Naomi’s Conflicted Identity in Obasan by Kogawa

March 18, 2021 by Essay Writer

In the novel, Obasan, Kogawa uses Naomi’s character development to convey that early life racism, internment and abandonment from loved ones can lead to one feeling confused about their identity.

The narrator of the novel, Naomi, goes through a series of traumatic events as a child, most importantly internment, sexual molestation and abandonment from her loved ones. Before being sent to Slocan (a ghost town) by the Canadian Government, Naomi was being molested by her next-door neighbour Old Man Gower, who repeatedly told her to not to tell her mother anything. She later states that this incident, in particular, was the one that separated her from her mother.

Further on in the novel, at a hospital in Slocan, Naomi brings up a racist term, the Yellow Peril. “Yellow” is a racist colour-metaphor for Japanese Canadians. Naomi states ” to be yellow in the Yellow Peril game is to be weak and small. Yellow is to be chicken. I am not yellow.” (Kogawa pg. 217). She associated the colour yellow with weakness, showing how she believes that to be Japanese is to be weak. She also states that yellow baby chicks grow up to be white, Naomi associates that thinking with herself as well. She thinks as she grows older she will turn white, meaning that as she gets older, other people will recognize her to be Canadian. Due to this belief, Naomi struggles with her identity as a whole.

Notably, as a child, Naomi acknowledges that she is culturally bilingual and she has a dual identity, she states “Who is it who teaches me that in the language of eyes a stare is an invasion and a reproach? Grandma Kato? Obasan? Uncle? Mother? Each one raised in Japan, speaks the same language; but Aunt Emily and Father, born and raised in Canada, are visually bilingual. I too learn the second language”(Kogawa pg. 67). It can be inferred that she shifts back and forth from the cultural languages and beliefs of Canada and Japan. However, as she reaches adulthood, she notices that she is still recognized as a “Jap” because of her eyes. Even though Japanese culture doesn’t seem to be a large part of her lifestyle or her identity when she is an adult. Naomi looks Japanese (biggest factor is her eyes), acts Japanese, and even eats Japanese food, but she states she doesn’t feel Japanese in her soul. She truly feels Canadian. The biggest factor is that she believes is her eyes that give away her Japanese heritage, in fact, Obasan even told Naomi while she was younger to look down while she walks, so other people don’t notice her eyes and associate her as a “Jap”.

Because of the extreme racism and internment, she faced as a child (and she faces all the way to her adulthood), she believes that her looks and Japanese background define who she is. In conclusion, Naomi’s conflicted identity has been shaped by childhood abuse of both a sexual and political nature.

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Obasan and Naomi’s Road by Joy Kogawa: Literary Comparison

March 18, 2021 by Essay Writer

People today often underestimate the trauma experienced by the Japanese in World War 1. Kogawa puts Japanese treatment during that time into perspective through her novels Obasan and Naomi’s Road. By crafting two novels for different age groups, Kogawa has created two pieces of literature that contrast in syntax, point of view, and tone.

Kogawa is widely known for her figurative language and beautiful imagery as depicted through her complex sentences. Consequentially, Kogawa surprised most everyone when she managed to form a novel that aimed towards children. Naomi’s Road was composed to appeal to children through narration of Naomi’s stories, gently presenting them with the history of the Japanese-Canadian reputation (Ito 1). The novel starts off and continues with simple sentences. Kogawa remains consistent in her poetic prose, but does so in lines much easier to comprehend. “Mountains green with trees climb to the sky. Across the lake, the highest, farthest mountains are blue and purple and topped with white snow” (Naomi’s Road 43). Use of onomatopoeia throughout the book is evidence of simple yet entertaining conversations. Kogawa writes to simply depict a setting using light language and descriptive words in an order that children may understand.

Obasan is compared to a harsh documentary by literary critic, Marilyn Rose (Vander Ark 221). The book’s complex syntax has landed the book in high school and university level studies. In Obasan, Kogawa utilizes poetry to place emphasis on silence as well as focus on Japanese-Canadian internment. Through Kogawa’s poems the reader is led to riddles of “hidden manna, hidden voice, and hidden reason” (Cheung 225). Kogawa opens the novel with the following lines of poetry describing silence and its meaning. In these two lines alone, the reader is left to interpret and anticipate various “silences” that will be highlighted throughout the novel (White 212). This is only one example among many in which Kogawa’s complex metaphorical language and symbolism are wrestled with by the reader (Vander Ark 221).

