Obasan by Joy Kogawa

“That there is brokenness,” [sensei] says quietly. “That this world is brokenness.  But within brokenness is the unbreakable name.  How the whole earth groans till Love returns.”

So says Nakayama-sensei, the Anglican minister who has shepherded his Japanese-Canadian community through the pre-World War II times, through the internment during the war years and after, and still through the unsettled freedom that followed.  It is a prayer; it is a benediction, a bringing together of the final threads of the past into an understanding, where understanding is the beginning of healing.

Obasan, a novel by Joy Kogawa

Obasan, a novel by Joy Kogawa

This evocative memoir by Joy Kogawa, published in 1981, has been acclaimed everywhere as a definitive recollection of the shameful treatment of more than 21,000 Japanese-Canadians, most of whom were Canadian citizens, living in British Columbia when Pearl Harbour was attacked.  Shameful treatment not just by neighbours and friends, but by the government of their country through actions that can now only be called abominable and illegal, and based on “the lowest motives of greed. selfishness and hatred” (The Toronto Globe and Mail).  Obasan is hugely responsible for the official 1988 apology from the Canadian government to the Japanese community for its actions, and is still teaching Canadians about their past.

Ms. Kogawa was born in 1935 of Japanese-Canadian parents, and, like the protagonist, Naomi, in her story, experienced internment in Slocan, B.C. and worked on a sugar beet farm in Alberta after the war.  She saw family and friends lose everything they owned.  She saw families split up, and knows of many of the Issei (those who immigrated to Canada as opposed to 2nd generation Japanese-Canadian who are Nisei) who signed a form to be sent back to Japan only so they would not be deemed “uncooperative” by the government where they were again treated as the enemy, and where some came to be among the victims at Nagasaki.

Joy Kogawa House, B.C.

Joy Kogawa House, B.C.

She saw many of her own generation try to become less Japanese, like Stephen in the book, because of the hatred and discrimination.  She herself worked tirelessly for recognition and redress from the government, like Aunt Emily in the novel, and finally, saw those efforts meet with success when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney stood in the Canadian House of Commons (1988) and read an official apology after NDP leader, Ed Broadbent, read an excerpt from Obasan.

This book is filled with beautiful, haiku-like descriptions and poignant enigmatic phrases that waft over the reader like waves, to come over and over again until they sink in, and understanding comes.  It begins:

There is a silence that cannot speak.
There is a silence that will not speak.
Beneath the grass the speaking dreams and beneath the dreams is a sensate sea.  The speech that frees comes forth from that amniotic deep.

This book speaks out for that silence, and for the dreams.  Based on not only her own memories and oral accounts of others, this story is also based on research done in the archives of the government of Canada, where Joy was allowed to pour over Hansard (the daily record of speeches in parliament) and letters, and also from newspaper headlines and articles which are part of the rich fabric of her story.

Joy's family

Joy’s family in the 1940s

The story begins with the adult Naomi, a teacher in Cecil, Alberta, forced to look back on her childhood experiences as she and her aunt, whom she calls Obasan (grandmother) in the book, are beginning the process of mourning and burying her uncle.  A package from her other aunt, Emily, is waiting for Naomi at Obasan’s house.  It forces Naomi to remember, and takes her back to a childhood of mixed and unresolved emotions.  Her Aunt Emily is, and always has been, fighting for justice and has many documents, letters, and headlines in her package which Naomi would prefer to ignore.  She is not a fighter:

What is done, Aunt Emily, is done, is it not?  And no doubt it will all happen again, over and over, with different faces and names, variations on the same theme.

In a culture where children are taught to have absolute trust in adults, look down and never stare, the child Naomi is terribly uncomfortable with other Canadian citizens who stare at her in the street and those who betray her trust.  In every adversity, there is never panic; the adults stay very calm and their speech neither condemns nor complains — it only accepts and stays reassuring.  It is what allows the children to have some sense of peace through the internment, first at the hastily converted, almost deserted mining camp at Slocan, B. C., then on the sugar beet farm at Granton, Alberta where they lived in a shack that had been a chicken coop.  A place that is an “uninsulated, unbelievable thin-as-a-cotton-dress hovel never before inhabited in winter by human  beings” and “in the summer [is] . . . an incubator”.  A place where the farmer’s daughter only speaks to Naomi while waiting for the bus; not at school.  For three years after the war, they are still not allowed to return to their home in British Columbia.

In an interview Joy did with Sally Ito at papertigers.org, Joy said this about her own experiences:

The trauma of racism that the Nisei experienced turned into rejection of being Japanese.  And the Issei who had loved and sacrificed so much for their children were, for the most part in my experience, rejected and demeaned by the Nisei.  I used to see this when I was living in southern Alberta.  It feels tragic to me now.  We live in a society that does not honor the old.

Author Joy Kogawa

Author Joy Kogawa

There is so much to glean from this story, so much to learn about our past and what kind of future we might have, so much about hardship and, despite everything, the good that can come of hardship.  In addition to reading this beautifully poignant book, you might want to watch another interview with Ms. Kogawa with George Stroumboulopoulos on CBC.

* * * * *


If you are an elementary school teacher and would like to work some information on this topic into your curriculum, this is an excellent eclecticreader15website which will give students a taste of the times through an artifact tour, some age-appropriate videos, and links to other informative sites about Joy and the plight of Japanese-Canadians during WWII.  The children’s version of this book is called Naomi’s Road.

This book is my “diversity” entry for the 2015 Eclectic Reader Challenge.


About mysm2000

Having taught elementary school for more than 25 years and been involved in many amazing technology and curriculum projects, I find I've developed a myriad of interests based on literature I've read and music I've heard. I've followed The Wright Three to Chicago, Ansel Adams to Colorado, The Kon Tiki Expedition to Easter Island, Simon & Garfunkel lyrics to New York City, Frank Lloyd Wright to Fallingwater, Pennsylvania, and have only just begun.
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One Response to Obasan by Joy Kogawa

  1. Pingback: Year Round-up 2015 | Ms M's Bookshelf

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