|"Obasan is the Japanese-Canadian narrator's elderly auntie, and a visit back home to her sets off a chain of recollections of how their family was separated and uprooted during and after World War II, in what was, if anything, an even crueller policy than its better known US equivalent. The book may have become an instant Canadian classic, encapsulating the values of liberalism and inclusivity modern Canada prides itself on, but the author gives those assumptions a hard time in its pages. It took a long time for white Canadians to accept responsibility for what their government did to a fully integrated part of their community which had the misfortune, unlike its German-Canadian counterpart, of sharing identifiable physical characteristics with the enemy. Like her country as a whole, by the time of the novel's main action in the 1970s, the narrator herself has buried the painful memories of childhood, but spiky Aunt Emily (who belongs to the middle generation, younger than the Obasan of the title) is determined the world should not forget. She puts her niece on a road of discovery that comes to cover events in Japan as well as Canada. It is a journey which can fire off both the righteous anger of an Aunt Emily, and the poetic outpourings of this novel, which has a bleak beauty all of its own. What results is not just a novel of displacement and loss, but one of love and loyalty, of youth and age, of identity and selfhood. "
"When I finished Obasan, I felt blown away. This is not just a great piece of Japanese Canadian literature, this is a great book, period. The Internment of Japanese American/Canadian citizens during World War II is a subject that is widely unknown, and a topic that few novelists have been able to capture with as much skill as Kogawa.
"Obasan" weaves a seamless tale that stretches between generations and spans continents and decades with an almost dreamlike quality. As other reviewers have commented (lamented?) about, there are many dream sequences, all of which have significance as the story is unveiled. The dreams, the "silence that cannot speak," the love that is voiceless and yet vivid, the grief that cries out loudly and yet unheard ... the power of Kogawa's writing lies in being able to interpret and experience this imagery, and feel the pain of the internment as if doing so first hand.
I was surprised to see the number of negative reviews this book has received here ... I feel compelled to include my voice with those who thoroughly recommend this book. "Obasan" is the best novel on the internment I have yet to come across, and certainly among the most powerful books I have read. Although Kogawa writes of a silence that does not speak, she breaks the silence beautifully with "Obasan," revealing a history that many do not know, and many do not talk about. This is a story that must be remembered and retold ... so history does not repeat itself.""OBASAN by Joy Kogawa
Joy Kogawa uses a blend of techniques in her debut novel, OBASAN, to tell the story of the Japanese Canadians and their years in Canada during and following WWII. The winner of the Books In Canada "First Novel" Award and the winner of the Canadian Authors' "Association Book Of The Year Award", it is told through the eyes of a Japanese Canadian girl, only five years old at the start of WW II. OBASAN is told in flashbacks as Naomi Nakane looks back as an adult, finding out what really happened to her family and their loved ones during this horrible time in history.
Naomi and her brother Stephen were raised for the most part by their uncle and aunt, because their parents were not able to care for them during and after the years following WWII. Naomi's mother leaves for a visit to Japan shortly before Japan enters WWII with the United States, and is never seen or heard from by Naomi or her brother again. The young Naomi recalls letters going unanswered, never knowing whether her mother has ever received these notes or is too busy to even care about her children left in Canada. Their father remains in Canada with them, but becomes ill and is taken away during the war, spending most of his time in hospitals. Their contact with him is intermittent. Uncle Isamu and "Obasan" are asked to take care of the two children in the event anything happens to the Nakanes, and they raise them, not having any children of their own. They become a family unit, and as one reads the book, it is obvious that young Naomi finds nothing too unusual in this setup, as hardships keep them focused on one thing only: survival.
The book starts with Naomi hearing news that her Uncle has passed on, and she is forced to return to the home of Obasan, which brings back a rush of memories that she had preferred to keep suppressed. Told in flashbacks, letters, and poetry, Naomi's story is slowly told. Because she was so young, Naomi herself was not fully aware of what was happening during WWII. All she knew was that their family had to move several times, were restricted to where they could show their faces, and were ostracized and made to suffer because they were Japanese. It didn't matter that she and her brother were born in Canada. Being Japanese had stripped them of all rights that belonged to them as Canadian citizens.
