Study Guide

Obasan Analysis

By Joy Kogawa

  • Tone

    Self-Depreciating, Dream-like, Matter of Fact


    Naomi isn't the biggest personality on the block—she likes to play her cards close to her chest—but we do see her being self depreciating and sarcastic. It's one of the first things that we learn about her. She says:

    I throw up my hands in futility. Let the questions come. Why indeed are there two of us unmarried in our small family? Must be something in the blood. A crone-prone syndrome. We should hire ourselves out for a research study, Aunt Emily and I. (2.42)

    Admit it, you thought that was kind of funny didn't you? We did. Though funny moments are few and far in between in Obasan, when they do appear they help humanize Naomi and lighten the tone of this supremely depressing book.


    This lady has the most imaginative dreams. We normally just dream about forgetting our homework, or going to school naked. Our dreams are super boring compared to Naomi's.

    Almost every chapter has at least one dream in it. They more or less sounds similar (in writing style) to this one:

    She is here. She is not here. She is reaching out to me with a touch deceptive as down, with hands and fingers that wave like grass around my feet, and her hair falls and falls and falls from her head like streamers of paper rain. (24.4)

    Kind of trippy and confusing, right? Sounds like a dream to us.

    There are so many dreams in the text that it is kind of difficult to separate them from the "reality" of the story. Not only that, but Kogawa uses the same dream imagery to describe real situations. So it often feels as if the whole novel takes place in a dreamlike haze.

    Matter of Fact

    How can it be both dreamlike and matter-of-fact? What we mean is Kogawa doesn't shy away from telling us everything. The bleak nitty-gritty of Naomi's life is presented to us without euphemism. For example, Naomi says:

    Their first child, a boy, was born dead. He looked, Obasan told me, like Grandpa Nakane. Exactly the same outline of the face. (4.11)

    Naomi didn't just gloss over this sad event, as might happen in many other novels. Nope, she even gives us extra detail.

    The mixture of the matter-of-fact and dreamlike tone given interesting effect when Grandma Kato describes Nagasaki after the bombing. Even though we want to look away, Kogawa doesn't let us and writes an unflinching description of the horrible event. But the facts are so terrible that it's hard to recognize as real-life. They seem like a nightmarish extension of Naomi's dreams.

  • Genre

    Autobiography, Coming-of-Age, Historical Fiction

    Autobiography and Coming of Age

    You got us. This is not a story about Joy Kogawa's life. But does that mean that it's not an autobiography? Of course not.

    There are lots of types of autobiographies, and one is the semiautobiographical novel. True, Kogawa never lived in Granton, and she's a poet, not a schoolteacher. But she is Japanese-Canadian, and she did live in a settlement in Slocan. So this book is semiautobiographical because it draws on her experiences while also creating a totally new fictional story.

    Funnily enough, Obasan is an autobiography for one person: Naomi Nakane. Obasan is her life story, and the tale of her coming-of-age. We follow her from a confused and silent little girl in Vancouver, to imaginative kid in Slocan, and finally to the sarcastic adult she grows to be.

    Historical Fiction

    This book is almost like a history lesson. Well, if history were seen through the eyes of a little girl instead of (yawn) generals and senators and royalty. The plot of the novel closely follows the historical events in Canada during World War II.

    While history is not always the main part of most historical fiction novels, the whole point of Obasan is to explore this often-ignored part of history. This book will teach you a thing or two about the Japanese-Canadian internment. You can call Joy Kogawa sensei (for more on the nuanced meaning of sensei, check out our character analysis on Nakayama-sensei).

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The novel Obasan is titled after Naomi's Aunt Ayako, who she calls Obasan. It's almost strange that Kogawa chooses this title, since the novel is more of Naomi's story than anyone else's. We're pretty sure the total number of words that Obasan speaks throughout the whole novel is less than twenty. So: why her?

    It helps to remember that in Japan every older woman can be called obasan. It works with all family relations, including big brother (oniisan), big sister (oneesan), and grandmother (obaasan). Naomi could call her Aunt Aunt Ayako, or even Ayako Obasan, but she doesn't. She's just Obasan.

    By having Naomi call her Obasan, Kogawa links the character of Obasan to the universal idea of the older woman. Obasan is not just Naomi's obasan, but also the obasan of all Japanese Canadian children who had to be protected during the internment period. Probably many sansei could recognize her in their own families.

