“Obasan” by Joy Kogawa

“Obasan” by Joy Kogawa tells the story of a part of modern history that is often overlooked–the internment of Japanese-Americans and Japanese-Canadians during WWII.

The novel opens when Naomi, who is currently a schoolteacher in Canada in the 1970s, learns about the death of her uncle.  She rushes home for the funeral and to make sure that her Obasan (aunt) is okay.  When she sees Obasan, who appears frail and lost, Naomi has flashbacks to her childhood during WWII and begins to confront a past which she has tried to forget.

While she was growing up, Naomi lived with Obasan and her uncle because her mother had gone to Japan to care for a family member before the war began and had been stranded there.  Naomi never heard from her again, and only as an adult discovered her fate.  Meanwhile, Naomi’s father suffered from tuberculosis and spent a great deal of time in the hospital.  Naomi and her family were relocated twice as the war progressed and separated from members of their extended family, who had formerly provided a crucial support system.  They faced institutionalized racism while attempting to be patriotic, often repeating “But we are Canadians!”

One of the major themes that ran through the book was that even after the war ended, the people who were persecuted during WWII weren’t just able to pick back up their former lives.  Their homes had been occupied by other people and their careers were irreparably damaged, not to mention the emotional distress that they faced.  Many people who had frail health at the start of the war didn’t survive.  Others, such as Naomi’s brother Stephen, internalized the racism and became ashamed of their own culture.

This book also contains one of the more graphic accounts of the bombing of Nagasaki that I’ve read to this day.  It’s toward the end of the book, and is probably best read on an empty stomach.

As with most of the books that I read for my multicultural librarianship class, this was incredibly depressing, but at the same time it is important to remember history, lest we repeat it.  I think that I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if I had read it when I was in high school, because at that point in my life I didn’t mind depressing books so much, and I read a lot of books about injustices throughout history.

Kogawa’s writing is quite poetic, and uses vivid imagery to portray complex themes of identity, loss, tolerance, and coping.  I’d recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about an often-forgotten part of WWII.

Categories: Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , , | 10 Comments

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10 thoughts on ““Obasan” by Joy Kogawa

  1. Thanks for sharing. I had heard of a few other books on this subject, but hadn’t heard of this one. It’s kind of sad when one first learns about this, especially when growing up in a country that you think would never do something like that.

    • You’re welcome! And I agree… a lot of what we learn in history classes is viewed through rose-colored glasses. It’s sobering to realize that our country has done a lot of things contrary to its established ideals.

  2. This sounds interesting. I was aware of the internment of Japanese-Americans but not Japanese-Canadians, although it doesn’t surprise me. When I was in high school I read a memoir by a local (to me) woman who had been interred as a child with her family. I don’t remember it that well, although what I remember are the children’s struggles with their identity–that conflict between their parents’ Japanese culture and their own American identity. (The book is Nisei Daughter by Monica Sone)

    • I haven’t read Nisei Daughter, although it sounds interesting. Identity conflicts have been a recurring theme in the books that I’ve read for the multiculturalism librarianship class that I’ve been taking this semester, and I was actually quite surprised that in Obasan the identity crisis was faced more by secondary characters than by Naomi herself.

  3. I visited an old internment camp in Cody, Wyoming. It was pretty intense. It’s amazing to me how much emotion a place can hold on to long after it’s been deserted. It’s not even all that well cared for, which is sad. Just a bunch of boarded up building. There are some creepy tunnels you can crawl through as well.

    • Oh wow. I think that the remaining internment camps should be preserved and opened as commemorative museums so that people can learn more about what happened. There are too many parts of American history that just get swept under the rug…

  4. This would be great for my readalong next year. Someone also recommended I try When the Emperor was Divine which seesm similar.

    • I think you’d like it. One of the things that set this book apart for me was the fact that it was set in Canada rather than the US. I had read about the Japanese internment in the US before, but I had never realized that a very similar situation was occurring in Canada at the same time.

  5. This sounds like a great novel. I think many people don’t remember this part of World War II. Have you ever seen the films the American government made to justify the internment? They are embarrassing. One of them says that the Japanese are bravely marching forward to conquer the uninhabitable terrain…or something like that. Have you read the novel No-No Boy? That is a great novel by John Okada.

    • I haven’t seen the films, although I’m sure they are quite embarrassing. It’s remarkable what blind fear will make people do. I think that it’s especially important to learn from the Japanese internment in the post-9/11 world, when unfortunately a lot of people still blame Muslims in general for the actions of a handful of terrorists.

      I haven’t read No-No Boy, although growing up I read a lot of Yoshiko Uchida’s novels. Uchida’s writing is geared toward a younger audience though.

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