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Joy Kogawa, a Japanese-Canadian resident, wrote the novel Obasan. Lester and Orpen Dennys released it in 1981. Throughout the novel, Kogawa employs a narrator, Naomi, to discuss the harsh experiences of Japanese-Canadians in Canada during and after WWII. The crisis in Canada was also covered in the newspapers. The Canadian Forum in July 1945 and March 1984, as well as the B.C. New Canadian on February 13, 1943, are examples. This indicates how much the action has advanced. Kogawa's novel Obasan utilizes fictitious characters to portray the gritty reality of living in Canada. From the novel, prejudice and tolerance, identity, memory and the past, justice versus injustice, racism, as well as mortality are brought out using unique styles such as symbolism, description, imagery and reflection to portray the real situation Japanese-Canadians are facing in the hands of non-Japanese Canadians.
Between the years 1940s and 1980s, Japanese-Canadians faced discrimination on the basis of race. Joy Kagawa on an article ‘Is there a just Cause,’ comes out clearly to reveal her true identity as a Japanese-Canadian who seeks justice among the people of her race. She stated, “as a Japanese-Canadian, I am caught in the pain of a divided people… I am embarrassed by my country’s bureaucratic racism at home” (The Canadian Forum 21). Her anger is truly reflected in her novel Obasan, when she writes the story about Naomi – the main character and the narrator, and her family who across the novel face numerous challenges as they strive to survive in different places they would call ‘home’. Naomi lives with her two aunts known as Obasan in two different times in her life. She is separated from her family due to the repercussions of race discrimination from the Canadians.
Through the characters, Kogawa brings out the distinction between the Canadians and the Japanese-Canadians. Naomi’s aunts, one of them referred to as Aya is an Issei; a Canadian resident born and raised in Japan, and another Aunt Emily, a Nisei; people whose origin is Japan but are born and raised in Canada. Naomi describes Aunt Emily as a word warrior and an activist and Aya as a silent aunt who ‘lives in stone’ (Kogawa 32, 73).
The descriptions used by Kogawa through Naomi the narrator describe the characters of both the Canadians and the Japanese-Canadians. According to Kogawa in the Canadian Forum, the Nisei like herself suffer from timidity, while the Sansei, children of Nisei are vocal and fearless (The Canadian Forum 21). This shows that the Japanese-Canadians suffered in silent even when subjected to discrimination and torture. The Sansei adopt the ways of living of Canada and as a result become vocal and fearless. In the Novel, Naomi is the Sansei who presumably presents an autobiography on behalf of the author, Kogawa. She uses her literature skills to speak out. This is by bringing out a clear picture between these people from different races, where people of Japanese origin suffer in silence as a result of their race.
Prejudice among the Canadians and tolerance among the Japanese people as well comes out from Kogawa’s novel. As Naomi is browsing over her Aunt’s (Emily) parcel, she notes that every time the words “Japanese race” appears, the Aunt crosses them out and writes “Canadian citizens.” This brings out the problem of prejudice; there is no clear reason for doing this. In addition, Naomi’s family was seen as a foreigner and enemies by the white Canadians. Kaslo, in the Halfway-humans article, brings out the perception in which the Japanese are viewed. “The Associated Press has a story by a United Marine Corps.” He says that Japanese people “are anything but resigned and sullen men” (Kaslo 3). The Canadians viewed Japanese people as competitors in labor force because of their brilliance. Such kind of prejudice led to discrimination, while the Japanese people tolerated the pain of being discriminated against their race by the Canadians on the basis of mere arguments. This was with the hope that one day the war and the prejudice will end. It indeed came to an end as Canadians later realized that the Japanese people were skilled and dedicated workers who did not seek for revenge regardless of how they treated them.
