on 11 October 2009
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.
on 10 January 2014
The first 50 pages of `Obasan' are not very easy going. The story is told by a 36-year old third generation Canadian-Japanese single schoolteacher, who is neurotic and tense and cannot keep order in class. One day she is called from her classroom because her uncle has passed away. She has to console and assist his widow, her aunt (Obasan in Japanese means aunt).
[Intermezzo: Even before Japan's surprise attack of Pearl Harbor in 1941, US citizens of Japanese descent and Japanese `non citizens' were considered security risks. After Pearl Harbor they were incarcerated in camps or sent to work on farms in the Rocky Mountains to prevent them from poisoning reserves of drinking water or using their pocket torches to guide Japanese submarines and other navy vessels to possible coastal landing sites. Please read also Julie Otsuka's stunningly original and beautiful novel "The Buddha in the Attic".]
Joy Kogawa describes how people with a Japanese background in Canada fared during WW II, through the eyes of a 4-year old girl, her aunt. And what happened after the war. As a child her aunt was kept long in the dark about the impending fate of Canadians with Japanese roots. And then it happened... All `Japs' living in Vancouver and the west coast province of British Columbia were deported further inland. All property of Canadian Japanese was confiscated and became government property. This included vehicles, real estate, fishing boats, wharfs, farmland, everything.
Japanese Americans fared much better and soon after the war their situation quickly returned to normal. In Canada, the restrictions remained in place until 1949 and nobody ever returned to his or her old home. Only in 1988 the Canadian government admitted that massive injustice had been done, allowing compensation measures.
The novel contains many dreams and extraordinarily detailed childhood memories. A terrible family secret is revealed in the final pages. "Obasan" became an award-winning bestseller in Canada. It has a sequel entitled "Itsuka".
on 17 May 2016
I felt real sadness when I finished this book. Sad because I would miss the exquisite writing and the telling of the tale. But also sad because I know this story is based on fact. Obasan tells the story of a family of Japanese/Canadians and their hardship in Canada during the second world war. It tells of the inhuman way they are ripped from their Vancouver home of two generations and holed up in ghost town. After the war ends they are still denied their home and spend years working hard labour in Alberta. But there is another story; the story of two children with missing parents who are brought up by their aunt (Obasan), and a conclusion that is a horrific surprise and yet fitting. The tone throughout is melancholic in a beautiful sense, like a piece of music that breaks your heart and still you want it to go on.