In addition, the two novels are increasingly unique from each other as the stories differ in narration, or points of view. Naomi’s Road, for starters, is told from third person limited perspective; a point of view not uncommon among children’s books. Use of third person perspective is easier for young minds to comprehend as the insight is typically not as complex. This is evident as Naomi’s thoughts are kept short and narrow-minded. This may also be due to the fact that Naomi’s Road takes place when Naomi is only five. A narrative focus on this age appeals to children as it gives them a character they may relate to. Their thoughts correlate much better with five-year-old Naomi than they would thirty-year-old Naomi. Not only are younger children more likely to read a novel told from a narrator closer to their age, but the story employs characters in a way that stands apart from use of characters in Obasan. For starters, Naomi is accepting of all the abhorring events that occur around her. Kogawa emphasizes silence in a way that is appropriate for younger generations. Another character who changes from one novel to the other is Stephen. Although Stephen can be the tough older brother who doesn’t give in without a fight, he still has a soft, tender side. Stephen is seen as needy for approval from his father. He leaves the house to find a comforting reminder of his father in music. When he locates a piano in a currently vacant church, he sits down and plays music all night long (NR 98). This allows the reader to see that although Stephen may be mysterious at times, he is never without good intentions. Again, Kogawa’s style here draws in younger audiences as attachment and innocence are easily understood and relatable. Other characters remain unapplied for all of our most of one novel. This observation is made apparent by the fact that For example, Aunt Emily is never mentioned in Naomi’s Road. The absence of this character enables Kogawa to focus more on a gentle and simple style of writing. While Naomi’s mother may be an unemployed character in Obasan, she is the prominent mother figure of Naomi’s Road. This allows Kogawa to establish a relationship between the two of comfort and security. For instance, in the beginning of the novel, Naomi and her friend accidentally set a curtain on fire. Naomi’s friend abruptly abandons a frightened Naomi, who is soon relieved by the hero of the day, mom. Her mother is described as “the safest place in the world” (NR 23).

On the contrary, Obasan brings into play two narrators as opposed to one. Obasan uses two first person central narrators. A majority of the novel is written in Naomi’s perspective. Most of it is centered on present day events, with frequent flashbacks dispersed throughout. Naomi’s unfolding of events enables the reader to reflect on her painful past and how it has affected her present-day idea on society. Meanwhile the entire 14th chapter is Aunt Emily’s diary during World War 1. Aunt Emily’s journal aides the reader in understanding the racial discrimination as Aunt Emily was old enough to remember and comprehend events more than naïve Naomi. “’No British subject would live in such conditions.’ Then if we improve our lot, another says, ‘There is danger that they will enter out better neighborhoods.’ If we are educated, the complaint is that we will cease being the ‘ideal servant’. It makes me choke. The diseases, the crippling, the twisting of our souls is still to come” (Obasan 99 ). Aunt Emily’s foreshadowing allows the reader to empathize with the imprisoned hopelessness Aunt Emily is feeling at this point in time. No matter what the Japanese do, the rest of Canadian society will remain discontent with their actions. When Naomi is the narrator, the audience is left to interpret symbolism. However, Aunt Emily’s blunt narration provides insight to the emotions that were actually experienced at the time. During Obasan, Aunt Emily serves as the opposing character to Naomi as Aunt Emily is the “political fire band” of the novel (White 213). Kogawa enforces a writing style known as a foil. This is as Aunt Emily is the hard-driven Japanese-rights activist whereas Naomi would much rather forget her painful past (Cheung 225). Another instance where a major character in one novel participates as a minor role in the other would be Naomi’s mother. Naomi’s mother remains unmentioned with the exception of a collection of Naomi’s flashbacks. This enables Kogawa to allow Obasan, Naomi’s aunt, to rise as the dominant mother figure in Obasan.

