Book Review: Obasan by Joy Kogawa

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Published: 1981

As you may already know, I had the chance to go back home for a couple of weeks and so have had the opportunity to bring back some of my favourite books with me. Therefore, I’ve been having a bit of a throwback month. This book, and my projected reading list for this month is going to be all books that I have read for school (either high school or university). Some of them I remember with great fondness, and, a few I must confess, I can recall very little. It’s interesting how some books resonate with you at a certain point in your life, while other books you have to be “ready” for so to speak.

I am stalling a little here, lets get down to the review for this book. So, embarrassingly enough, this was one of the books I had to read in high school and I couldn’t recall a single event from. In fact I had thought the main character was named Obasan as the title would suggest. WRONG!

Obasan is actually the grandmother of the main character that we are following on this journey, who is called Naomi. We trace back her past as a Japanese Canadian growing up on the west coast of Canada during the Second World War and beyond. It’s actually shocking at how persecuted and awfully treated the Japanese Canadians were in a supposed free country during this time. The government at the time ‘justified’ the labour camps that young and old Japanese women and men were sent to, by claiming they were a threat to Canadian security (during World War Two Japan was seen as an enemy) and therefore enemy aliens. An absolutely absurd claim. We follow Naomi’s life, from being molested by her neighbour at age 8, to her mom moving back to Japan never to be seen again, to the constant running she and her family had to do away from the authorities and how those experiences have marked her adult self.

Her aunt, Aunt Emily, dedicates her life to finding evidence and bring to light the way the Japanese Canadians have been mistreated by the Canadian government during that time in history.

“The power of the government, Nomi, Power. See how palpable it is? They took away our land, the stores, the businesses , the boats, the houses – everything. Broke up our families, told us who we could see, where we could live, what we could do, what time we could leave our houses, censored our letters, exiled us for no crime. They took our livelihood -“(38)

It’s a really interesting dynamic and I find it extremely intriguing to read how each character in the book has been scarred and how they have chosen to deal with their marred past. It’s absolutely terrible to think that these things actually happened to Japanese Canadians during that time. Even though the book is technically a fictional story, the author, Joy Kogawa, wanted to make it clear that is was based on historical events and that many of the persons named are real.

I found myself getting more curious as the plot went on, and even though silence is one of the biggest themes of the novels that didn’t turn me off. It actually intrigued me and I felt that it was woven very well with Naomi, as well as the dark events in Canada’s history. I definitely feel that there is a certain silence about that theme about in Canada to this very day, as we try to grapple with our darker past.

I am curious to know, have you ever read a book whose theme was silence? Have you read this book? What did you get out of it?

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Obasan by Joy Kogawa

    • Intense is definitely a good word to use. I think the author does a very good job in sort of presenting the facts and circumstances without coming across as preaching or aggressive. On the contrary, she uses the theme of silence to heighten the severity of the issue. I think you are not alone in not knowing much about Japanese Canadian’s past, to be honest it’s not something that many Canadians know either!

  1. I’m so glad I read this post! I was looking for something Canadian like Obasan to read and completely forgot it existed. A tragic part of our history, but we need to remember these events, don’t we?

    • Absolutely, I wish it was more taught in school though. Instead of learning about Louis Riel every year for 6 years! I really liked how the author covered this somber and heavy theme. I would most definitely recommend it 🙂

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