Obasan | Study Guide

Joy Kogawa

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Obasan | Context


Early Japanese Canadian History

Obasan takes place during a time when tensions between white Canadians and Japanese Canadians had reached their zenith. However, the racism at the root of the problem had been brewing for years.

Between 1905 and 1907 large numbers of Japanese immigrants began arriving in Canada. Almost immediately, they fell victim to a wave of hate and discrimination. Japanese, like other Asian people, were perceived as deceitful and as potential traitors who would never blend into Canadian society. Calls for a "White Canada" were heard, and in 1907 this growing hatred found its release in a riot in Vancouver, British Columbia against Asians. The riot occurred when an anti-immigration rally erupted into violence. Thousands of angry protestors flooded into the areas called Chinatown and Japantown, destroying buildings and attacking residents. Officially, few injuries were reported, and only three people were charged with any offense. Only one was convicted.

After the riots the government of British Columbia began to pass laws to control the situation—but not by confronting the racism. Instead the laws focused on the immigrants. The national government supported such legislation with the Chinese Exclusion Act, effectively closing off Chinese immigration to Canada. As for the Japanese, strict limitations were placed on the number of Japanese who could immigrate. Those who were allowed in the country were prohibited from participating in certain professions, voting, or holding public office. The Japanese community forged its way, focusing on farming, fishing, logging, and small businesses. But despite the orderly assimilation of the Japanese into Canadian society, certain Canadians aimed to completely eliminate those of Japanese heritage from the population.

Japanese Canadians and World War II

World War II presented an opportunity for the more racist elements of the British Columbian government to solve what they called the "Japanese Problem." First, officials used the War Measures Act to deny Japanese Canadians their civil rights. This act, established in 1914 after the outbreak of World War I (1914–18), had given the government almost unlimited powers during wartime that could not be challenged in court, effectively negating democracy for those who were affected. Japanese Canadians, roughly 80 percent of whom had been born in Canada, were then labelled as "enemy aliens." Those over age 18 were fingerprinted, registered with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and required to carry identification cards.

Then, on December 7, 1941, news of Japan's attacks on Pearl Harbor and Hong Kong shook the world. In both the United States and Canada, fears of a Japanese invasion took hold and were heightened by the sensationalistic reporting of the press. In the United States, President Roosevelt quickly put orders in place that enabled the military to move Japanese Americans from the supposedly vulnerable Pacific coast to internment camps in the western interior. In Canada, the old hatred and suspicion of Japanese Canadians reemerged and spread swiftly. The RCMP immediately began to arrest people suspected of collaborating with Japan, and 1,200 Japanese-owned fishing boats were confiscated by the Royal Canadian Navy, destroying the community's fishing industry. In response to the hostile climate, Japanese newspapers voluntarily shut down, and Japanese schools closed their doors.

Actions meant to weaken and marginalize the Japanese Canadians, who were no longer considered citizens, proceeded with frightening speed. Canadian diplomat Escott Reid said that British Columbia politicians were speaking of people with Japanese heritage "in a way the Nazis would have spoken about Jewish Germans." On February 24, 1942, the federal cabinet of Prime Minister William Mackenzie King issued an order to remove and detain "any and all persons" from a 100-mile "protected area" along the Pacific coast. Although Japanese Canadians were not mentioned specifically, they were clearly the target. Just a week later, the British Columbia Security Commission was established to carry out the expulsion of "all persons of Japanese racial origin" from the restricted area.

On March 16 the first Japanese Canadians were transported to Hastings Park—a converted exhibition grounds where the detainees lived in barns and stalls. Any property they left behind was supposedly put in "protective custody" by the government but was later confiscated and sold. From Hastings and places like it, many of the men were sent to labor camps or prisoner-of-war camps in Ontario. Their families were sent to internment camps established in abandoned "ghost towns" in the British Columbia interior. Some families were able to stay together by agreeing to work on beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba. Conditions in all of these places were poor. The camps were overcrowded and had no electricity or running water. On the beet farms, families were forced to live in tiny shacks, old granaries, or converted chicken coops. All told, approximately 90 percent of the Japanese Canadian population—some 21,000 people—were displaced during the war.

When the war ended, the problems of the Japanese Canadians did not. Racism was still intact, so Mackenzie King offered the Japanese two choices. They could move "back" to Japan—which many of them had never seen—or move to provinces east of the Rocky Mountains. About 4,000 former internees—3,300 of whom were aging Issei (first-generation immigrants) or children under 16—chose to go to Japan. They were no more welcome in that bombed-out country than they were at home. Most of the rest remained in Canada, but the last restrictions were not lifted until 1948–49, when they were once again allowed to return to the west coast and given the right to vote.

