1. Is there anything about Obasan as a whole that explains the experience of the story’s
characters more clearly, more fully, or ‘better’ than aunt Emily’s records do?
I believe that though aunt Emily’s records did explain the experiences of the story’s
characters, silence also expressed that as well. Naomi’s family accepting the Canadian’s
government’s mandates with humility and silence did not get them any favors nor mean they
were loyal to the government. It made them easy to push aside. Though Naomi’s mother’s
insistence on modest silence made Naomi an ideal child in Japanese culture, it amplified her
natural reserve to a dangerous degree for instance, when she was sexually abused by Old Man
Gower and did not tell anyone about it choosing instead to keep the pain to herself (Kogawa,
59). There were benefits to silence that were highlighted in the book. For instance Obasan’s
silence gave her protection from the world. Being old, she said little and heard much less.
Being hard of hearing, Obasan saved her from needing to suffer the thoughtless comments
and racist remarks. She is able to mourn the loss of her husband in silence, which is the only
way she knows how to do so. The most admirable white character in Obasana, Rough Lock
Bill referred to talk as self-centered. He criticized the egotistical way in which people in the
city talked, likening it to chirping birds that could only say their own name. Rough Lock Bill
also praised Naomi’s silence while criticizing his own talkativeness. At the end of the book,
Naomi stopped believing that understanding was undermined by silence. With her mother’s
failure to communicate with her children and her death silencing her forever, Naomi felt that
she was still able to communicate with her. I think that silence was able to highlight the
experiences that the characters went through. Silence is only bad when it prevents
understanding and that, as Naomi came to learn, is not always the case. In this way, silence
was better able to explain the character’s experiences than aunt Emily’s records ever were.
FINAL ESSAY THEMES/TOPICS: OBASAN 3
2. Discuss Obasan as self-therapy, while giving consideration to the fact that as a
published work, the novel is speaking not to the self, but to others.
When she set out to write on the treatment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second
World War, Joy Kogawa had a lot to deal with. As a young girl, she and her family were
removed from their homes and sent to Slocan in British Colombia and joined roughly 22, 000
other Japanese-Canadians who had been evacuated from the coast following the attack on
Pearl Harbor. Obasan recounts her experience from a child’s point of view. The influence that
Kogawa’s Obasan has had on Canada goes beyond literature and made an impact on the
larger community. The book analyzed the issues of race, class, sexuality and gender which
exist in the Canadian national identity (Karpinski, 2006). This book was also responsible for
bridging the existing gap between political activism and writing and forced Canada to
undergo a radical change on how it viewed itself as a nation. Obasan exemplifies a mode of
writing that is capable of mediating a relationship between history and narrative that makes it
possible to transform history through bearing of literary witness (Karpinski, 2006). The book
also served as a tool for mediation in the reconstruction of Canada’s memory of traumatic
events in relation to how Japanese Canadians were treated during and post the Second World
War. It has also been instrumental in making the redress movement successful. The book also
initiated the return of the content that was repressed on Canadian literary history and
experience and subsequent revisions of this experience as a result of a need to acknowledge
the nation’s legacy of ethnocentrism and racism. The story of Obasan speaks to the self and
everyone as well because while it is Kogawa’s it also belongs to all Canadians (CBC Canada,
2013). It is taught in high schools across Canada and considered a classic. When the
Canadian government apologized for the suffering and mistreatment inflicted on the
Japanese-Canadians, a passage from Obasan was read in the House to describe the impact of
internment (CBC Canada, 2013). The government also made an apology to the Japanese-
FINAL ESSAY THEMES/TOPICS: OBASAN 4
Americans which Kogawa viewed as a representation of an acknowledgement of the
wrongdoings that had been done to them (CBC Canada, 2013).
3. Based on your understanding of the novel, discuss the difference between apology and
experience. In what ways is apology unable to compensate for what the people who
experienced these events went through?
The apology made by the Government of Canada in 1988 to the Japanese-Canadians
who were forced to leave their homes and not allowed to return until later made a great
difference because it acknowledges that the mistreatment was indeed wrong. It is also
important because it is finally recognition of the Japanese- Canadians as valid citizens of the
country. Before the apology, the writer felt like they were an invisible people who did not
have any rights and that what was done to them was not indeed wrong. Most of these citizens
suffered in silence through racism, violence and official segregation. For example, while in
Vancouver, Naomi learnt that the place to which her Grandma and Grandpa Nakane had been
sent to was a prison and not a pool as she had initially believed. “the place they called the
pool was not a pool of water, but a prison at the exhibition grounds called Hastings Park in
Vancouver……From our family, it was only Grandma and Grandpa Nakane who were
imprisoned at the Pool (Kogawa, 1985, p.77). It was unfortunate though that by remaining
silent, did not remove the suffering they were experiencing, but only brought sadness.
Kogawa (1985) wrote “There is silence that cannot speak. There is silence that will not speak.
Beneath the grass, the speaking dreams and beneath the dreams is a sensate sea. The speech
tha frees comes forth from the amniotic deep. To attend its voice, I can hear it say, is to
embrace its absence. But I fail the task. The word is stone.” I believe that the apology would
not compensate for what the people experienced the suffering because the apology came
nearly 40 years after they were released. The damage had been done already and instead of
time making it easier on them, they still faced racism. The long period of time that had passed
FINAL ESSAY THEMES/TOPICS: OBASAN 5
since the wrongdoing made it seem like their hardships were not relevant or had not taken
place. The longer it took for the apology to be made meant that it moving on and the healing
for the victims was also delayed. Naomi and Aunt Emily, though having been born in Canada
were still being asked where they were from because they were Japanese.
In conclusion, for recovery to take place, there is need for apologies to be made for
the atrocities committed. The discrimination faced by the Japanese-Canadians made some of
them recent their race because they felt inferior or hate the other Canadians for how they
treated them. I believe that an apology does not offer compensation for the wrongdoings
committed, it rather serves as a beginning to the journey on the road to recovery.
FINAL ESSAY THEMES/TOPICS: OBASAN 6
CBC Canada. “Joy Kogawa on Obasan’s Legacy”. (2013).
Karpinski, E. C. (2006). The Book as (Anti) National Heroine: Trauma and Witnessing in Joy
Kogawa’s Obasan. Studies in Canadian Literature/ Etudes en literature canadienne
(31). Retrieved from
Kogawa, J. (1981). Obasan. Markham: Penguin.