OBASAN is based on the author's own experiences in Canada during WWII, and reading OBASAN I could feel a lot of her anguish coming through the pages. I was very interested in reading about the Japanese Canadians plight during WWII. I myself am Japanese American whose own father and family were sent to the camps in California. I was astonished to read that a similar situation had occurred in Canada, and it was one factor that kept me interested in the book. On the other hand, I did not quite like the way this story was told, and had a hard time getting through the entire book. It was not an easy read. What motivated me to finish the book was because I wanted to find out what happened to Naomi and her family, and what happened to her mother. The mystery to this is not revealed until the very end, and it was a very tragic ending to an altogether tragic book. There is no happy ending, but a lot of unanswered questions, including why such an event could have ever happened in a modern democratic society. Although I couldn't say this was a "Must-read", it is definitely a chapter in history that everyone should be aware of, regardless of race or nationality. This reader gives OBASAN 3.5 stars.""Based on Joy Kogawa's personal experiences, Obasan reveals the Japanese-Canadian conditions during World War II. Kogawa recalls the removal, exile, and dispersion of first and second generation Canadians of Japanese descent through the eyes of Megumi Naomi Nakane, a Japanese-Canadian born June 18, 1936 in Vancouver, British Columbia (9). Using diverse voices, Kogawa employs personal accounts, symbolic dreams, childhood tales, traditional lyrics, intimate letters and official documents that intermesh and unleash various perspectives. Obasan captures a culture's unique use of language in regard to how people communicate within their culture as well as how their communication is influenced by other cultures; Obasan is a lesson in traditional values, religious beliefs, and recent history.
Naomi's interactive experiences model how traditional values are passed from generation to generation. She develops communication skills and proper etiquette from her elders, which are either reinforced or altered as a result of her environment. One tradition instilled in Naomi is the language of eyes. For generations, her family has invoked beliefs that eye contact should not contradict intent. For example, to stare in any situation would be considered disrespectful, so unless one's intent is to disrespect someone, one should never stare. Naomi's childhood experiences show that the eyes of Japanese motherhood are "steady and matter of fact. They are eyes that protect, shielding what is hidden most deeply in the heart of a child" (71). This language of the eyes goes hand in hand with basic etiquette and verbal communication. When it's apparent that someone has performed an act that would typically be punished under European etiquette, there is to be no blame. Naomi is not scolded for murdering several chicks by subjecting them to the attack of a hen; instead, mother and daughter have a calm conversation about carelessness being dangerous (72).
As a third generation immigrant, Naomi continues to! use terms of endearment such as "Obasan" and "Ojisan" in reference to respected elders. She also accepts traditional practices such as communal nudity in regard to bathing. She finds comfort in bathing with her aunt, and complies with the necessity of bathing in the public bathhouse: "We are one flesh, one family, washing each other or submerged in the hot water" (191). All of the latter examples may be rejected when viewed through western ethnocentric eyes; however, ancestral beliefs heavily influence Naomi through verbal and written words, thus she accepts and respects such tradition.
Obasan reveals how traditional entertainment such as European tales and classical song lyrics influence Japanese Canadian families. Naomi's comparison of her family's situation to the tale of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" shows how she embraces a story of the majority population as part of her identity (149). Throughout the novel, the influence such fairy tales have on Naomi is apparent. She frequently thinks in terms of childhood tales. Naomi compares Stephen's limp to Long John Silver walking with his pegged leg (162). Also, she finds the strength to endure tremendous pain inflicted by a nurse fiercely brushing her hair through a tale: "Rapunzael's long ladder of hair could bear the weight of prince or witch," she told herself, "I can endure this nurse's hands yanking at the knots in the thick black tangles"(179). Similarly, Naomi's family identifies with the oppressor's music. In times of turmoil and rejoice someone is playing an instrument, singing a song, or listening to a record such as "Silver Threads Among the Gold" (149). Along with the family's acceptance of majority culture's entertainment, there is also an acceptance of different beliefs.