Through writing two novels that settle on sending out the same message in two differing ways, Kogawa has formed two books that capture completely contrasting tones. As a result of being told from the third person point of view, the narrator gives off a detached tone throughout Naomi’s Road. The narrator never expresses sympathy for Naomi and all the hardships she is forced to face at such a young age. Naomi and Stephen both are bullied at school and in for being different in their appearance (NR 66). Another more specific example in which the author remains unattached to the characters would be when the narrator is stating how Naomi is so hot she would be willing to dip her feet in dirty brown water even if it meant sitting among thorns. This instance describes a scene in which Naomi is desperate to go for extremes that may be small to an older audience, yet awful to children and kids. The narrator still, however, remains stoic about Naomi’s desperate situation. In Naomi’s Road captures a satiric tone, even though it is for children. She is able to do so as she utilizes a lighter satire that truly treats everything in a light, joking manner. One day when Naomi and Stephen are out playing along the river bank, Naomi wonders what it would be like to be in control of a country full of tiny people that you could do whatever you want with (NR 34). The irony is that she is living that way currently is described by that particular scenario. Only she is not the one that is in control, instead that would be the Canadian government that is in control of Naomi and her family. Irony is later implemented again trough use of an allusion to “Little Orphan Annie”. Naomi was fond of reading them and liked to imagine herself as Annie, picturing the day that her parents would walk through the door to greet her and Stephen. This gives the reader hope that this may indeed happen in the novel. Although the book has many depressing circumstances throughout, it still has an innocent tone surrounding Naomi and her adventures. She is new to the world and is still in the process of learning how cruel people can be. When Naomi first meets Mitzi, Mitzi refuses to talk to them and makes sure that Naomi is aware she is in no place to even glance in Mitzi’s direction. Naomi must learn how to adjust to situations similar to this one when it seems as if everyone but herself is against her.

Due to the fact that Naomi herself is the narrator, Obasan takes on a more objective tone. Naomi makes it clear early on that she is not Aunt Emily’s biggest fan when she states “For the rest of the car ride home I kept quiet while Aunt Emily bulldozed on. I could see that we were in for an evening of marathon talking whether anyone else felt up to it or not” (Obasan, 43). The negative connotation that comes with the word “bulldozed” stresses the fact that Naomi finds Aunt Emily loud and annoying. The objective tone paves way for a much harsher satire compared to what is discernible in Naomi’s Road. When Aunt Emily’s documents make their appearance in the story, she questions why Canadians seem to be more afraid of Japanese people born in Canada than they are of Germans from Germany. If satire is not obvious throughout the novel enough, this line alone is enough to make one aware. Even though Naomi is more laidback, her reflections on her painful past cause the reader to feel an urge to do something to make a change of how people treat one another. The book as a whole displays a serious tone signifying sadness and highlighting the importance of silence.

As one can clearly see, Kogawa highlights silence and human interaction during the time of World War 2 in two literary pieces that are heavily distinguished from each other. In one she creates an objective tone with light satire by use of simple syntax and third person point of view. In the other she sets a serious tone with heavy satire through complex syntax and first person point of view.

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Obasan by Joy Kogawa: Portrayal of Struggles of the Japanese-Canadians

March 18, 2021 by Essay Writer

Joy Kogawa’s Obasan is the story of what Japanese-Canadians endured through during the Second World War. The book represents Joy’s story, the history, and the society at the time when these Canadians were treated unfairly.

Joy Kogawa lived through a rough time in Canadian history. A part of history the country is not proud of. Joy Kogawa was born in Vancouver in 1935. She lived there until her and her parents, whom were among the thousands of Japanese Canadians that were forcibly removed from the coastal areas and interned during the Second World War. The first place they were moved to was Slocan, British Columbia and a little while later to Coaldale, Alberta (The Canadian Encyclopedia). Joy wrote about what she remembers of the evacuation through a poem. She remembers her father telling her about the train and mountains, families being forced to leave many of their possessions behind, missing her doll, a puzzle given to her on the train, being made fun of, leaving friends behind, praying to God and wishing she was white (Kogawa, 152). Later on, in her life she studied education at the University of Alberta and music at the University of Toronto. She worked to educate people about the history of Japanese-Canadians, and is active in the fight for official government redress to obtain compensation and reparation for her community. She was married to David Kogawa on May 2, 1957 and they had two children. She is known and celebrated for her moving fictionalized accounts of the internment of Japanese Canadians. One of those accounts was her best-selling book Obasan which was preceded by three collections of poetry, The Splintered Moon, A Choice of Dreams, and Jericho Road. After Obasan, she continued the story of Naomi in the sequel Itsuka. Joy’s fiction emphasizes compassion and the arduous work of healing. She is a feminist who feels the necessity of identifying with oppressed humanity, regardless of gender (Pamela Kester-Shelton Biography in Context). Not only does she write about her experiences through her books and what went on during those years of interment, she also has been involved with political work concerning the rights of Japanese Canadians. In 1986, she was made a Member of the Order of Canada, in 2006 she was made a Member of the Order of British Columbia, and in 2010 the Japanese Government honored Joy with the Order of the Rising Sun, “for her contribution to the understanding and preservation of Japanese Canadian history (Kogawa).