    The title is also a reference to Japanese mythology. In Japanese fairy tales the character of Obasan turns up all of the time, and she are always loving, diligent, and hardworking older women. Huh: that sounds a whole lot like the obasan we know and love. So the obasan in Obasan (are all these obasans making you dizzy, a la Being John Malkovich?) is a callback to the Japanese version of the old Wise Woman that shows up a lot in Western fairy tales. She's the Japanese fairy godmother.

    By titling her work Obasan, Kogawa is saying that the novel is not just Naomi's story, or even the story of Naomi's family. It's the story of all the Japanese Canadians, and all of their obasan.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    I inch my way down the steep path that skirts the wild rose bushes, down slipping along the wet grass where the underground stream seeps through the earth. My shoes are mud-clogged again. At the very bottom, I come to the bank. Above the trees, the moon is a pure white stone. The reflection is rippling in the river--water and stone dancing. It's a quiet ballet, soundless as breath.
    Up at the top of the slope, I can see the spot where Uncle sat last month looking out over the landscape.
    "Umi no yo," he always said. "It's like the sea."
    Between the river and Uncle's spot are the wild roses and the tiny wildflowers that grow along the trickling stream. The perfume in the air is sweet and faint. If I hold my head a certain way, I can smell them from where I am. (39.17)

    Did you ever notice the date that Naomi and Uncle go to the valley every year? It's August 9. On August 9, 1945, the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. When we see the first version of the scene in the beginning of the novel, we don't really understand what's going on. Why does Uncle want to go out in the middle of the night to a valley? Why does he think that it looks like the sea?

    But by the ending we know the answers to all these questions. He wants to go to the valley to honor Naomi's mother. And he thinks that it looks like the sea, because it's the closest thing that they have to the sea in the town of their exile.

    Naomi has spent the whole novel asking questions, and this ending shows us that she finally has the answers. She's not asking questions anymore. She finally understands all the things that she's been searching for this whole time.

  • Setting

    Japanese-Canadian Internment Centers during WWII

    Even before the war, Japanese-Canadians experienced widespread prejudice. They had been denied the right to vote, and were not allowed to hold many jobs that other Canadians could do. That was bad, but things got even worse when the war started.

    Canada entered World War II earlier than the United States did, and began confiscating Japanese Canadian property early on. It is now known that this happened even though the Canadian military and police force felt no threat of the Japanese invasion.

    After the attack on Pearl Harbor, internment policies were ramped up even faster. All Japanese Canadians were labeled "enemy aliens" and stripped of their rights as citizens. In 1942 the federal government gave the Canadian Minister of Justice the right to remove all Japanese Canadians from their homes. How angry are you getting just reading this? We're getting steamed.

    It's important to remember that internment in Canada was very different from internment in the United States. Aunt Emily teaches us:

    The American Japanese were interned as we were in Canada, and sent off to concentration camps, but their property wasn't liquidated as ours was. And look how quickly the communities reestablished themselves in Los Angeles and San Francisco. We weren't allowed to return to the West Coast like that. We've never recovered from the dispersal policy. (7.25)

    So while the effects of US internment was still hideous, the Japanese American community recovered much more quickly than the Japanese Canadian community did.

    Hasting's Park Prison

    Most Canadians were not aware of the conditions in the internment camps. Hastings Park prison, where Naomi's grandmother is kept, is one of the most notorious. While all of the camps were in bad condition, this camp repurposed livestock stables to house thousands of people. This was not a good (or humane) idea.

    Aunt Emily describes the conditions:

    The other day at the Pool, a visitor dropped his key before a stall in the Livestock Building, and he fished for it with a wire and brought to light manure and maggots. He called the nurse and then they moved all the bunks from the stalls and pried up the wooden floors, and it was the most stomach-turning nauseating thing. (14.108)

    Imagine not being able to drop anything on the floor because it would be covered in maggots. It's easy to see why the Red Cross thought the condition was so bad in the camps that they needed to send aid. They needed all the help they could get.

    Slocan, British Colombia

    In addition to camps like Hastings Park prison, many Japanese were sent to internment camps in gold-mining ghost towns. Slocan was a vibrant city when gold prospectors lived there, but it had fallen into disrepair by the time Naomi's family moves in. It's a serious downgrade from her beautiful house in Vancouver.

