese-Canadians, most of whom were Canadian citizens, living in British Columbia when Pearl Harbour was attacked. Shameful treatment not just by neighbours and friends, but by the government of their country through actions that can now only be called abominable and illegal, and based on "the lowest motives of greed. selfishness and hatred" (The Toronto Globe and Mail). Obasan is hugely responsible for the official 1988 apology from the Canadian government to the Japanese community for its actions, and is still teaching Canadians about their past.
Ms. Kogawa was born in 1935 of Japanese-Canadian parents, and, like the protagonist, Naomi, in her story, experienced internment in Slocan, B.C. and worked on a sugar beet farm in Alberta after the war. She saw family and friends lose everything they owned. She saw families split up, and knows of many of the Issei (those who immigrated to Canada as opposed to 2nd generation Japanese-Canadian who are Nisei) who signed a form to be sent back to Japan only so they would not be deemed "uncooperative" by the government where they were again treated as the enemy, and where some came to be among the victims at Nagasaki.
She saw many of her own generation try to become less Japanese, like Stephen in the book, because of the hatred and discrimination. She herself worked tirelessly for recognition and redress from the government, like Aunt Emily in the novel, and finally, saw those efforts meet with success when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney stood in the Canadian House of Commons (1988) and read an official apology after NDP leader, Ed Broadbent, read an excerpt from Obasan.
This book is filled with beautiful, haiku-like descriptions and poignant enigmatic phrases that waft over the reader like waves, to come over and over again until they sink in, and understanding comes. It begins:
There is a silence that cannot speak.
There is a silence that will not speak.
Beneath the grass the speaking dreams and beneath the dreams is a sensate sea. The speech that frees comes forth from that amniotic deep.
This book speaks out for that silence, and for the dreams. Based on not only her own memories and oral accounts of others, this story is also based on research done in the archives of the government of Canada, where Joy was allowed to pour over Hansard (the daily record of speeches in parliament) and letters, and also from newspaper headlines and articles which are part of the rich fabric of her story.
The story begins with the adult Naomi, a teacher in Cecil, Alberta, forced to look back on her childhood experiences as she and her aunt, whom she calls Obasan (grandmother) in the book, are beginning the process of mourning and burying her uncle. A package from her other aunt, Emily, is waiting for Naomi at Obasan's house. It forces Naomi to remember, and takes her back to a childhood of mixed and unresolved emotions. Her Aunt Emily is, and always has been, fighting for justice and has many documents, letters, and headlines in her package which Naomi would prefer to ignore. She is not a fighter:
What is done, Aunt Emily, is done, is it not? And no doubt it will all happen again, over and over, with different faces and names, variations on the same theme.
In a culture where children are taught to have absolute trust in adults, look down and never stare, the child Naomi is terribly uncomfortable with other Canadian citizens who stare at her in the street and those who betray her trust. In every adversity, there is never panic; the adults stay very calm and their speech neither condemns nor complains -- it only accepts and stays reassuring. It is what allows the children to have some sense of peace through the internment, first at the hastily converted, almost deserted mining camp at Slocan, B. C., then on the sugar beet farm at Granton, Alberta where they lived in a shack that had been a chicken coop. A place that is an "uninsulated, unbelievable thin-as-a-cotton-dress hovel never before inhabited in winter by human beings" and "in the summer [is] . . . an incubator". A place where the farmer's daughter only speaks to Naomi while waiting for the bus; not at school. For three years after the war, they are still not allowed to return to their home in British Columbia.
In an interview Joy did with Sally Ito, Joy said this about her own experiences:
The trauma of racism that the Nisei experienced turned into rejection of being Japanese. And the Issei who had loved and sacrificed so much for their children were, for the most part in my experience, rejected and demeaned by the Nisei. I used to see this when I was living in southern Alberta. It feels tragic to me now. We live in a society that does not honour the old.
There is so much to glean from this story, so much to learn about our past and what kind of future we might have, so much about hardship and, despite everything, the good that can come of hardship. You will truly enjoy reading this beautifully poignant book.
