Study Guide


By Joy Kogawa

Obasan Introduction

Obasan is a sleeper hit. Despite initial reviews that basically said "Obasan? Meh!" this novel skyrocketed in popularity and acclaim and basically was handed a golden ticket into the Sleeper Hit Hall of Fame. It joined the ranks of Cold Mountain, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and even Moby Dick: all novels that became massively popular and influential even though first reviewers gave them the thumbs-down.

So why did this novel, which is considered a new classic of Canadian literature, inspire such blah reviews? Well, Shmoopers, we have a theory about that. Sure, critics (for some reason) didn't like Joy Kogawa's dreamy prose or her poetic sensibilities. But we also imagine that the negative reviews had a little something to do with the subject matter of Obasan: Japanese-Canadian internment during WWII.

You may have heard about Japanese-American internment? When Japanese-Americans were kicked out of their jobs, forcibly removed from their homes, and sent to internment camps with horrible living conditions? When they were treated as aliens despite many of them having been born in America?

Transplant that shameful bit of history north of the border to Canada, and then tack on an extra bit of horror-inducing grossness: Japanese-Canadians were not allowed to leave the camps until four years after the war, and they weren't allowed to go home. This whole incident is a dark part of Canada's history, and it seems like no one wanted to write about it since Obasan, which was published in 1981, was the first fiction book about the internments.

Hmm. Are you thinking about the motivation behind those negative book reviews? Because we sure are.

Kogawa's semiautobiographical novel follows the story of Naomi Nakane, a schoolteacher who takes a trip down memory lane as she looks through old family documents. She remembers in detail her life before and during internment, and manages to solve a family mystery in the process.

Obasan marked a departure for Kogawa, who had only written poetry before. She was famous, but she wasn't famous famous. That all changed by the mid-1980s. All of a sudden critics hailed Kogawa's work as part of the new literary canon. Obasan won the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Canadian Authors Association Book of the Year Award.

Kogawa went on to be awarded the Order of Canada, the Order of British Columbia, and the Order of the Rising Sun. And not just for her prose and fiction, but also for her efforts to help the Japanese Canadian community, which resulted in each internment camp survivor receiving $21,000 and the reinstatement of citizenship for Japanese Canadians who were deported during the war.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is what happens when you join the sleeper hit hall of fame: initial criticism followed by stratospheric success and awesomeness.

What is Obasan About and Why Should I Care?

Tell us the truth:

Did you throw away that pathetic Christmas present your Grandma got you? Or did you use it for at least one day ("Whee! A new pair of slipper socks! Thanks, Grammy!") so you didn't hurt her feelings?

If your best friend was in love with your boyfriend/girlfriend, would you rather know about it or be left in the dark?

Have you ever answered "Yes!" when your mother asked "Do I look good in this?" even though the dress looked like a potato sack and the color made her look like a Walking Dead extra?

All of these questions boil down to one Big Philosophical Question: When is it better to know the truth, and when is it better to be shielded from it? Yeah, we told you this question was a big'un.

Obasan asks this question in a myriad of different ways. Is it better to lock away painful memories, or grapple with them even though they hurt? Is it better to tell your children horrible family secrets, or keep those secrets locked up forever? Is it better to stay silent, or to speak out?

Dang, right? These are the kind of questions that keep you up all night. These are certainly the kinds of secrets that haunt Naomi Nakane, the protagonist of Obasan. Naomi doesn't have the answers, and neither do we. But that doesn't stop any of us from pondering them.

Naomi is addressing these questions on a massive scale: her family secrets have to do with the Nagasaki bombing, she worries about revealing the fact that she was sexually assaulted as a child and she wonders about the political stance of forgetting the experience of Japanese-Canadian internment. This makes the question of hurting Grammy's feelings ("No way, Grammy: these slipper socks will be so useful.") look easy-peasy.

But Obasan never suggests that, because Naomi's questions have to do with huge issues, that they're any more pressing than your questions are. We all grapple with when to conceal the truth and when to speak out, when to be silent and when to 'fess up. Obasan invites you to ponder this question right alongside Naomi Nakane.

Obasan Resources


Italian Canadians too?
Japanese Canadians weren't the only ones considered enemy aliens. This Web site tells the story of Italian Canadian struggles.

All You Ever Wanted to Know about Nikkei
This Web site collects information, movies, books, and events about Nikkei, or the Japanese diaspora.


Obaasan (Grandmother): A movie
Okay, so there is no Obasan movie, but there is a movie about an obaasan. Close enough?

Henry's Glasses
This movie is about a boy living in an internment camp. He uses glasses to see the world in a different way.


The Japanese Must be Repatriated
John M. Ewig argues that Japanese Canadians will never assimilate in this historical video.

A Tale of Preserverence
Saltspring (that city Grandma and Grandpa visited) celebrates the story of someone who actually returned after the war.

Newspapers are like Google News on Dead Trees
Browse through the archives of The New Canadian, the only Japanese Canadian newspaper to run throughout the war.


Tonight on FOX News! Japanese Canadian Internment
A group of high school students retell the story of Obasan, including historical footage. In case you wanted to know what it looked like if Mounties were kids wearing leather jackets.

Oh No! They've got Mr. Sulu!
George Takei speaks about his experience as a child at an American internment camp.

Toon Time
This cartoon explores the experience of young Japanese Canadian boy caught up in the middle of the Japanese Canadian Internments.


Let's Talk with Mrs. Murakami
Kimiko Murakami (part of one of the most famous families in the area) and her daughter talk about the war.

All the Interviews You could Want
A huge collection of interviews with Japanese Canadians, many of them discussing the internment.