Her novel Obasan, was published 1981 and is an award-winning novel. Obasan is the Japanese word for aunt. Obasan is a lyrical and heart-rending account for the losses and suffering endured by Japanese Canadians endured during the Second World War (The Canadian Encyclopedia). It also talks about the inter-generational pain of the Japanese Canadians affected by the Canadian government’s relocation and internment of its citizens during World War II (Pamela Kester-Shelton Biography in Context). Joy Kogawa has stated in many interviews that her book Obasan is intensely autobiographical. It’s a story about breaking an imposed silence in order to induce healing (Encyclopedia/Joy Kogawa). Joy Kogawa is a feminist who feels the necessity of identifying with oppressed humanity, regardless of gender. In an interview with Williamson she said, “I am wary of the uglification of the soul that happens with one-dimensionality, and which is one of the dangers of political endeavor, including that of feminism” (Pamela Kester-Shelton Biography in Context).

Government policy during the war effected Japanese Canadian lives and shaped their futures. The prejudice and discrimination was on both Issei immigrants and their Canadian-born children, called Nisei (The Canadian Encyclopedia/ Japanese-Canadians). The prejudice and discrimination started after Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbour and the British colony of Hong Kong on December 7th, 1941. After the attack, many Japanese Canadian fishing boats were impounded and Japanese newspapers and language schools were shut down (History of Japanese Canadians World War II Internment). In later months, the government used the War Measures Act to remove men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry from the “Defense Zone” of 160 km from the B.C. coast. The evacuation for the Japanese meant the uprooting of the community, disbanding numerous businesses, breaking up families and home life, and losing substantial personal possessions and properties (Makabe, Tomoko pp. 362). They were removed from their homes and distributed to various locations across Canada (The Canadian Encyclopedia/ Japanese-Canadians). They were moved to roadwork, farming, or industrial projects set up by the government or sent to internment camps. They spent the war years and many years after the war in ghost towns, sugar beet farms, various farming areas, self-supporting projects in British Columbia, and road or industry projects (Makabe, Tomoko pp. 370). While being distributed across Canada, the Japanese were required to sign their property and belongings over to the Custodian of Enemy Property. The possessions which included homes, land, and businesses were subsequently sold in 1943; sold without the permission of the owners and at a fraction of their actual value. The proceeds of these sales were used to pay for the living expenses of the Japanese Canadians that had been interned (The Canadian Encyclopedia/ Japanese-Canadians). Near the end of the war the Canadian government wanted to stop any potential reestablishment of the West Coast Japanese communities. So, they were given two options: they could either accept paid passage to Japan or they reestablish themselves east of the Rockies (The Canadian Encyclopedia/ Japanese-Canadians). Yet again they were forced to up root their lives they had built during the war years; some chose to reestablish east of the Rockies and others chose to make the journey to Japan. They told the Japanese Canadians that the dispersion that was mandatory not voluntary, was to show their loyalty to Canada. Prime Minister Mackenzie King stated the basic principles of government policy as follows:

“… it must be accepted as a basic factor that it would be unwise and undesirable … to allow the Japanese population to be concentrated in that province (British Columbia) after war…. The sound policy and the best policy for the Japanese Canadians themselves is to distribute their members as widely as possible throughout the country where they will not create feelings of racial hostility” (Makabe, Tomoko pp. 380).

The wartime and immediate post-war policy of the government brought two facts into focus. First, the dominant motivation for the evacuation was racial prejudice, not a need for national security. Second, these Canadian citizens were forced to realize that the authorities regarded them as Japanese rather than as Canadian (Makabe, Tomoko pp. 381). Even after the war they had restrictions. They were still not allowed to return to the coast or to vote (Makabe, Tomoko pp. 382). They were denied the right to acquire land, to grow crops, or to buy a house wherever they went by government order (Makabe, Tomoko pp. 383). The last of the restrictions were lifted not until 1949, four years after the Second World War ended. Even though the government was allowing them to move back to British Columbia-the place they had been forcibly removed from-majority did not go back. Many of the Japanese actually see them being evacuated as the “best thing that has ever happened to us” “a blessing in disguise”. To the Japanese, now it was a good thing, they were given the chance for a new environment and into new social relationships within a larger society. A society where they could grow with less prejudice toward minorities. For them the forced evacuation turned out to be a good thing even though they had to live through prejudice and discrimination.