The children's version of this book is called Naomi's Road.
on February 13, 2012
Are you the kind of person who has vivid dreams and finds them fascinating? Do you walk around old dusty antique stores and find yourself absorbed in another world? Do those large picture books that have you try to find a small item hidden in a cluttered room draw you in? Do you hear rich poetic prose and be able to visualize every symbol and alusion? Are you knowledgeable enough about people and history and culture to be able to piece together and relate to what a character is trying to share with you through symbolism? Do you even know what all the literary elements are and how they are used? If yes, then you will be able to enjoy this book. If you understand the Japanese culture and mind-set, you will enjoy it even more. You will understand the mastery of brilliant connections that weave throughout Obasan like a spider's web in the attic. Pick silence: she is silent when she is abused because she is young and there is poor communication at home, she is silent against the bullies because silence is all she knows, she is silent because she is Japanese and in her culture, communication is silent and symbolic rather than straight forward, but because of this silence, so many things have gone wrong and unresolved. It is a story about an innocent culture that has had to suffer because of their nature to just bow their heads in silence and deference to others. Shallow thinkers just won't get it and may even find it boring or slow, but the deep thinker will be fulfilled. BTW, my son, who is a musician and self-described philosopher, was 17 at the time he read this book for English 12. He was so moved and inspired by it that he wrote a stunning poem after reading the dream sequences. He was also inspired to make a video using dry ice to depict the boat dream, and you should have read his thoughtful essays. Oh my, this is what Obasan can do to the right type of reader.
on February 23, 2009
This is one of my favorite 5 fictions I've ever read, and I probably have averaged a book every two weeks for the last 15 years. I started reading it for a second time literally seconds after finishing it the first time.
The language is so carefully considered and chosen that it is hard for me to explain the effect. The care taken in writing this book is very evident. I think this attention to detail might be a trait that the Japanese prize highly, because it reminded me of the Japanese men's gymnastic team at the last Olympics. Every movement was considered and perfectly executed, much as the words and paragraphs in this book were. I wished I had learned to read more slowly, so I could have savored it more.
Additionally, the topic is one that gets nearly no attention, even though it deserves it. If we are to read about the holocaust, and we should, we should also read about our own North American injustices - not because they are equal in scope (there is no comparison), but because they are similar in spirit. It helps to emphasize that there should be no "Us and Them" mentality when it comes to injustice. We all have done it, we all should learn from it.
These things being said, I do find it surprising that this book was required reading for any students. It could have a place in some post-secondary courses, but it is definitely more appropriate for adults than teenagers, and the poetic language is more for people interested in language, wordplay, and the use of words than those that like a straightforward plot.
on November 6, 2007
I admit, I wasn't impressed when I was first told to read this for my English class. It seemed a little boring. But as I got into the book it started leaving me with so many questions. It's the kind of book that you have to finish just to see what happens in the end. It's so full of symbolism, though it's a little difficult to understand it all. The chickens were just weird. I can understand the symbolism of it, but they were brought up way too much for my liking.
Overall the book was good. It makes a lot more sense when you have a class to discuss it with. I did, however, find the journal entries very boring [I never actually read them..]. There were bits that were too graphic for my taste, and I'm a big fan of gore. But it's overkill after a point. The last few chapters are just beautiful. They're extremely well written and I feel in love with them the minute I read them.
The book has very good messages portrayed through the whole thing.
I would give it a five if not for the confusion and gore factors. It's definitely a book that makes you think and one more appropriate for a group setting than something to just read on your own.
on December 3, 2001
I read Obasan once and thought that it was quite a different perspective. I mean, different perspective, by saying that most WWII stories take place in the U.S.A., but Kogawa has brilliantly let the reader rediscover Naomi, the main character's, experiences during the war through the eyes of Naomi. A short version of what happens is Naomi has a close family member that dies and she begins to recap her past that she was hoping to forget.
She grew up in Vancouver Canada. Her mother than decides to go to Japan to attend some other family business, then WWII begins when she is gone. Naomi is then left with her brother Stephen and her father. They are soon relocated to other parts of Canada being criticized about their heritage of being Japanese. Obasan to me is a well-written short novel that really well does explain Naomi's life but almost with a poetic sense. I would have to say the only thing that I was disappointed with was the fact that the book was very slow at the beginning and a bit confusing but eventually comes together towards the end.
on July 27, 2001
During World War Two, the Japanese Canadians were treated horribly. Concentration camps, relocation programs, and the forced scattering of the people in order to dissolve their culture and heritage and disable its ability to continue were the regular practices of the day.