    However the Japanese community tries to make the best of it. Since Slocan is in a rural area, Naomi gets to experience nature. She says: "Slocan greening in spring is vulnerable as birth, the bright yellow-green turning steadily deeper into shades of blue" (19.4). That sounds downright pretty to us. It's better than sleeping in maggoty stables, at least.

    Before the Japanese Canadians are forced to move again, they revitalize the town. Naomi says:

    In Bayfarm, in Slocan, the community flourishes with stores, crafts, gardens, and homegrown enterprise: Sakamoto Tailors, Gardiner General Merchant, Nose Shoe Hospital, Slocan Barber T. Kuwahara Prop. [...] The ghost town is alive and kicking like Ezekiel's resurrected valley of bones[...] (23.4)

    The list goes on longer, but we figured you get the picture. Instead of being a ghost town, the Japanese Canadians leave Slocan a vibrant and bustling city.

    Granton, Alberta

    In the 1940s, the Canadian economy was suffering from a lack of farmworkers. The people who traditionally worked on these sugar beet farms left their arduous jobs for better paying ones. Interned Japanese Canadians were forced to take their place. That's how the family ends up in Granton.

    This town is even worse than Slocan. Naomi says:

    When we stop finally, it is at the side of a small hut, like a toolshed, smaller even than the one we lived in in Slocan. [...] Our hut is at the edge of a field that stretches as far as I can see and is filled with an army of spartan plants fighting in the wind. (28.12)

    In other words they are in the middle of freaking nowhere. Naomi hates every second of her life in the hut, but the family remains in Granton even after the internment policies are lifted.

    The Bombing of Nagasaki

    There is one more major setting for the novel: the town of Nagasaki, on the island of Kyushu in Japan. On August 6, 1945, the US government dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. Three days later they dropped a bomb on Nagasaki.

    Grandma Kato describes the aftermath. It is a long quote, but it illustrates the horror of the situation, so we're putting it in in full. Read it and (literally) weep:

    It took Grandma a long time to claw her way out of the wreckage. When she emerged, it was into an eerie twilight formed of heavy dust and smoke that blotted out the sun. What she saw was incomprehensible. Almost all the buildings were flattened or in flames for as far as she could see. The landmarks were gone. [...] Beneath some wreckage, she saw first the broken arm, then the writhing body of her niece, her head bent back, her hair singed, both her eye sockets blown out. [...] Grandma Kato touched her niece's leg and the skin peeled off and stuck to the palm of her hand. (38.23)

    According to some standards, the bombing was successful because on August 15, 1945, the Japanese government agreed to unconditional surrender. But the human toll was inconceivable. Besides those who died instantly, an estimated 80,000 people died in Nagasaki within four months of the bombing from radiation.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    To him that overcometh
    will I give to eat
    of the hidden manna
    and will give him
    a white stone
    and in the stone
    a new name written….
    (Revelation 2:17)

    What's up with the epigraph?

    This quote from the Bible is a promise to Christians who overcome adversity.

    Let's break it down. Manna is the food that God created for the Israelites to eat while they wandered through the wilderness after escaping Egypt. Manna is also later associated with Jesus, since he tells his followers that he is the bread of life. If you want to know more about manna, head over to our Bible section and check it out.

    The white stone may be a reference to the stones that were like concert tickets in Roman times. We guess that the concert is heaven. Overall the message is that Christians who overcome difficulty will be given heavenly bread/sustenance and tickets into the kingdom of heaven.

    Now, where else have we seen stones and bread in the novel? Oh right, Uncle Sam's stone bread. If you've checked out the Symbols section you'll know that we talked about stone bread as a metaphor dealing with adversity. If you haven't, mosey on over. It's good stuff (unlike stone bread).

    We know that Naomi and her family have experienced and overcome adversity, so what is their reward? In the Symbols section we discussed how Aunt Emily's parcel is just like Uncle's stone bread, so maybe it is the hidden manna. But what about the white stone and the new name?

    In ancient Hebrew tradition people were given new names if they survived illnesses or adversity. We know that Naomi doesn't literally get a new name, but you could say that she gets a new identity after she learns about the fate of her mother. She's not just the Naomi that hates the past anymore, she's the Naomi that's accepted her past.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    Tree line (6)

    Obasan is a slightly difficult read for the same reason that the tilt-a-whirl is a difficult ride. You go back and forth so much it's hard to keep things straight.

