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Obasan | Study Guide

Joy Kogawa

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Obasan | Themes


Questions of Identity

Identity is defined as the qualities, beliefs, personality or characteristics that make a person or group what it is. The word covers not only an individual's own self-image, but also how others see or label us. Throughout Obasan, the Japanese Canadian characters struggle with their identity. Most of those born in Canada see themselves as Canadians first, and Japanese second. They are extremely patriotic and devoted to their country. Those born in Japan, the Issei, often still identify with the country they first knew as home, and many struggle with blending their culture, values, and traditions with those of the younger generations and the country they now live in.

Whether they are first-, second-, or third-generation Canadians, however, those of Japanese descent soon find that how they perceive themselves does not really matter. The majority of the white Canadians in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario—the provinces where most of the immigrant Japanese settled—have never stopped seeing them as outsiders. Worse, they view those with Japanese heritage as untrustworthy and incapable of blending into Canadian society. When World War II breaks out and the country of Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, the Canadian government strips citizens of Japanese descent of their rights and identifies them as enemy aliens. The white citizens, in turn, see their Japanese neighbors as "others" and "the enemy." They are treated as less than human, torn from their homes, and put in internment camps or used as laborers in the beet fields.

The effect of this treatment on the victims varies. Some, like Obasan and Uncle, still identify as Japanese but continue to defend their adopted country and see the good in it. Others, like Father and Aunt Emily, never give up identifying as Canadians but become disillusioned with the country and fiercely loyal to their own community. Naomi herself never stops feeling like an outsider in her own country, and her self-image is irreparably damaged. But the greatest tragedy can be seen in what happens to Stephen. Made angry and bitter by what has happened, he turns not on the Canadian government or the racist individuals he encounters, but on his own people. He blames what has happened on his heritage, rejects anything to do with Japanese culture, from food to clothing to traditions. Instead, he focuses on those parts of his identity, such as music and academics, that will best allow him to be accepted by white society.

Dangers of Silence

Naomi's family lives by a strict code of silence and well-intentioned lies. Their culture has taught them that people should always put the needs of others before their own, and that it is better to hide grief or trouble than to burden others with it. For that reason, Naomi's mother does not want her children to know what happened to her in the bombing of Nagasaki, details of Father's illness are kept from his children, and Naomi does not tell her family that she is being abused by their neighbor. This silence, while implemented with the best intentions, ultimately proves to be destructive. The Nakane children at times feel abandoned or betrayed. Stephen becomes a sullen, resentful boy who turns on his family and his heritage. Naomi grows into an unhappy young woman with no self-esteem. Only when Nakayama-sensei urges truth with the simple line "It is better to speak, is it not?" does the silence end, and Naomi is able to begin working towards closure.

Silence also hurts the Japanese Canadian community as a whole. After the war they remained silent about their treatment for years, allowing those responsible to avoid taking responsibility or making amends for they had done. Aunt Emily, one of those who insists on speaking out, states that such silence is both cowardly and damaging, and prevents necessary change from happening. She is determined to be heard and to be the voice of her people. Her attitude proves to be the more constructive one, because only through her actions and the actions of those like her does the government finally admit its culpability.

Importance of the Past

Characters in Obasan take very different approaches to dealing with a painful past. Obasan and Uncle, for the most part, choose to remember only the happy times of their lives and focus on the good in the present. Characters like Naomi choose to ignore the past and resent anyone who tries to make them focus on it. Naomi, for example, feels that those who talk about their tragedies "use their suffering as weapons or badges of some kind," and feels that at this point they should all "turn the page and move on." But her refusal to remember the past is actually a form of denial that prevents her from processing it, from repairing the damage it has done her, and from forgiving those who need forgiveness.

Aunt Emily and Nakayama-sensei know that remembering the past is essential for individuals as well as society. Nakayama deals with the pain through faith, love and forgiveness. It is also he who finally convinces the family to tell Naomi and Stephen the truth about their mother. And it is Emily, who collects all the evidence she can about what happened to Japanese Canadians, warning Naomi that "the past is the future" and urging her to not to deny the past, but to remember everything. Only if we remember the past, she believes, can we achieve justice and avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

This last statement also captures Kogawa's reason for writing the novel. The internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II was a shameful period in Canada's history that was not really acknowledged until 1980, when the National Association of Japanese Canadians began fighting for redress and reparations. Prior to that, the victims of the persecution did not speak much of what had happened, and the government itself either ignored the events or declined to take responsibility for them, blaming the actions on earlier administrations. A sort of false memory was in place, with neither victims nor perpetrators admitting what had really happened. By writing the novel, Kogawa gave widespread visibility to the issue and forced readers to revise their memories and assumptions. Japanese Canadians finally began to confront the horrors of their own past, just as Naomi eventually does in the novel. Obasan also forced the public to revisit its whitewashed collective memory and acknowledge what it had done to its own citizens.

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