Literature Study GuidesObasanChapters 7 9 Summary

Obasan | Study Guide

Joy Kogawa

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Obasan | Chapters 7–9 | Summary



Chapter 7

Naomi quickly learns what is inside the parcel Obasan found, although Obasan does not recall when it arrived. It contains material from her Aunt Emily—journals, papers, documents, and letters documenting the persecution of Japanese Canadians. Aunt Emily has always felt that it was critical for her community to tell the story of what happened to them during World War II.

Emily is a crusader, activist, and "word warrior." She first came to visit Uncle and Obasan in Granton in 1954, the same year Uncle began taking Naomi to the ravine. On her most recent visit, after attending a conference five months earlier, she attempted to share her knowledge of the government's appalling treatment of Japanese Canadians with Naomi. She spoke of the seizure and sale of fishing boats, the liquidation of Japanese property, the establishment of internment camps, and the revocation of citizenship for Japanese Americans. She also stated her conviction that what was done was actually an expression of long-buried racism targeting the Japanese; after all, no Canadian-born Germans were subjected to similar measures.

Finally Emily expressed her frustration with people who want to ignore the past and not rock the boat, or the ones who try to see the internment of the Japanese from the point of view of the government. These people, she said, are so busy seeing every side that "they neutralize concern and prevent necessary action." But Uncle and Obasan refused to feel her anger. Obasan said only that she has "gratitude only" for her life, and Uncle asserted that "in the world, there is no better place."

As Naomi remembers that evening and continues to sift through documents and government decrees, she thinks about how people who talk about their victimization have always made her uncomfortable, commenting that "it's as if they use their suffering as weapons or badges of some kind." She also wonders why people like her aunt continue to fight and rage and cry about the past since they have effected little change. She had once asked, "Shouldn't we turn the page and move on?" Her aunt's brief answer: "The past is the future."

Chapter 8

Naomi recalls that at the end of Emily's visit, Emily had asked her if she "really wanted to know everything." To placate her, Naomi said yes. Now, five months later, the box Emily sent is open before her. As Naomi continues to sort through the contents, which contain not only articles but also correspondence between Emily and many high-ranking government officials, Naomi thinks again that it all "belongs to yesterday and there are so many other things to attend to today." She recalls Obasan once saying something similar: "It is better to forget."

Naomi finds two letters written on rice paper and asks Obasan who they are from. Instead of answering, Obasan says only "Everyone someday dies" and goes into the next room. The last item Naomi looks at is a diary, the last pages of which are in the form of letters written to Emily's older sister Nesan, who was Naomi's mother. Suddenly Naomi has an urge to read the journal, but before she can begin, Obasan reappears with a photograph, saying, "This is the best time. These are the best memories." It is a picture of Naomi at age two or three, clinging to her mother's leg.

Chapter 9

As Naomi looks at the photograph, she recalls the moment it was taken. She had felt invaded by the stare of a young boy standing near them, and wonders where she learned to feel that a stare was an invasion and a reproach. She says her response was a Japanese reaction, and that those of them raised in Canada eventually learned to be visually bilingual.

Another cultural difference has to do with nudity. In public, it is inappropriate, but among family it is completely natural. Naomi remembers sharing a bathtub with her Grandmother Kato. This memory leads to another, of the magnificent house in a residential area of Vancouver where they once lived. Naomi tells herself that "none of this bears remembering," but she can hear her Aunt Emily's voice insisting, "You are your history." So Naomi tentatively begins picturing what was once her home. She sees her family sitting in the music room, telling stories and playing together. Naomi suddenly stops herself, telling herself that only fragments relate those memories to the person she is now.


Through the character of Emily, Kogawa begins providing some of the general history that will serve as background for the more personal story of Naomi's family. The author may also be using Emily to explain to readers why she herself feels compelled to tell these stories. She has said in interviews that, like Emily, she believes that "you are your history" and that to forget past events means that similar events will return to haunt us in the future. It is therefore the responsibility of later generations to keep the past alive and relevant, and to never stop fighting to right any wrongs that were committed.

Through the other characters in these chapters—Naomi, Uncle, and Obasan—the author presents other approaches to dealing with the past. Naomi sees no point in dwelling on events from long ago, and she is somewhat impatient with those who do. Uncle and Obasan prefer to forget the ugly parts of the past as much as possible, instead focusing on what they have to be grateful for in the present, and on happy memories of the past such as the ones Obasan sees captured in old photos. To Emily, though, these simpler attitudes are irresponsible. Taken together, the attitudes of the characters represent the complex effects abhorrent events have on survivors and their families.

The chapters also continue to provide additional clues about Naomi's family, but readers receive those details sporadically, and not necessarily in order. By presenting information this way, the author allows readers to experience Naomi's own piecemeal discovery of her family history, and to uncover buried memories along with her. Readers learn that the family was once well off and seemed happy. Naomi reveals that her absent mother was known for her "tender, kind, and thoughtful heart." But readers already know that something happened that ripped this family apart, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the events are tied to the persecution suffered by Japanese Canadians during World War II.

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