Obasan by Joy Kogawa is a fiction book that talks about real events. The themes that show up in the book are also themes that relate to the reality of that time. In the book, there is prejudice, discrimination, memories and the past, and loss of identity. The prejudice in the book is everything being taken away from them, forced evacuation, and inhumane treatment just because they are Japanese. They were also discriminated because they were Japanese, even people that had known them for years, shared meals together, went to the same church or school, people who were friends discriminated them. The whole book is about memories and the past, those things are used to show what happened and what they went through. It also shows how they started to recover and heal. Last, is identity, the characters in the book were always struggling to figure out who they were because for years they had established themselves as one thing and then suddenly they were told that they were not that. They were confused, they just wanted to belong and be seen as people again, to be seen as Canadians. All the themes and the way they are portrayed in the book are the same as in reality. During the Second World War and years after there was prejudice, discrimination, memories and the past, and loss of identity. The prejudice, discrimination and loss of identity that happened in the book were the same in reality but the memories and the past had more. Obasan is the account of only one but there are thousand that have their own story of what they experienced, how they healed, and how they re-established. Joy Kogawa’s book Obasan depicts the reality of what the Japanese Canadians endured. The themes in this book show us that the world is not always nice, it can be cruel at times. Many people think about how these horrible things could have been done to people, especially in Canada. It changes peoples view about the country they have lived in their whole life. It makes people wonder if something like this will happen again and if it does who will be the target? Joy shows us that no country is perfect and people make bad decision but it is possible to overcome them and heal.

These events in Canadian history represent the deliberate destruction of a community and a form of “cultural genocide”. The internment of the Japanese Canadians has had a profound social, political and economic implications, it was an act of political violence (Sugiman, Pamela pp. 359–388). That is what Joy Kogawa wanted to show through her book Obasan, the difficulties they faced, how they fought for their rights, and how they healed and recovered. We can use the events that have happened in the past and change for the better. That’s why God created people who would write down our history, so that we can learn from our mistakes. We can use a Christian approach if something like what happened to the Japanese Canadians ever happens again. We must also have faith that God is putting us through those trials for a reason and that in the end after it is all over we are better people, better Christians. Everything that happened to the Japanese was something-I think- God would not have wanted. What the government did was inhumane, it was not something a country that is based on religion should have done. Even though they were not killing them, they were still discriminating, being prejudice, stealing and cheating them of their possession and livelihood, and treating them as livestock constantly forcing them to move. None of those things would be acceptable in the eyes of God, He wants us to treat everyone with respect and kindness.

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The Importance Of Animals And Animal Imagery In “Obasan” And “The Wars”

January 12, 2021 by Essay Writer

Animals play an important role in the novels “Obasan” by Joy Kogawa and “The Wars” by Timothy Findley despite meaning two very different things for the characters in each text. In “Obasan,” animal imagery is used to demonize the Japanese-Canadians by comparing the powerlessness and oppression they receive from the Canadian government to the treatment given to animals. Yet in “The Wars,” the protagonist Robert Ross finds the greatest kinship with animals and prefers them to the company of other humans. In this essay I will explore how each text uses animals and animal imagery as they are significant in the demonization of Japanese-Canadians and their national identity, and the role they play in developing Robert’s identity and morality during the war.

As a child Naomi, the protagonist of “Obasan,” remembers her parents caring for “cotton-batten-soft yellow chicks,” placing them in a chicken coop where they resemble more like “yellow puff balls” than chickens (Obasan, 83). Immediately after placing the chicks into their cage without warning a white hen pecks at a chick with the intent to kill, “[a]gain and again the hen’s beak strikes and the chick lies on its side on the floor, its neck twisted back, its wings, outstretched fingers” (Obasan, 83). The baby chicks with their yellow fur represent the Japanese-Canadians, having the stereotypical yellow skin of East Asians, the white hen representing the Canadian government. The pecking of the chicks to death is symbolic of the brutal acts committed by the government to Japanese-Canadians, such as their forced internment and theft of Japanese-Canadian homes and property, while also representing the white Canadian’s wish to eradicate all Japanese-Canadians out of the country.

The chicken is an animal that reoccurs frequently during the novel. To Naomi, to be a chicken – specifically a chick – is to be yellow, oppressed, and weak. Essentially, to be Japanese. As a young girl, she recognizes that to be yellow is to be chicken, and she rejects her yellowness (Obasan, 217). She unconsciously wants to reject her Japanese ethnicity, if it means that her and her family will no longer be subject to this discrimination that is specific to Japanese-Canadians, yet not to German-Canadians. Symbolically, Sho and Danny, two Japanese-Canadian boys, powerless and disadvantaged as they are, kill a hen and they are adamant that they must “make it suffer,” choking and beheading the chicken’s head (Obasan, 222). Another instance of chicken imagery is when Naomi refers to the house the government forces her family to live in, a disgusting and small house in the isolated town of Slocan, Alberta. She refers to the house as more of a “chicken coop,” due to its poor insulation from the cold and heat, and the many flies and mosquitoes from the cows in a nearby barn (Obasan, 279). In the winter, the only warm place is by the coal stove where Naomi’s remaining family “rotate like chickens on a spit” (Obasan, 279). The presence of flies and mosquitoes around their chicken coop display the filthy conditions Japanese-Canadians are forced to live in, in displaced homes and in internment camps. it also reinforces the Canadian government’s demonization of Japanese-Canadians, treating them no better than farm animals. Other instances of Japanese-Canadians being treated as subhuman are present through animal imagery: they are “despised” and “treated like cringing dogs” (Kogawa, 269), and their forced evacuation from their homes resemble “ants in an overturned anthill” (Kogawa, 169).