The acceptance of the Anglican religious by Naomi's family, and other Japanese Canadians, demonstrates how beliefs of the majority culture are adapted. With conversion from Buddhism t! o Christianity there is a tremendous influence on the language of prayer and various religious practices. Nakayama-sensei, the minister from the Anglican Church in Vancouver, frequently leads the family in the Lords prayer and refers to scriptures, which embrace Anglican language (140). During one of many services, Nakayama-sensei reminds the family, "Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment" (209). Missionaries, Sunday school, and the Gospel become a part of daily life for Naomi's family. Holy days such as Easter, Passover, and Christmas become traditional observations and celebrations for these Japanese Canadians. Even though Naomi's family accepts the Anglican religion, they continue to respect those who are not as heavily influenced by Christianity.
Though most of the family is Christian, Grandpa Nakane is Buddhist. Thus, he requests that Grandma Nakane's body is cremated, instead of buried, and her remains returned to him (153). There is a tremendous outpour of support for Grandpa Nakane's wishes. Local carpenters volunteer to build a pyre and tend to the fire through the night. As the fire begins to burn, however, Naomi finds comfort in the Old Testament story about the angel that kept three men safe in the flames of a furnace. There is irony in the way Naomi comforts herself from strange feelings evoked by the ceremonial cremation. Though she respects Grandpa Nakane's Buddhist wishes, her thoughts about the situation are from a Christian's perspective. While Obasan studies the Japanese Canadian experience in regard to religion, the work also teaches a history lesson.
Aunt Emily's collection of official government documents, actual news clippings, and hand written journal entries in the form of letters to Naomi's mother are full of voices from the past from which the conditions of Japanese Canadians during World War II are disclosed. It becomes apparent that government officials! carefully selected written words to mask the circumstances of the oppressed. Records were written with language to disguise crime. Instead of describing concentration camps like prisons they were referred to as Interior Housing Projects. Also, comparisons are made between the degree of cruelty Japanese Americans and Canadian Americans have to endure: "American Japanese were interned, and sent off to concentration camps, but their property wasn't liquidated" (40). The latter is particularly interesting because Kogawa, a Canadian, points out that conditions of Japanese immigrants were worse in Canada than in America. The reference that such persecution took place is shocking to most Canadians and Americans alike, who are ignorant to the degree of discrimination that occurred.
To Japanese Canadians who continue to sing "O Canada, glorious and free, O Canada, we stand on guard for thee," (196) out of respect for the very country that enslaves them, and hold up the 'V' for victory (199) as the war comes to a close despite the fact that they have been ripped away from their homes and forced to live in squalor, it is important that historical documents depict their plight accurately.
Kogawa's portrayal of a people's plight through Obasan, despite the work's historical authenticity, demonstrates her understanding of the emotive power of words as conveyed through literature. Kogawa's provocative narrative has a profound impact on readers, enabling them to experience the Japanese Canadian's reality during the Second World War. "A lot of academic talk just immobilizes the oppressed and maintains oppressors in their position of power," she writes (42). The latter, along with her recognition that people must remember their history and retell it accurately explains why she reveals her story through a work classified as fiction. Historical accounts are changed with time, altered by individuals who don't want to face the past. By Kogawa writing a composition, instead of pu! tting together a collection of official documents, she influences a population that would otherwise not be reached. Obasan proves to be an effective tool with the power to change how history is depicted. As a result, this novel is being used as a teaching text in both Canada and America. As a matter of fact, it is used throughout Canada as a micro-history. Considering the impact Obasan has on readers as an educational instrument, everyone who is living should read this critically acclaimed novel. "