If you grew up in the Canadian educational system, likely you never heard much, if anything, about this.
"Obasan," takes us into the narrative voice of Naomi, a Sansei (third generation Japanese Canadian), and her experiences of the horrible times and treatment of the Japanese Canadians. As a child of five, she saw Pearl Harbor and lived through the effects and changes it had on her life surrounded by a kind of protective silence from the adults around her. As a woman, years later, she delves back into the history of those times, and bursts the silence into the true events of Canada in World War 2.
"Obasan" evokes waves of empathy and pathos, and at the same time left me feeling shameful and disgusted with the Canadian government and population of that particular day. Discussion of the treatment of Canadian Japanese is both eloquent and important, and the debates between Naomi and her activist elder Aunt Emily are thought-provoking. "Let the dead bury the dead," Naomi posits, to which Emily replies, "Who's dead? You're not dead."
"Obasan," herself is the counterpoint of this novel, the aunt that raised Naomi for most of her youth, and whose silence so protected her. There's a real beauty to this woman's struggle, and Joy Kogawa has captured it wonderfully.
You owe yourself a read of this book.
on May 14, 2000
When I first purchased Obasan, I was unsure of how much I would enjoy the book. Fortunately, it turned out to be one of the best books I have ever read. In the novel, Joy Kogawa deals with the Canadian Japanese internment camps during World War II. She does a masterful job of using flashbacks to tell the story through the eyes of a young girl who is forced to move with her family to different camps and farms to survive during the war. Kogawa uses many autobiographical elements in the novel to help tell this magnificent story. Her descriptive language is beautiful and allows the story to flow along at an easy pace. She also utilizes many similes and metaphors to help the reader see what she sees a little better. Although there are not many symbols in the novel, the ones that Kogawa uses are utterly important to the story. Kogawa mainly focuses on themes of prejudice and silence, in which all the characters embody one or the other. The change in setting, both place and time, can be confusing at first, but once the reader catches on, they will become engrossed in the deep plotline. And although the story is written about Japanese Canadians and their struggle to make it during World War II, Obasan is definitely aimed at the general American audience, so that hopefully they will be able to see the light that Joy Kogawa shines on the entire situation. After reading the novel, I can definitely say that I recommend it to any and everyone out there that is interested in the history of the Japanese internment camps and World War II. And even if you aren't it is still a very well put together book that will pull you into its plot and not let you go. This novel is a definite must read for everyone.
on May 10, 2000
Obasan is a fictional account of what actions the Canadian government took to control Japanese-Canadians during WWII. Kogawa tells an undeniably historical story about the internment of Japanese-Canadians and its effect on families. She chronicles the journey of a young Japanese-Canadian as she confronts and accepts her past. Kogawa uses a unique point of view, extended metaphors, and official as well as personal documents and letters to tell her story.
Obasan is told through the eyes of Naomi Nakane, a Canadian-born Japanese woman. The story is often hard to understand because it is told from 36-year old Naomi through flashbacks. Throughout her life Naomi has tried hard to forget about her painful past, but her strong-willed Aunt Emily helps her remember. Thus Kogawa starts her use of flashbacks, skipping around the years of Naomi's life often making it hard to piece her life together. Kogawa tells much of Naomi's story from the eyes of a young child, which helps the reader see the internment of Japanese-Canadians more truthfully.
Kogawa also uses extended metaphors throughout her novel. One example is her continual comparison of Japanese-Canadians to birds. The birds in the book are always weak, helpless, and at the mercy of others. By her use of this metaphor, Kogawa is saying that the Japanese-Canadians are controlled by and at the hands of white Canadians. Another more horrific metaphor she uses to portray the same belief is in comparing the treatment of the Japanese in Canada to young Naomi being raped as a child. The rape and molestation of Naomi when she was four-years old permeates the entire book. It illuminates Kogawa's belief that the Japanese-Canadians were being horribly taken advantage of by their own government during and after WWII.
