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Obasan | Study Guide

Joy Kogawa

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Obasan | Chapters 37–39 | Summary



Chapter 37

Slowly, the truth of what happened to Naomi's mother Nesan and Grandma Kato is revealed. They had arrived in Japan to visit Grandma Kato's mother, who actually recovered. Then in January 1945 Grandma Kato's niece Setsuko, who lived in Nagasaki, had a baby. Nesan and Grandma Kato went to help her and to take care of the household, which included Setsuko's husband and sweet 4-year-old son Tomio. Then on March 9, 1945 the atomic bomb fell on the city.

Nagasaki became a nightmare landscape of flattened buildings, blood, and death. Grandma Kato pulled herself from the rubble, still holding the baby, and found her niece Setsuko near death, horribly burned with her eyes blown out. Grandma Kato also found little Tomio and then went to look for Nesan. Eventually they reached a shelter, and while Grandma Kato slept, Tomio wandered off. Grandma returned to the area of her niece's home to look for him but instead found Nesan. Half of her face was gone, she was bald, and maggots wriggled in her wounds. From that day on, she wore a mask. She also insisted that the children never be told what happened to her. As for the others, Tomio was never found, and the baby later died of leukemia, likely caused by the radiation.

Nakayama finishes reading and says that in the word there is brokenness, but within brokenness is the unbreakable name. The world cannot heal, he says, until there is love, and there can be no love without forgiveness. Since no one is innocent, he goes on, we must all forgive each other before the healing can begin.

Chapter 38

After hearing the contents of the letter, Naomi begins to listen to her mother's voice, as Nakayama has urged her to. She speaks to her, calling her Silent Mother and Martyr Mother, a parent who tried to protect them with lies. But the lies don't camouflage her pain, and Naomi feels that she is in the fires with her mother. She pictures her mother as a maypole and a tree, something she is joined to by birth, but the tree is now dead and the child unable to speak. "Gentle Mother," Naomi says, "we were lost together in our silences." But as Nakayama continues to pray, Naomi thinks that because she is no longer a child, perhaps she can finally know her mother's presence, since "love flows though the roots of the trees by our graves."

Chapter 39

After a sleepless night Naomi wakes to find Obasan looking at Uncle's ID and going through old photographs. Naomi thinks about the nature of grief and tells the lost loved ones to "rest in your world of stone." She slips out of the house to the ravine she visited with Uncle only one month before, remembering his voice and smelling the perfume of the flowers.

The last pages of the novel provide an excerpt from a memorandum sent out by the Co-Operative Committee on Japanese Canadians. It urges the House and Senate of Canada to repeal the Orders-of-Council on the deportation of Japanese Canadians to Japan, providing 10 powerful reasons for doing so, and concluding that letting the orders stand is an adoption of the methods of Nazism, and like them, are crimes against humanity. The memo is dated April 1946, after the end of the war. (The Supreme Court of the country allowed the orders to stand, but the deportations were eventually abandoned due to public opposition. Before that happened, however, 4,000 people had been forced to leave.)


Naomi finally learns the true horror of what happened to her mother and grandmother in the bombing of Nagasaki. Nesan, still believing that one person should not burden another, and that silence can be kinder than the truth, had insisted that her children never learn what happened to her. She never realized that her act of martyrdom hurt her children in other ways that were perhaps more profound. Without facts they felt abandoned and were left to imagine what might have happened. At times they also became angry, as Stephen did, or lost. They clung to possessions like the doll and the records as though they were lifelines to their missing mother. But in the end they all, as Naomi said, were "lost together in our silences." The message seems to be that the truth, no matter how painful, is always preferable to lies, silence, and deception. But if harm is done, on can turn to Nakayama's unshakable belief in the healing power of love and forgiveness.

The reader never finds out how Stephen reacts to the news, but Naomi's visit to the ravine seems to suggest that she, at least, may now be free to move forward while remaining connected to the past. She can still hear Uncle's voice, and she can now smell flowers, a symbol of her mother in her dreams. The bitterness, though, will never entirely disappear. By including the document protesting the treatment of Japanese Canadians—a document that made a clear case against deportation that that was ignored for years—there may be an implication that some things simply cannot be forgiven. But it may also show that even in the face of unspeakable racism, there were still good people trying to make a difference.

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