In “Obasan,” chickens appear at the same time Naomi is aware of the concept of death. Baby chicks are killed by larger hens and by boys. In “The Wars” birds are also associated with death. When Robert is stuck in a trench, frozen and in distress, prior to his encounter with a German sniper he later accidentally kills, a white-throated sparrow sings (Findley, 146). Immediately after Robert and his men are attacked by chlorine gas, Poole tells Robert that a man had died yet he cannot see him; all he could hear were “the sounds of feeding and of wings” (Findley, 90). Despite birds being an omen of death for Robert, it reinforces his connection with animals as being an integral part of his identity.

Unlike for Naomi and the Japanese-Canadians during WW2, for Robert animals symbolize morality and the rejection of his faith in humanity. In rabbits, he is reminded of his beloved, younger sister Rowena who embodies innocence to Robert. His affinity to animals is evident in Rodwell’s sketch book where out of about one hundred sketches, the sketch of Robert was the only human out of all the animal sketches, albeit the sketch of him was “modified and mutated – he was one with the others” (Findley, 160). Within the company of animals, he is reminded of a greater sense of morality, values he is unable to find among his fellow soldiers. When he runs with a coyote for an almost half-hour, his immediate thought was to wonder why it wasn’t hunting, where there may be squirrels and rabbits to hunt. Robert’s first thought was of violence, and he is humbled that the coyote was only searching for water (Findley 25). Robert, who is exposed to the horrors of war and the traumatic rape by his fellow Canadian soldiers, comes to value dehumanization, considering people to be the real savages. His love for animals eventually kills him, as he sacrifices his own body to save horses from a burning barn. He, along with his beloved horses, die at the hands of men and his lack of faith in humanity is validated by his death.

Within “Obasan” and “The Wars,” animals come to symbolize two very different things. For Japanese-Canadians, animals – particularly chickens – represents how the Canadian government views their community as being equal to or less than animals. For Robert, animals help shape his identity by providing him his moral standards and, ironically, help him remember his own humanity during a war where there is a lack of mercy or morality by either side. As humans, we consider ourselves to be superior to animals, yet we treat our own kind atrociously – sometimes even worse than animals. What kind of creatures, or beasts, are we then?

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Kogawa’s Depiction of Interment Camps in Obasan