    The language and the subject matter are mostly easy to understand, but this novel jumps back and forth through time like a DeLorean in Back to the Future. Sometimes it's hard to know where or when we are. Are we in Vancouver in the past? Are we in Obasan's house in the present? Kogawa doesn't make it clear when time shifts occur, so it can be confusing. Add that to the weird dreamy stuff and you have a fairly complicated book on your hands.

    But hey: life is complicated, and memory can be a confusing ride all by itself. And also, Shmoopers, that's what we're here for. We'll hold your hand if you get dizzy on this tilt-a-whirl.

  • Writing Style

    Partially Japanese, Sensory, Precise

    Partially Japanese

    We say partially Japanese because there isn't a lot of actual Japanese spoken in this novel. But if you pay close attention, Kogawa writes the dialogue of the Japanese speaking characters as if they're speaking Japanese in English.

    It might seem bizarre at first, but Kogawa is attempting to give English-speaking readers the experience of hearing Japanese. For example, this is how Naomi's mom speaks:

    "It was not good, was it?" Mother says. "Yoku nakatta ne." Three words. Good, negation of good in the past tense, agreement with statement. It is not a language that promotes hysteria. (11.20)

    In English, Naomi's mother would be more likely to say, "You didn't do a good thing," or "The hen was bad." Japanese allows Naomi's mom not to blame anyone, but it can also be so vague that it causes confusion.

    So Kogawa replicates that ambiguity in her Japanese/English dialogue. It's not quite normal English… but it's not quite Japanese either.


    This lady sure knows how to engage all of your senses. Some novels only focus on a few sentences, like sight. But Kogawa uses all of the senses in a way that the reader is able to experience sensations right along with the characters. This is how Naomi feels when she learns about Uncle's death:

    There is an odd sensation like an electrical jolt but not so sharp—a dull twitch simultaneously in the back of my head and in my abdomen. And then a rapid calming. (2.57)

    You can understand how she feels, right? Or maybe your stomach even got a little upset too? That's a master of sensory prose at work.


    So much of this novel is about language and its power that it makes perfect sense for Kogawa's style to be very precise. There are many scenes that may not reveal their true meanings until after the book is over because she is so careful with her vocabulary. This is not a book for a lazy reader.

    This precision spills over into the characters' experiences. For example, it is not enough that Naomi dreams of her mother and Obasan's love. She dreams of a very specific Japanese word for love. She says:

    Once I came across two ideographs for the word "love". The first contained the root words "heart" and "hand" and "action"—love as hands and heart in action together. The other ideograph, for "passionate love", was formed of "heart", "to tell", and "a long thread". (35.6)

    There is a pretty big distinction between the two words, and Kogawa tries to make that clear to her non-Japanese readers. That's a lot of work. Other writers might just have written "love" and hoped for the best.

  • Sea

    Water and grass are pretty different. Right? So why does Uncle keep saying that the grass in a valley is just like the sea? We thought he was a little crazy, but Uncle Sam isn't just seeing things. In order to see what he sees, you have to keep two things in mind.

    Fishermen Who Die in the Prairies

    Uncle Sam was a fisherman. So was his dad, and so were most of the Japanese men who came to Canada. They lived their lives on the sea. The money they needed to take care of their families came from their fishing on the sea. In other words, the sea equaled life for them.

    So imagine that one day you are stripped of all that. The only job you've ever known. The lifestyle you family have been living for generations. And now not only are you stripped of all of your rights, but you're sent inland. How terrible is that?

    No wonder Uncle wants to go back. Naomi tells us:

    Once, years later on the Barker farm, Uncle was wearily wiping his forehead with the palm of his hand and I heard him saying quietly, "Itsuka, mata itsuka. Someday, someday again." He was waiting for that "some day" when he could go back to the boats. But he never did. (4.31)

    Sure, he wants to go back to the boats, but it also sounds like he just wants to go back home. To the sea. To his fishing. To his life.

    But like Naomi says, he never does. He and the many fishermen who were taken from their homes can never go back to their homes or jobs along the coastline. So a very strange thing happens. They get buried inland. Naomi describes it:

    Perhaps some genealogist of the future will come across this patch of bones and wonder why so many fishermen died on the prairies. I remember one time we drove up the mountainside near Sheep Creek and came across shellfish fossils. "Ha," Uncle said in awe, expelling his breath slowly, "the sea was here." (34.45)

    Even in death, they never get to go back to the sea. But the sea is such a part of them that they bring it in their bones to the prairie graveyards.

