Unlatching Incarcerated Voices in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan
The incarceration of hundreds of thousands of people of Japanese descent in North America during WWII had ill effects on those affected. Of these effects, there is a perplexing silence: the silence of the community, the silence of the family, and the silence of the individual. These different silences are voiced in many incarceration narratives. In particular there is Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine and Joy Kogawa’s Obasan. The former is an incarceration narrative set in the United States that follows the incarceration experience before, during, and after forced relocation of a nameless Japanese/Japanese American family – throughout the entire narrative they are recognized simply as Mother, Father, Boy, and Girl. The latter narrative follows the lives of a family stained by the effects of the incarceration and WWII. It is a longer and fuller account of the individual experience during this time as it follows the story of 5-year-old Naomi Nakane – the lead female character – and voices her story and that of her family’s. Therefore, my primary focus will be on Kogawa’s piece, Obasan but will pull references from Otuska’s text to create a more holistic account of the effects of the incarceration on three levels: the community, the family, and the individual. Kogawa articulates the effects incarceration had on the community through Naomi’s aunt’s –namely, Aunt Emily—journal entries. Emotionally charged and indignant of the war, Kogawa explains the actions against Canadian citizens of Japanese descent as a response to a political culture in which people of Japanese descent were considered as the enemy or “enemy aliens.”
Consequently, communities are separated and destroyed. Kogawa narrows down the effects to an intimate level: the family. To be more specific, the silence surrounding the impact that incarceration has on the members of the community. Kogawa voices this silence by offering a vivid account of the impact of the struggles Japanese Canadians families endured and experienced during WWII and the pain involved in the separation of families and communities. This pain was left voiceless for much of the narrative as the lead Naomi and her older brother, Stephen, are left uninformed about the happenings of their mother in Japan. This silence, encouraged by their mother and enforced by their aunt and uncle, is maintained under a misguided sense of protection and a coping mechanism to soldier through the burden of incarceration. Later, we find that the narrative highlights a different silence—the silence of Naomi as a victim of sexual violence. Thus, Kogawa’s text voices the three effects that burdened people of Japanese descent and their aftermath.
At the community level, Kogawa captures the destruction of the communities as a result of the war through Aunt Emily’s journal. Aunt Emily’s journal was written in the form of letters to Naomi’s mother, who was still in Japan at the time. The letters were Aunt Emily’s way of keeping a record of everything that happened while her older sister was away. The letters cover a period from December 5, 1941 to May 21, 1942. During those five months, the Japanese Canadian community of British Colombia was devastated. Responding to this fear, the Canadian government designated a strip along the coastal areas as “protected areas” – all people of Japanese descent who lived there were to be relocated, with many opportunities available for forced relocation – sponsors inland whom offered housing, incarceration camps in “ghost towns,” desolate abandoned areas with little to no resources. Those unable to leave on time were rounded up and sent to Hastings Park, centers that were converted into holding areas where people were detained until they could be sent to forced labor camps and concentration camps under terrible conditions. Aunt Emily continues to report that Japanese-run newspapers have been shut down, and that Japanese families were not allowed to have radios. This is a way of erasing or preventing public memory.
Property was confiscated with no leads as to compensation awaited the owners. Everyone was forced to register, and the Nisei – second generation Japanese immigrants – were labeled as “enemy aliens.” Their citizenship was revoked, and a dusk-to-dawn curfew imposed on them and enforced via the public authorities. However, the worse is only about to begin; rounds-ups and deportations. Grandmother and Grandfather Nakane fall victim to these roundups and are sent to the Pool, a prison within Hastings Park where people are crammed and forced to live like livestock, missing even the most basic necessities. Grandfather Nakane dies, and Aunt Emily witnesses Grandmother Nakane wasting away in the slummy conditions of the prison. Despite the wishes of the hopefuls, the community continues to be torn apart, and people continue to be taken away. Finally, it’s father’s turn, and Aunt Emily is faced with the task of preserving what remains of the family.
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