June 29, 2019 by Essay Writer

In the novel Obasan, by Joy Kogawa, the narrator recounts her experience of being relocated to the internment camps during the Second World War. During this time period the Japanese Canadians were considered enemies to all. Consequently, they were treated unfairly, and at times, even brutally. Kogawa sets her excerpt during the 1940s in British Columbia to emphasize the relations between the Japanese Canadians and society. Society, in Kogawa’s excerpt, represents a place where Japanese Canadians are hated due to the actions of their country. Specifically, this action refers to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, which takes place right before the excerpt is set. This setting establishes conflict because society does not allow the Japanese Canadians to express themselves as individuals: human beings that are not associated with a collective group. Instead, the Japanese Canadians are oppressed, or treated unfairly because they are seen as an enemy by society. Kogawa employs a first-person plural narration in order to give the reader a direct insight to the thoughts and feelings of a Japanese Canadian living in this time period. Thus, the reader is able to see and feel everything as if it were happening this very moment. This point of view allows the reader to not sympathize, but rather understand the struggles of the Japanese Canadians. Through the use of various literary elements such as point of view, structure, selection of detail, and figurative language, Kogawa suggests that the narrator’s complex attitude toward the past stems from her inability to assimilate into a society in which she is seen as an enemy. For the narrator to transcend this feeling of rejection, Kogawa indicates that she must draw from the love and support of others, which in turn will give the narrator a sense of belonging and independence. Kogawa begins her excerpt by establishing the time period in order to emphasize to the reader that there is conflict; through this conflict Kogawa suggests that the narrator views the past with disdain due to the fact that she is seen as an enemy by society. Kogawa says “1942” (Kogawa line 1) in order to highlight the importance of the time period: the Japanese have recently bombed Pearl Harbor and it is the middle of the Second World War. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, all Americans with Japanese descent were put in internment camps after fear of further attacks by the Japanese. During their time in the internment camps, the Japanese Canadians were isolated from society, resulting in their loss of identity, or the characteristics that make one unique. This lack of identity amongst the Japanese Canadians caused society to stereotype them as an enemy; thus, all Japanese Canadians were viewed with contempt. The Japanese Canadians’ imprisonment at the hands of the Canadian government indicates that those in power, in this circumstance the Canadian government, have the power to determine morality. Kogawa goes on to say that “[w]e are going down to the middle of the Earth with pick-axe eyes, tunneling by train to the interior, carried along by the momentum of the expulsion into the waiting wilderness” (lines 5-8) to underline a sense of desolation for the Japanese Canadians because they recognize the severity of their circumstances. Kogawa alludes to the Bible, specifically talking about the exile of the Israelis. The “waiting wilderness” the narrator refers to can be seen as an extended metaphor, for it represents the internment camps the Japanese Canadians will be relocated to. They do not know what to expect when they arrive at the internment camps. The narrator views this “wilderness” with a sense of inevitability because she knows that she is powerless in refusing to go to the internment camps. This quote also presents an irony because although the Japanese Canadians understand the severity of their predicament, they know that they are unable to do anything to alter it. Through this irony Kogawa presents the Japanese Canadians as tolerant, or accepting of their dilemma because they do not attempt to change a hopeless situation. Kogawa indicates that the narrator’s quiet tolerance of her situation constitutes for much of her hard feelings toward the past because now she is finally able to reflect on such atrocities. Through the use of figurative language, Kogawa is able to convey her message that the events of the past shape the way Japanese Canadians view themselves in the present moment, which in turn illuminates the fact that because of the past, the Japanese Canadians struggle to find a sense of identity. This paradox has an adverse affect on the Japanese Canadians, for it implies that due to the past, the Japanese Canadians are in an unstable state of mind because they are viewed as enemies to all. Consequently, the Japanese Canadians are unable to develop a sense of individuality, or uniqueness because their surrounding environment hinders their ability to do so by isolating them in the internment camps. The anaphora “we are”, which is repeated eleven times throughout the excerpt, reoccurs to remind the reader of the struggles that the Japanese Canadians endure as a group. By starting each paragraph with “we are” in the first part of the excerpt, Kogawa signifies that the Japanese Canadians see themselves as a collective group rather than distinct individuals, which in turn reveals that the Japanese Canadians all share the common hardship of assimilating into society as individuals. Furthermore, Kogawa uses the simile “[w]e disappear into the future undemanding as dew” (lines 27-28) to compare the Japanese Canadians to dew. This simile evokes a feeling of hopelessness for the future because the Japanese are helpless against being relocated to the internment camp. This simile can also be seen as an extended metaphor, for it symbolizes the plight of all Japanese Canadians during this time period. They are all powerless in stopping their inevitable relocation to the internment camps. Furthermore, Kogawa does not use dialogue during the Japanese Canadians’ train ride to the internment camps. This gives the impression that the train ride is completely silent, which emphasizes the Japanese Canadians’ quiet tolerance of their situation. Rather than use dialogue to describe the situation, Kogawa opts to uses imagery. She describes the train by saying: “The train smells of oil and soot and orange peels and lurches groggily as we rock our way inland. Along the window ledge, the black soot leaps and settles like insects” (lines 46-48). The narrator gives the reader a detailed description of the train in order to accentuate what it was like to be on the train going to the internment camp. She uses personification to compare the “black soot” to “insects”, which again shows how the use of figurative language allows the reader to witness firsthand what it