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Obasan | Study Guide

Joy Kogawa

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Obasan | Chapters 10–12 | Summary



Chapter 10

As Obasan holds the family photo, Naomi thinks that of her as "the old woman of many Japanese legends," waiting for "the honor that is an old person's reward." This thought leads to another memory, of Naomi's favorite story. It tells of an elderly couple and a tiny, perfect boy that springs from the heart of a peach to become their child. The boy, Momotaro, is a gift from heaven. Momotaro lives with them for a time, but eventually he must leave and go out into the world. The old couple, hiding their grief, see him off, "careful, as he goes, not to weight his pack with their sorrow."

Naomi muses that like the old couple in the story, the adults in her life have always hidden their own problems, even as they tended to her every need. She never remembers being punished, either. Her Aunt Emily tells her that Naomi was a particularly quiet child, though, who never spoke or cried.

Chapter 11

Naomi now calls up two other memories. The first is of the time that she put a dozen chicks into a cage with a large, white hen. The hen immediately attacked the babies, pecking some of them to death. Naomi cried out for her mother, who deftly removed the living, dead, and wounded chicks from the cage. Later, she did not berate Naomi. She only pointed out that the situation "was not good," and presented a lesson: that "if there is not carefulness, there is danger." Naomi comments that there was nothing that she could not talk to her mother about, and nothing her mother didn't know about her—except for one secret.

The secret had to do with Old Man Gower, their neighbor. Trusted by the family, he began sexually abusing Naomi from the time she was four years old. He warned her not to tell her mother, and Naomi, who had been taught not to contradict adults, did as she was told. She became even more troubled when she began to find some of Gower's caresses to be pleasurable. Her guilt caused her to feel more separated from the mother.

Naomi then recalls how later in life, at the Japanese internment camp Slocan, a boy named Percy also abused her. She recalls once again being confused by her mixed feelings of terror and exhilaration. The two incidents have given her a recurring nightmare about naked Asian women being forced to lie down face up on a muddy road. Thinking that "the only way to be saved from harm was to become seductive," they attempt to use their sexuality to save themselves. Their ploy fails, and soldiers kill them.

Chapter 12

When Naomi is five, her mother and grandmother leave for Japan to see Naomi's great-grandmother, who is ailing. While she is gone, Naomi gradually becomes aware that something is very wrong in her community. One night, she wakes to find there is no light anywhere in her home or in the town. A blackout has been put into effect, designed to make the town less visible to any planes or bombers that may be flying overhead. Old Man Gower is at their house, promising Naomi's father that he will watch over their home and property, but Naomi hears a falseness in the man's voice. Naomi begins to connect this scene with recent events her brother Stephen has experienced in school. There have been air raid drills, and Stephen has been beaten up. But most ominous of all, a classmate had told Stephen that he and "all the Jap kids" were going to be sent away, because "they're bad, and you're a Jap." When Naomi asks if they are indeed Japs, her father replies "No. We're Canadian." To Naomi this is another riddle—they are "both the enemy and not the enemy."


These three chapters begin to explain some of the mysteries the narrator has introduced earlier in the story. The innocent folktale of Momotaro shows that a child is considered a gift from God, but it also carries the more troubling message that it is better to bury one's own sorrow and pain than to reveal them and possibly hurt those you love. That message appears to be one that Naomi's family has taken to heart.

The next memory Naomi shares is that of the twelve chicks that she endangered when she put them in the older hen's cage. Naomi's mother handles the situation calmly, not blaming her daughter but saying that if one isn't careful, there is danger. The episode becomes a metaphor for Naomi's abuse at the hands of Mr. Gower. He warned her to tell no one, and Naomi, for her part, had been taught that "one does not resist adults." She also believed that for another to witness one's shame was perhaps worse than the crime itself, so she doesn't go to anyone for help. Finally, she had internalized the story of Momotaro, which stresses honor as well as the importance of hiding one's unhappiness to spare others.

For all these reasons, Naomi does nothing to stop the man's advances. And unlike the time with the baby chicks, her mother does not know her daughter needs saving. Naomi feels a chasm open between them, so much so that she even begins seeking out Gower's attention. The damage causes by this event and her reaction to it turn her into the silent child that her Aunt Emily described. The abuse also follows her into adulthood, revealing itself through her poor self-image and in the recurring dream of the Asian women, where nakedness and sexuality lead to death at the hands of the men in power.

The episode of the yellow chicks being attacked by the white hen may also carry a second meaning, as birds appear as symbols throughout the novel. It's very likely that the yellow chicks represent the Japanese Canadians, and that the white bird represents their neighbors, who are beginning to turn on them. Anti-Japanese sentiment was certainly growing at an exponential rate, and the marginalization of Japanese Canadians had begun. Stephen's experiences at school showed that no matter where someone was born, he or she would be labeled as "other" simply because of physical characteristics shared with the enemy. And his classmates' logic that he is Japanese, and therefore bad, shows how easily other Canadians swallowed the propaganda of the time. Both Aunt Emily and Naomi's father have trouble accepting this, though, because both believe they are Canadians first.

Hints of even worse experiences also are planted in these chapters. Naomi's mother doesn't just leave on a visit—she disappears. And with the mention of Slocan, Naomi reveals that she eventually ended up in what will later be revealed as a "ghost town," one of the abandoned settlements that was used as an internment camp. Finally, the desperate attempts of Naomi's father to protect his property by entrusting it to Gower indicate that the government confiscation of property was underway, and that Japanese Canadians had little or no recourse other than to trust someone from outside their community.

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