Literature Study GuidesObasanChapters 13 15 Summary

Obasan | Study Guide

Joy Kogawa

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Obasan | Chapters 13–15 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 13

One of Naomi's last pleasant memories is of the Nakane and Kato families proudly looking on as Naomi and her brother participate in a Christmas pageant. She also remembers gifts they received that year. Emily shows Naomi a book called "The Book of Golden Knowledge." It tells the stories of martyrs and brave children, and Naomi wonders how well her own family would do if they were tortured, and who would last longest without betraying the rest.

Except for the holiday traditions, though, things are changing in the household. No one comes to visit in the evening anymore, her father is constantly coughing, and Stephen has an injured leg. Then one night Naomi overhears her father and Aunt Emily talking. She is able to understand only fragments of what they say. She hears references to Grandmother and Grandfather Nakane being in something called Sick Bay. Emily is worried because "the orders are to leave everyone in the Sick Bay behind." Emily comments that "they" must have rounded up everyone in Saltspring Island, where the grandparents had gone for a visit, and shipped them to a place called the Pool, which she quietly describes as a nightmare. She says she will go to the authorities and try to get the grandparents out. Then Naomi hears her father say that he will have to leave all this in Emily's hands because "his time is up." At that moment, Stephen begins yelling to Emily that she must get home before the curfew begins.

Chapter 14

In this chapter, the fragments from the conversation Naomi heard are given shape and context. The grown-up Naomi begins to read her Aunt Emily's journal, written in the form of letters to Naomi's mother, who was still in Japan at the time. The letters were Emily's way of keeping a record of everything that occurred while her older sister was away. They cover a period from December 5, 1941 to May 21, 1942. During those short five months, the Japanese Canadian community of British Colombia was devastated, and Naomi's family was torn apart.

Reading the letters, Naomi is transported back to that time period. After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, fear of attack and invasion by the enemy increased. Led by Ian MacKenzie, the federal cabinet minister from British Columbia, officials on the west coast called for the Canadian government to take action against anyone with Japanese ancestry. Responding to the pressure, the government designated a 100-mile strip along the coast as a "protected area." All people of Japanese ancestry who lived there were to be relocated, beginning with the men. They were all considered security risks, even if they were naturalized citizens or born and raised in Canada. Some families found sponsors further inland who offered to let them live with them. The rest were sent by the government to internment camps in "ghost towns," desolate abandoned areas where there was no electricity, no running water, and only minimal sanitation. Those unable to leave in time were rounded up and sent to Hastings Park, exhibition grounds that had been converted into holding areas where people were detained until they could be sent on to forced labor camps and concentration camps in the interior of the province.

The letters once again transport Naomi to her past. The Kato and Nakane families are caught up in this nightmare of relocation. Early on in her letters, Emily reports that Japanese-run newspapers have been shut down, and that Japanese families are not allowed to have radios. This is a way of erasing or preventing public memory. Their boats and cars are confiscated, and their business licenses are suspended. Everyone is forced to register, and the Nisei are labeled as "enemy aliens." Their citizenship is revoked, and a dusk-to-dawn curfew is put in place for all Japanese Canadians. Worse, round-ups and deportations begin. Grandmother and Grandfather Nakane, who were on a trip at the time, are caught in one of the round-ups and sent to the Pool, a prison within Hastings Park where people are crammed like livestock into filthy quarters that lack even the most basic necessities. Grandfather Nakane dies, and Emily later sees Grandmother Nakane wasting away in squalid conditions.

For a time, Emily clings to the notion that she and others like her are Canadians first. She has faith in the government and faith in the system. But people continue to be taken away. Finally it is Father's turn, and Emily desperately tries to protect the rest of the family. She and others in the Kato family receive a permit to stay with a doctor in Toronto, but the Nakane family is not included. Emily decides it is best for her and her father to go to Toronto and make arrangements for the others to follow them. It is decided that Obasan, Uncle, and the children will go to Slocan, one of the ghost towns, until she can help them. The diary entries stop at this point, and Naomi recalls that this is the last any of them see of Emily for twelve years.

Chapter 15

Naomi remembers leaving the coast of British Colombia and heading toward Slocan. She says that she and the other Japanese Canadians had become "the despised rendered voiceless." As they sit on the train carrying them away, they begin noticing each other, and providing comfort when they can. A haunted young mother, alone with her newborn, is cared for by Obasan and another elderly woman. Naomi sees that her brother Stephen is angry and resentful, refusing to eat anything that looks like Japanese food, just as earlier he had become frustrated with Obasan's broken English. Naomi gives him one of the toys she brought—a red, white, and blue ball—in her own attempt at kindness.

Analysis

These chapters begin exploring the horror of what happened to the Japanese Canadians in British Columbia, and the almost inconceivable speed at which it happened. As Emily and others eventually realize, the actions of the government against people of Japanese heritage were motivated by a deep-rooted racism that had its beginnings in the early 1900s. At that time, large numbers of Japanese immigrants arrived in Canada—primarily in British Columbia—leading to an atmosphere of resentment, hate and intolerance. World War II provided a convenient excuse for something to be done about the "Japanese problem," beginning with confiscation of property and ending with deportation. It is noteworthy, as Emily comments, that no similar measures were taken against people with German ancestry—a fact that lays bare the anti-Asian racism at the root of these actions.

The chapters also highlight the differences in how people were affected by and reacted to the government's actions. People like Emily and Naomi's father saw themselves as Canadians first and Japanese second. For perhaps too long, they had faith in the system, because as Emily says, Canada was a democracy and not a "totalitarian" regime like Germany. Only when Emily hears Fitzgerald's pledge that as long as he is in office "these Japanese shall not come back here" and sees the deplorable conditions in the internment camps does she realize that her faith in the government was naïve. At that point, her patriotism and loyalty are replaced by feelings of betrayal and fury.

Emily mentions other ways that people of Japanese heritage respond. Some feel that the best way to react is to obediently do what the government is asking. She notes that those people who don't resist, and who try to abide by the law, are the ones who are sent away first. Others continue to try to work within the system, battling through thickets of bureaucracy. Still others are determined to fight. Some of the young men go underground, others actively resist government orders, and still other people risk their own safety to defend the rights of others.

A more unsettling reaction is the one displayed by Stephen. His initial bewilderment and hurt at being ostracized at school transforms itself into something else. He seems to resent the heritage that has set him apart from the rest of society, and he wants to separate himself from it as much as possible. He criticizes Obasan's English, refuses to eat Japanese foods, and begins to hide in a cocoon of silence. This denial of heritage is perhaps a more effective and devastating blow to the Japanese Canadians than anything the government could have planned. It may also answer Naomi's question about who in her family would be first to betray the others under torture.

One poignant display of the good in human nature occurs on the train to Slocan, as Obasan and another older woman help the bewildered young woman with the premature baby. They show a quiet determination that even though they cannot control what is going on around them, they can still offer small kindnesses to each other. It is a lesson Naomi sees and internalizes.

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