Jul 20, 2007

Obasan by Joy Kogawa

In this semi-autobiographical novel, Joy Kogawa tells the story of the Japanese Canadian internment that took place during and after the Second World War, as seen through the eyes of a child.

Naomi Nakane, the first person narrator, is 36-year-old school teacher when the novel opens. The death of her uncle, and her subsequent reunion with family members, brings back memories she had been trying to cast aside: the memories of what she and her family went through in their own homeland because of the war.

In the 1940s, following the Pearl Harbor attacks, Canadian citizens of Japanese descent living in British Columbia were forced to move to the interior due to fear of espionage. First men between 18 and 45 years of age were moved to camps, and then entire families had to leave their homes and were divided in the process. Naomi, a third-generation immigrant, is forced to leave her house in Vancouver and moves with her brother and her aunt to Slocan, an abandoned mining town. Her mother, who had temporarily returned to Japan with her grandmother, simply vanishes from her live, and the full horror of their ultimate fate is only revealed at the end of the book, in Naomi’s adulthood. Her father, who was ill, is left behind. After Slocan, they are forced to move to a farm in Alberta where they are exposed to extreme hardship and forced to live in appalling conditions.

It seems to me that the internment is a relatively little known fact. Here in Europe, at least, it seems to have been forgotten among the other, more well-known, horrors of WW2, and you don’t hear much about it at all. This book is a reminder of what happens if people, acting individually or collectively, let fear take over and guide their actions. Great injustices are committed if we act out of blind fear, and unfortunately, during the war, even those who were fighting against the atrocities of Nazism let other injustices take place.

It also seems to me that racism against Asian minorities is less spoken of than other types of racism. There could be cultural reasons for that, and this novel exemplifies this well. In Obasan, all characters except one (Emily Kato, Naomi’s other aunt) refuse to speak of what happened. But it is not cowardice that holds them back. There are cultural reasons – Naomi is taught, as a little girl, to be discreet, to avert her eyes, not to be a nuisance – and there is also an understandable reluctance to open old wounds that hurt still, to revisit memories that are very painful. This attitude is understandable, and the novel portrays it with respect. But as Emily Kato says, these things must be remembered, and it is important that they are spoken of.

Obasan is as much about memory and childhood as it is about the war. Things are shown through the eyes of Naomi as a young girl, and her understanding of events was at the time limited, but because she is remembering, the knowledge she possesses now, the information her aunt Emily provides, fills the gaps and shows the full significance of things that were hazy for a child.

The book is beautifully written – Joy Kogawa’s use of imagery is particularly exquisite. I loved her description of the woods surrounding Slocan. At the time, despite the horrors that were taking place, Naomi, her brother Stephen, and some friends they were to lose when they were forced to move again, were allowed to keep on experiencing some of the simple joys of childhood. They play together, explore the woods and swim in a nearby lake. But not for much longer, unfortunately.

It was interesting for me to notice how reading this book seemed to give me a greater glimpse of Japanese culture than reading Murakami a little while ago. This could be because Joy Kogawa knows both the Japanese and the Western ways of seeing things, and so she explains what needs explaining, she picks the right words to portray the right feelings, she creates a bridge that allows greater understanding.

Obasan was first published in 1981. In 1986, Naomi’s Road was published – an adaptation of the same story into a children’s book. There is also sequel called Itsuka, later retitled Emily Kato. I plan on reading both.

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  1. Have you seen the movie The Siege? They do a similar thing but with Arab Americans. Things like this always makes me mad. To alienate and fear an entire race/religion/etc based on the actions of a few in their group. It's not like our "groups" don't have bad people as well.

  2. I grew up knowing about the Japanese American internment camps, living not too far from one for a good part of my childhood. I read Farewell to Manzanar, a memoir about one girl's experience living in a California internment camp, in middle school and still have a copy of the book on my shelf.

    I read Obasan a few years ago and found to be a worthwhile read. I hadn't realized that Canada had also had internment camps and had such big discrimination issues with Asians. It was an eye opener for me.

  3. Sounds interesting. In the UK there are a lot of memorials to WW2 and the people who died fighting. There isn't much here about the camps as we didn't have any really. I went to Berlin last year and did a lot of sight seeing around the different museums and art gallerys about the War and the Berlin Wall which was fascinating yet scary.

  4. I hadn't known much about the Japanese internment camps in Canada before I read this so it was quite enlightening. I've also read the sequel, Itsuka, but it focuses mainly on them trying to get official redress from the government so it was historically interesting as a Canadian but a bit dry I thought.

  5. Maylin: I haven't seen it, no. And yeah, it really upsets me too. It's such an irrational thing to do. In this case in particular, these people weren't even really part of another group - many were born and raised in Canada, so they were Canadian, not Japanese.

    Literary Feline: It was an eye-opened for me too. I would like to know more about this, so if I can find "Farewell to Manzanar" I will read it.

    Rhinoa: I can imagine it being both fascinating and scary. I think it's important to visit those places and remember the mistakes of the past, but it can also be very depressing.

    Tanabata: thanks for the information on the sequel. I think I'd like to read it eventually, but it's good to know what to expect. I loved "Obasan" because even though it is historical, it is also a very personal story.


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