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Obasan | Study Guide

Joy Kogawa

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Obasan | Chapters 4–6 | Summary



Chapter 4

Naomi urges Obasan to rest but knows the old woman will only do so when she decides she is ready. Her aunt keeps repeating "too old," which Naomi imagines her Grandmother Nakane must have said "in the dark days of 1942," when she was in a stall at the Vancouver Hastings Park prison. Naomi does not explain why her grandmother was in a prison—only that she was "too old then to understand political expediency, race riots, the yellow peril." She only knew a war was on.

Naomi then describes her extended family, which includes the Katos on her mother's side and the Nakanes on her father's. Grandfather Kato was a doctor, and Grandpa Nakane was an expert boat builder. Both sets of grandparents had immigrated to Canada from Japan and prospered. Naomi's mother Nesan and her sister Emily were born to the Katos. Naomi's Uncle Isamu, whom everyone called Sam, and Naomi's father Tadashi, whom everyone called Mark, were the sons of the Nakanes. Sam later married Ayako, whom Naomi calls Obasan, but they never had children. Naomi's mother and father married in 1933, and Naomi's brother Stephen became the first grandchild in both families. When Obasan sees Naomi gazing at a photo of the family and baby Stephen, she says, "Such a time there was once."

Naomi knows it was her parents who "knit the families carefully into one blanket" with parties and celebrations. But then Naomi mentions, "There was the worrying letter from Grandma Kato's mother in Japan—and there were all the things that happened around that time." She mentions that the blanket of the family began to fray, and muses how some families eventually disappear from the earth.

Finally Naomi recalls how her father helped Uncle with his boatbuilding practice, and remembers when an officer of the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the federal and national police force of Canada) admired the boat even as he confiscated it. Later, the RCMP took Uncle as well, along with the entire impounded Japanese fishing fleet. Years later Naomi recalls Uncle still wondering when he would be allowed to go back to the boats, but he never did. Now with his death, he is finally at peace.

Chapter 5

Later than night Naomi finds Obasan obsessively searching through the house for something that is lost. They go into the attic, where there are years of accumulated belongings, including an ID card for Uncle, with his name and number. As they search Naomi muses that all things turn to dust eventually—objects, people, and memories. This makes her recall her mother, who disappeared on a trip to Japan and never returned, for reasons that have never been explained.

Chapter 6

Naomi and Obasan return to bed. Naomi has a troubling dream that seems to be mixed in with buried memories. In the dream she and a man meet another couple in the forest. The other couple has been there before them, "forever in the forest," and the man resembles a British officer. They are clearing trees when a huge but gentle beast appears, somehow under the control of the other man, and soon revealed to be a robot. The dream shifts and the images grow increasingly puzzling when Uncle appears and does a death dance with a rose in his mouth. Naomi wakes to find that Obasan has found what she was looking for: a package from Naomi's Aunt Emily.


Chapters 3–6 add to the mysteries that were introduced earlier and introduce details that foreshadow the much larger and more troubling revelations that are to come. There is mention of Grandma Nakane in a prison—actually a well-known internment camp. This was during a time of war when race riots were taking place and there was ominous talk of a resurgence of the "yellow peril" (a racist term describing a threat to Western civilization from the growing power and influence of Eastern Asian people). There is also mention of a troubling letter from Grandmother Kato's mother in Japan, and a vague reference to "all the things that happened around that time." The most concrete detail, however, has to do with the confiscation of Uncle's own boat, the arrest of Uncle, and the impounding of the Japanese fishing fleet. Although the context for these events has not yet been provided, they are clearly tied to World War II, when Canada followed Britain into the conflict.

Also clear in these chapters is the devastating impact these events had on Naomi's relatives. Whatever happened, it eventually split up what had once been two closely knit families, led to the disappearance of Naomi's mother, and destroyed Uncle's livelihood. And although Naomi does not know the memories that Obasan carries with her, she knows that "the past hungers for her. Feasts on her." Naomi's dreams trouble her too, with images of death and the couple that was there "long before" Naomi and her family, perhaps a reference to the white Canadians and the British government who have the power in that country.

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