Finally, Kogawa uses official and personal documents to give validity to Obasan. She first uses newspaper clippings and government documents given to Naomi from Aunt Emily. These clippings helped Naomi to leave behind her indifferent attitude to embrace an interested and involved attitude toward the wartime treatment of Japanese-Canadians. However, the most influential factor that changed Naomi's attitude was a letter from her grandmother, who went with Naomi's mother before the war to Japan. Naomi has always been obsessed about finding out what has happened to her mother because she has not had any corrospondance with her for years. However, the letter reveals everything, and it is disclosed that her mother was a victim of the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima, Japan.
Obasan is a beautifully written book that tells the story of a woman coming to terms with a painful and degrading past. It also informs readers of an event that few know happened, but nearly parallels the Holocaust of the Jews in Europe. This book is great for anyone interested in history, the Japanese culture, and the trends that human nature follows in treating other people.
on February 17, 2000
I enjoyed reading Obasan, by Joy Kogawa. I have been very interested in Japanese Internment Camps for some time now and because of this my principal suggested that I read this book. The novel started out slowly, but after learning the characters it became very interesting. The main character in this novel is Naomi NaKane, a Japanese Canadian. Dealing with the loss of her mother who traveled to Japan and then the loss of her father because of illness, makes this young girl's life very difficult. She and her brother Stephen are taken care of by their aunt and uncle. They are evacuted from their home in Vancouver and sent to an internment camp where they lived for three or four years. Then they were then sent to Granton to work on a farm. Here they lived in a rat infested shack which had to suffice for a home. After a few years they moved to their own house in Granton. When they arrived here they had to deal with new people and a completely new life. Can you imagine being taken out of your home and then after you had just started to make friends in the camp, be placed in a new home far away from who and what you've known for your entire life. That is what Naomi has to deal with, only you see it through a five year old's eyes as she grows up. She deals with the loss of many things such as her family, her surroundings, basically her life. After reading this book I suggest that you read Itsuka, another book by Joy Kogawa that deals with Naomi's later life.
on May 20, 1998
Based on Joy Kogawa's personal experiences, Obasan reveals the Japanese-Canadian conditions during World War II. Kogawa recalls the removal, exile, and dispersion of first and second generation Canadians of Japanese descent through the eyes of Megumi Naomi Nakane, a Japanese-Canadian born June 18, 1936 in Vancouver, British Columbia (9). Using diverse voices, Kogawa employs personal accounts, symbolic dreams, childhood tales, traditional lyrics, intimate letters and official documents that intermesh and unleash various perspectives. Obasan captures a culture's unique use of language in regard to how people communicate within their culture as well as how their communication is influenced by other cultures; Obasan is a lesson in traditional values, religious beliefs, and recent history.
Naomi's interactive experiences model how traditional values are passed from generation to generation. She develops communication skills and proper etiquette from her elders, which are either reinforced or altered as a result of her environment. One tradition instilled in Naomi is the language of eyes. For generations, her family has invoked beliefs that eye contact should not contradict intent. For example, to stare in any situation would be considered disrespectful, so unless one's intent is to disrespect someone, one should never stare. Naomi's childhood experiences show that the eyes of Japanese motherhood are "steady and matter of fact. They are eyes that protect, shielding what is hidden most deeply in the heart of a child" (71). This language of the eyes goes hand in hand with basic etiquette and verbal communication. When it's apparent that someone has performed an act that would typically be punished under European etiquette, there is to be no blame. Naomi is not scolded for murdering several chicks by subjecting them to the attack of a hen; instead, mother and daughter have a calm conversation about carelessness being dangerous (72).
As a third generation immigrant, Naomi continues to! use terms of endearment such as "Obasan" and "Ojisan" in reference to respected elders. She also accepts traditional practices such as communal nudity in regard to bathing. She finds comfort in bathing with her aunt, and complies with the necessity of bathing in the public bathhouse: "We are one flesh, one family, washing each other or submerged in the hot water" (191). All of the latter examples may be rejected when viewed through western ethnocentric eyes; however, ancestral beliefs heavily influence Naomi through verbal and written words, thus she accepts and respects such tradition.