From Obasan, it is clear that the Canadians used the Japanese Canadian lack of clear identity to discriminate them. The Japanese Canadian characters in Obasan struggle to know their true identity. They become confused on whether they are Japanese, Japanese Canadians, or Canadians. This is mostly contributed by the migration of the Issei from their land of origin to Canada. Their children find it difficult to trace their true identity. The Canadians take this advantage to discriminate them. From the novel, the Canadians refer to them as enemies and foreigners, while they just want to be referred to as Canadians.
Failure to identify their true identity has led to confusion among the Japanese Canadians. Kogawa in the article “Is There a Just Cause” calls herself a Canadian and a Japanese Canadian as well. She also states that it was a suggestion that she identifies herself as Japanese Canadian and goes ahead to say that she is informed of the lack of existence of such a group (The Canadian Forum 21). From the Obasan, people of the same extended family are either born or migrants of Canada. It becomes hard to determine whether a person is a Canadian by birth, by naturalization, or by nationality, a situation that brings confusion to Naomi.
Kogawa uses memory (reflection of the past) to narrate Naomi’s past and present life. Her Aunt Emily told her, “You have to remember. You are your history. If you cut any of it off, you’re an amputee. Don’t deny the past” (Kogawa 49). This brings us closer to the experience of Japanese Canadians. She uses Naomi to bring out the past experience of the Canadians. Naomi through dreams reflects her past and narrates it. Also, it is through remembrance that the whole story is narrated to us.
It is from the novel that we learn about the past expereince of the Japanese Canadians. Kogawa, through her own experience decides to narrate her story. Various dreams of Naomi that reflect her past experience makes it easy for the reader to understand the situation during the World War.
Kagawa’s use of symbols was a good way to express situations similar to the Japanese-Canadians’ experience during and after the world war. For instance, the kitten trapped underneath an outhouse, “the kitten cries day after day, not quite dead, unable to climb out and trapped in the outhouse. The maggots are crawling in its eyes and mouth. Its fur covered in feces” (Kogawa 172) symbolizes the way the Japanese Canadians suffered in the hands of the white Canadians. The government of Canada sends them to the concentration camps and ghost towns symbolized by the kitten in the outhouse. The government ignored the cries and protests meant to fight for the rights of the Japanese-Canadians. By doing this, it hoped that the Japanese community would diminish and finally get rid of them completely. However, this never came to be, instead, they were later given the chance to work in the Canadian firms and several groups came up to defend the rights to citizenship of Japanese Canadians (The Canadian Forum 89).
Also, Kogawa’s use of imagery helps in bringing out the situation in a more clear and precise way. Naomi places yellow chicks her parents have purchased into a cage with a white hen. It is to her surprise that the hen starts pecking them to death. This is a prediction of the white Canadian (the mother hen) that turned on the yellow chicks who in our case is the Japanese Canadians who seemed to form a “Yellow Peril” (Kogawa 152). In the context of racism, the hen’s behavior suggests the way Japanese people migrated to Canada, the cage, and the white Canadians, the white hen, harmed them.
Human cruelty is brought out through two Japanese boys who slit a chicken’s throat while other four Japanese boys watch as the blood drip down. One of them says, “Got to make it suffer” (Kogawa 156). This is the indication of a cruel human society. Also, Stephen slashing at the butterflies is a cruel act. The Canadian government subjected the Japanese people to a harsh reality. They imposed many different restrictions that limited the movement, employment and freedom of the Japanese Canadian people. They worked in the firms of the Canadian people providing cheap labor and lived in poor conditions.
In conclusion, through the use of fiction characters in Obasana, Kogawa managed to bring out the historical experience Japanese-Canadians faced in Canada in a unique, stylish and interesting way. Through the narrator Naomi, she has managed to tell us about her own experience as well as those of other Japanese-Canadians during and after the Second World War.
“Democracy and The Japanese Canadian” The Canadian Forum, July 1945, 87-89.
Kaslo, B. C. “Half-way Human” New Canadian, 13 February 1943, 3.
Kagawa, Joy. “Is There a Just Cause?” Canadian Forum (March 1984): 20-24
Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. Anchor, 1982.
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