is like to be a Japanese Canadian living during this time period. Through her detailed description of the train ride to the internment camps, the narrator reveals one of the many hardships the Japanese Canadians faced during their relocation to the internment camps. By using figurative language, Kogawa is able to express the despair of the Japanese Canadians by indicating that they are aware of their bleak situation, yet they know they are powerless in changing it. Midway through the excerpt Kogawa transitions from a first-person plural to a first-person singular point of view to allow the reader to see the situation through the perspective of the narrator as an individual as opposed to a collective group; through this change in point of view the reader is able to understand the hardships that the Japanese Canadians endured directly. The narrator first describes a child noticing concrete details in order to emphasize the change in point of view. She says: “A pile of luggage in a large hall. Missionaries at the railway station handing out packages of toys” (lines 29-31). The child only notices concrete images because he is young; his mind has not developed to the extent of an adult. This change in point of view contrasts the varying perspectives of the Japanese Canadians on their relocation. The fact that the child is oblivious to being relocated and only noticing the obvious highlights the importance of perception. While the child may not see anything significant in being relocated to the internment camps, the view of an adult completely contradicts this. Obasan, for example, completely comprehends the gravity of the situation. In changing the point of view, Kogawa suggests that one’s perception plays a major role in their overall outlook on life. The narrator does not look at the past with fondness because from her standpoint, there is nothing worthwhile to remember. Furthermore, Kogawa uses the literary technique of flashback, which not only highlights the change in point of view, but also provides the reader with a direct insight to the conflict. “It is three decades ago and I am a small child resting my head in Obasan’s lap” (lines 33-34). The narrator reflects on when she was a child going to the internment camps. This flashback allows the reader to see the events unfold through the eyes of the narrator. The reader can thus feel everything as if it was happening this very moment. Through the use of the literary technique of flashback, Kogawa is able to emphasize the change in point of view from first person plural to first person singular, which in turn allows the reader to see the action unfold through the eyes of the narrator.Kogawa implies that the conditions in the internment camps are so poor that many Japanese Canadians do not make it out alive and that those that do are negatively impacted by their experiences there forever; through this indication Kogawa suggests that the chief reason for the narrator’s complicated attitude toward the past comes from the fact that her harrowing experiences at the internment camp will always be with her. The narrator reflects: “Not one uncle or aunt, grandfather or grandmother, brother or sister, not one of us on this journey returns home again” (lines 43-45). This quotation can be interpreted in two ways. First, from a physical perspective, as it is possible that the narrator’s family all dies while in the internment camp. Second, it can be seen from a mental viewpoint, for the narrator suggests that the experience of being in an internment camp for such a long time drastically affects the psychological morale of the Japanese Canadians. Many Japanese Canadians were in the internment camps for as long as four years, during which they were under extreme emotional stress. The ones who made it out alive would have to deal with the psychological trauma associated with being imprisoned for so long. The narrator recognizes that these experiences will be with her forever; therefore, she does not look to the past with nostalgia, but rather the complete opposite as she tries to forget it entirely. Kogawa ends her excerpt on an optimistic note to show that in desperate times, solace can be found through the kind actions of others, which in turn illuminates that one can use the love and support of others to overcome the toughest of situations. Kogawa says: “Obasan hands me an orange from a wicker basked and gestures towards Kuniko-san, indicating that I should take her the gift. But I pull back” (86-88). Obasan wants the narrator to give Kuniko-san oranges because she realizes that Kuniko-san is poor. When the narrator is hesitant to do so, Obasan takes the situation into her own hands. “Clutching the top of Kuniko-san’s seat with one hand, Obasan bows and holds the furoshiki out to her. Kuniko-san clutches the baby against her breast and bows forward twice while accepting Obasan’s gift without looking up” (lines 95-99). These last lines of the excerpt underline Obasan’s selflessness. Although the gift of apples and oranges is a seemingly small deed, it makes a world of difference to Kuniko-san. Obasan makes a sacrifice by giving Kuniko-san the apples and oranges. By doing so, Obasan puts the need of others in front of her own. In this instance Kogawa wants the reader to see the big picture, as she conveys that the kind actions of others make the most dreadful of experiences into a more bearable one. Obasan’s action epitomizes the resolve of the Japanese Canadians and the undying pride that allowed them to cope with the injustices brought upon them. Through the generous action of Obasan, the narrator is able to see that one small act of kindness can make an immense difference on one’s outlook of life. In ending her excerpt on a positive note, Kogawa notes that although the narrator does not look at the past with fondness, she can reflect on Obasan’s selfless act as one of the few moments that she will always remember because it unifies the Japanese Canadians as one by suggesting that they all share a common struggle. Through their experience of being relocated to the internment camps, the Japanese Canadians endure hardship upon hardship. Though from the perspective of the Japanese Canadians this imprisonment was unjust and their subsequent treatment ruthless, Kogawa presents them as tolerant and resolute. Through the use of the narrator, Kogawa suggests that the actions of the Canadian government strip the Japanese Canadians of their individuality. For them to find a sense of belonging and independence, Kogawa reveals that they must transcend their hopeless situation through the love and support of each other. Although the narrator does not look to the past with nostalgia, Kogawa implies that she is nevertheless satisfied because the benevolent actions of others allow her to find a sense of identity that she would not have found otherwise.

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