Obasan reveals how traditional entertainment such as European tales and classical song lyrics influence Japanese Canadian families. Naomi's comparison of her family's situation to the tale of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" shows how she embraces a story of the majority population as part of her identity (149). Throughout the novel, the influence such fairy tales have on Naomi is apparent. She frequently thinks in terms of childhood tales. Naomi compares Stephen's limp to Long John Silver walking with his pegged leg (162). Also, she finds the strength to endure tremendous pain inflicted by a nurse fiercely brushing her hair through a tale: "Rapunzael's long ladder of hair could bear the weight of prince or witch," she told herself, "I can endure this nurse's hands yanking at the knots in the thick black tangles"(179). Similarly, Naomi's family identifies with the oppressor's music. In times of turmoil and rejoice someone is playing an instrument, singing a song, or listening to a record such as "Silver Threads Among the Gold" (149). Along with the family's acceptance of majority culture's entertainment, there is also an acceptance of different beliefs.
The acceptance of the Anglican religious by Naomi's family, and other Japanese Canadians, demonstrates how beliefs of the majority culture are adapted. With conversion from Buddhism t! o Christianity there is a tremendous influence on the language of prayer and various religious practices. Nakayama-sensei, the minister from the Anglican Church in Vancouver, frequently leads the family in the Lords prayer and refers to scriptures, which embrace Anglican language (140). During one of many services, Nakayama-sensei reminds the family, "Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment" (209). Missionaries, Sunday school, and the Gospel become a part of daily life for Naomi's family. Holy days such as Easter, Passover, and Christmas become traditional observations and celebrations for these Japanese Canadians. Even though Naomi's family accepts the Anglican religion, they continue to respect those who are not as heavily influenced by Christianity.
Though most of the family is Christian, Grandpa Nakane is Buddhist. Thus, he requests that Grandma Nakane's body is cremated, instead of buried, and her remains returned to him (153). There is a tremendous outpour of support for Grandpa Nakane's wishes. Local carpenters volunteer to build a pyre and tend to the fire through the night. As the fire begins to burn, however, Naomi finds comfort in the Old Testament story about the angel that kept three men safe in the flames of a furnace. There is irony in the way Naomi comforts herself from strange feelings evoked by the ceremonial cremation. Though she respects Grandpa Nakane's Buddhist wishes, her thoughts about the situation are from a Christian's perspective. While Obasan studies the Japanese Canadian experience in regard to religion, the work also teaches a history lesson.
Aunt Emily's collection of official government documents, actual news clippings, and hand written journal entries in the form of letters to Naomi's mother are full of voices from the past from which the conditions of Japanese Canadians during World War II are disclosed. It becomes apparent that government officials! carefully selected written words to mask the circumstances of the oppressed. Records were written with language to disguise crime. Instead of describing concentration camps like prisons they were referred to as Interior Housing Projects. Also, comparisons are made between the degree of cruelty Japanese Americans and Canadian Americans have to endure: "American Japanese were interned, and sent off to concentration camps, but their property wasn't liquidated" (40). The latter is particularly interesting because Kogawa, a Canadian, points out that conditions of Japanese immigrants were worse in Canada than in America. The reference that such persecution took place is shocking to most Canadians and Americans alike, who are ignorant to the degree of discrimination that occurred.
To Japanese Canadians who continue to sing "O Canada, glorious and free, O Canada, we stand on guard for thee," (196) out of respect for the very country that enslaves them, and hold up the 'V' for victory (199) as the war comes to a close despite the fact that they have been ripped away from their homes and forced to live in squalor, it is important that historical documents depict their plight accurately.
Kogawa's portrayal of a people's plight through Obasan, despite the work's historical authenticity, demonstrates her understanding of the emotive power of words as conveyed through literature. Kogawa's provocative narrative has a profound impact on readers, enabling them to experience the Japanese Canadian's reality during the Second World War. "A lot of academic talk just immobilizes the oppressed and maintains oppressors in their position of power," she writes (42). The latter, along with her recognition that people must remember their history and retell it accurately explains why she reveals her story through a work classified as fiction. Historical accounts are changed with time, altered by individuals who don't want to face the past. By Kogawa writing a composition, instead of pu! tting together a collection of official documents, she influences a population that would otherwise not be reached. Obasan proves to be an effective tool with the power to change how history is depicted. As a result, this novel is being used as a teaching text in both Canada and America. As a matter of fact, it is used throughout Canada as a micro-history. Considering the impact Obasan has on readers as an educational instrument, everyone who is living should read this critically acclaimed novel.