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Obasan | Plot Summary

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Summary

Obasan focuses on the experiences and memories of its Japanese Canadian narrator, Naomi Nakane. Naomi is a 36-year-old schoolteacher living in the small town of Cecil, in the province of Alberta, Canada. Upon learning of the death of her uncle, the man who raised her along with her aunt, or obasan, she returns to their house in Granton to support Obasan and help with the funeral. Her older brother Stephen and Aunt Emily, her mother's sister, will be joining her there. They are the only ones left of Naomi's immediate family. Her father and grandparents are dead, and Naomi has never been told what happened to her mother.

While at Obasan's house, Naomi begins to recall painful memories of her childhood during and after World War II. She has not wanted to deal with the past. But with Uncle's death, and the discovery of a package of journals, letters, and articles collected by her Aunt Emily, she is finally forced to confront what happened to her family.

A Shattered Life

When Naomi was a child, she and her family lived in a comfortable house in Vancouver near the Pacific coast. Her grandparents on both her mother's and father's side had come to Canada from Japan, and the families had thrived. Grandpa Nakane became a doctor, and Grandpa Kato became an expert boat builder. Naomi and Stephen were loved, well educated, and exposed to literature and music. But with Canada's entry into World War II and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, their lives are completely shattered.

Fear of a Japanese invasion causes much of the country to turn on its Japanese Canadian citizens. Laws are put in place forcing those of Japanese heritage to leave a 100-mile "protected area" along the coast that was considered most vulnerable to attack. Many are sent to Hastings Park, a converted exhibition space where the refugees live in stalls and barns meant for animals. Some are sent to labor camps, and others are assigned to work on beet farms in Alberta or Ontario. The rest are sent to internment camps made from abandoned ghost towns in inner British Columbia.

Years in Slocan

Naomi's family is immediately torn apart. Her mother and grandmother, who are in Japan at the time the orders come out, seem to vanish. No one will answer Naomi's questions about where they are or what happened to them. Two of her grandparents are sent to Hastings Park. Naomi's father Mark, who has been ill, is ordered to a hospital, and Uncle is sent to a labor camp. Aunt Emily receives a permit to live with a doctor in Toronto who offered to sponsor her, but Obasan and the children have no permits and are sent to an internment camp in the ghost town of Slocan. There they are forced to live in a two-room shack, which they share with an invalid named Nomura-obasan.

They remain in the camp for three years. Refusing to give in to despair, the community of refugees slowly turns the abandoned town into a thriving community. But the experience takes its toll, on Stephen in particular. Attacked, taunted, and persecuted ever since latent anti-Japanese sentiment in Canada once again began to reveal itself, he becomes angry with his family and resentful of his heritage. He begins to turn his back on both. His anger briefly lessens when Uncle finally arrives, bringing renewed strength for the family and a set of flutes for Stephen, who has inherited his father's love of music. More joy follows when Father is released from the hospital and comes to live with them. Naomi still is given no information about her mother and grandmother, although her brother is certain they are dead.

The Beet Farm

The war ends with Canada on the victorious side. But the war against Japanese Canadians continues. The refugees are not allowed to return home. Instead they are given a choice to "return" to Japan or go to work on the beet farms. The Nakanes are assigned to the Barkers' farm in Alberta, where Mr. Barker gives them a converted chicken coop to live in. But Father is not with them. He disappeared before they left Slocan, and once again Naomi does not know what has happened to him.

The family works on the beet farm for several years, a time Naomi remembers with bitterness and anger. The work was backbreaking, wages were laughable, and their living conditions were abysmal. Isolated from the rest of their community, then can no longer draw on the feelings of optimism and camaraderie that had sustained them through Slocan. Then news comes that Father has died in the hospital, a truth Naomi refuses to accept for a long time.

Rejoining Society

In 1949 the last restrictions against Japanese Canadians are finally lifted. Aunt, Uncle, Naomi and Stephen move to their own small house in the town of Granton. Stephen draws further away from his family but finds an outlet in school where he is admired for his musical ability. Eventually, he moves to Toronto to study music, and where he is able to live with Aunt Emily. The two come to visit the family in 1954, but the visit is brief, and Stephen is uncommunicative. Uncle's funeral finally brings him back home, but even as an adult he is still uncomfortable and clearly wants to be elsewhere.

An old friend, Nakayama-sensei, also comes to Uncle's funeral and begins reading two letters from Emily's collection. They contain the secret of what happened to Naomi and Stephen's mother. Naomi begs to finally hear the truth that has been kept from her for 30 years. She discovers that her mother and grandmother had been in Nagasaki during the atomic bombing by the United States. Most of the family they had gone to visit died in the blast, and Naomi's mother was severely disfigured. She wore a mask from that point on and, in an attempt to spare her children pain and grief, begged that they never be told what happened. She died without ever contacting her children again.

With the truth comes some amount of release. Naomi begins to silently communicate with her lost mother, feeling a spiritual connection that had eluded her before. She also becomes convinced of the dangers of silence, and the importance of acknowledging the past.

Obasan Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Japanese Canadians are forced to leave the Pacific coast.

Rising Action

2 Naomi, Stephen, and Obasan go to the Slocan internment camp.

3 Uncle and Father join the rest of the family in Slocan.

4 The family is sent to work on a beet farm. Father dies.

5 In 1949 restrictions against Japanese Canadians are lifted.

6 Uncle dies and the family gathers at Obasan's home to mourn.

Climax

7 Naomi learns her mother was disfigured by the atomic bomb.

Falling Action

8 Naomi feels a bond with her lost mother.

Resolution

9 Naomi begins coming to terms with her past.

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