Activism and Redress

Despite the fact that not a single Japanese Canadian was ever charged with a war-related crime, Prime Minister Mackenzie King and his government never apologized for the treatment Japanese Canadians experienced before, during, and after the war. The Japanese Canadians themselves remained somewhat silent, although the National Japanese Canadian Citizens' Association (NJCCA) had been formed in 1947 to represent the welfare of the Japanese community. Then, in 1977 Japanese Canadians held a celebration to mark the anniversary of the first Japanese immigrants to settle in Canada. Revisiting their history seemed to spark memories of the experiences they suffered during World War II.

In 1980 the NJCCA changed its name to the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) and began to fight for redress—a remedy or compensation for wrongs done to a person or group. Their efforts were given visibility through the publication of Obasan, by Joy Kogawa, and from new histories that used the federal government's own documents. At first, the NAJC made little headway. When they campaigned for compensation in June of 1984, Prime Minster Pierre Trudeau responded, "I do not see how I can apologize for some historic event to which we ... were not a party." He also worried about opening up an avenue for similar claims by the Chinese and by Native peoples.

The group continued its work. It held seminars, house meetings, and conferences. It lobbied and petitioned the government, and solicited the support of different ethnic, religious, and human rights groups. It also made a concerted effort to educate both the government and the public. Eventually the NAJC gained overwhelming public support for its cause, and the government agreed to act. On September 22, 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney stood in the House of Commons to apologize for the injustices visited on Japanese Canadians. He called them legally and morally unjustified and asked the Canadian nation to accept responsibility for what it had done to its own citizens.

The Redress Agreement was signed, offering a symbolic compensation of $21,000 per individual to the people who had been uprooted and stripped of their property and their rights, $12 million to rebuild the infrastructure of destroyed communities, and $24 million to fund a Canadian Race Relations foundation. More important, though, was the abolition of the War Measures Act, the sweeping law that had enabled the government to legally remove the Japanese from their homes. It was a clear sign that such an action was morally wrong and a tacit promise that it would not be repeated.

The Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

One of the most devastating revelations in Obasan—the fate of Naomi's mother—is tied to August 1945, when the United States unleashed the first atomic bombs upon the world. Seeking to force Japan's surrender and bring an end to World War II, the US government dropped its first bomb on the city of Hiroshima; 90 percent of the city was destroyed, and approximately 80,000 people died immediately in the blast (although an accurate count was impossible, and the number was likely much higher). The devastation did not, however, lead to immediate capitulation by Japan. As a result an even larger bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later, killing approximately 40,000 more people and completely flattening all buildings within the explosion radius. This second bombing finally lead to Japan's unconditional surrender.

The nightmare continued for the people of those cities. Many of those who survived were horribly burned or maimed in other ways. Tens of thousands of people died later, most from radiation poisoning, first called "atomic illness." The bombing took a tremendous emotional toll as well, with nightmares of the bombing torturing people throughout their lives.

A Maze of Memories

Readers of Obasan find themselves piecing together the story of Naomi's family from details presented bit by bit throughout the novel, with the writer using a number of inventive techniques. Most noticeable is the author's decision to use a non-linear approach to presenting the narrative. The story begins in the narrator's present, with the death of her uncle, and events related to that death provide a frame for the memories of the past that follow. Throughout the rest of the book, time continues to shift from present to past and back again, and memories within memories add to the fragmented revelation of the Nakane family history. This approach allows readers to uncover Naomi's past much as she herself would have—a piece at a time, with each discovery triggering a new set of Naomi's increasingly repressed and disturbing memories.

The author also chooses to depart from a straightforward fictional narrative structure by including chapters that are structured like letters or a diary and others that contain portions from actual government documents. These materials are ostensibly provided by Naomi's Aunt Emily as a way to capture her family's history. However, and perhaps most importantly, they also serve to provide the reader with much-needed historical background and context for the events experienced not only by the Nakane family, but by the Japanese-Canadian community as a whole. Through that information, the author is able to educate her readers about events in Canada's history that had not been spoken of in many years, even by the individuals who had suffered through them. In this way the novel became a means of holding Canada accountable for its actions and a way to give Japanese Americans a voice.

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