    But there are two sides to the sea, and the other side ain't so comforting and homey. The other side is dangerous.

    Don't Drown: Sea as Danger and Unknowingness

    The sea holds all of their memories, all of their secrets. Naomi describes the silence about her mother as "a sea." Even the coast that they leave behind in British Columbia seems to be made out of tears. Naomi says:

    We are leaving the B.C. coast—rain, cloud, mist—an air overladen with weeping. Behind us lies a salty sea within which swim our drowning specks of memory—our small waterlogged eulogies. (15.2)

    So yes, the sea is home… but there are a lot of bad memories about home. It's kind of a haunted home.

    Then things get even worse. Naomi almost drowns in a river because she doesn't know how to swim. Think about it, the daughter of a fisherman who doesn't know how to swim? That's pretty weird. It just shows you how removed she is from her own culture and her family traditions. Instead of being a place that should comforter her, the water is a place that threatens her life.

    Naomi references this boat scene again. It's after she learns the truth about her mother. She says:

    How shall I attend that speech, Mother, how shall I trace that wave? You are tide rushing moonward pulling back from the shore. [...] I sit on the raft begging for a tide to land me safely on the sand but you draw me to the white distance, skyward and away from this blood-drugged earth. (38.1)

    Now her mother is the sea, but notice that instead of being dangerous Naomi has turned the imagery of the sea upside down. She realizes that the land is not actually her safe place. The sea is. Just like it was always meant to be.

  • Stone Bread

    Sure, Uncle is a pretty miserable cook. He's no Anthony Bourdain, not by a long shot, but that doesn't mean that the stone bread isn't an important symbol in the novel. It represents both Uncle and difficulty.


    On the most basic level, the stone bread is a symbol of Uncle Sam. He's the one who makes it. Not Obasan. Which, if you think about it, is kind of unusual since it doesn't seem that he cooks anything else.

    Since it is the only thing he makes, and no one else makes it, it is totally attached to him. So everything about it reflects on his personality. Check out our analysis of Uncle Sam's character for more info on what makes Sam so Sammish.

    Dealing with Difficulty

    Naomi just thinks that Uncle's bread is hard because he's not good at baking, but there's more to it than that. Stone bread isn't Uncle's invention. Stone bread is actually a food that has been made by people who don't have much to eat. In addition to the regular ingredients, it uses any other leftovers that you could find. Kind of like a pot luck, or soup in the story "Stone Soup". The result is a hard loaf, but it is more nutritious than regular bread. In other words, stone bread is a way to make the best out of what you have.

    Things get interesting when stone bread is further associated with Aunt Emily and her parcel. The parcel is as heavy as stone bread. When Aunt Emily give Naomi documents to read, she says:

    "Read this, Nomi," she said from time to time, handing me papers as if they were snapshots. […] "Give you something to chew on," she said. She was eating a slice of Uncle's stone bread with a slab of raw onion. You're the one with the strong teeth, I thought to myself. She did have strong teeth. And a tough digestion. (7.40)

    Aunt Emily's tough digestion doesn't just apply to the hard bread, but also for dealing with terrible memories from the past. She's one tough cookie. She's not afraid to deal with the difficulty that she has experienced, and she wants to share her feelings with everyone. On the other hand, Naomi refuses to eat the bread. Just like she refuses (at first) to deal with the sorrows in her past.

    But by the end of the novel it seems like Naomi is finally able to deal with her memories. So, do you think she'll like the stone bread now? Um, probably not. It still sounds totally nasty to us.

  • Chickens

    Poor chicks. We're probably not going to be able to look at chickens the same way for a while after reading this book. Whoever thought that cute little fluffy baby chicks, and sweet mama hens could be so creepy? Chicks and chickens stand for a lot of things in this novel. Unfortunately, none of them are good.


    This is where the chickens first appear. Naomi puts some chicks that her parents bought in a cage with a hen. That makes sense: hens are mama chickens and chicks are baby chickens. A match made in heaven, if you're a sweet little girl who with a loving mother like Naomi is.

    Not quite. Did you know that hens don't like chicks from other hens? So much that they will peck them to death? Naomi didn't know that either, but you can guess what happened to the chicks.

    Later in Slocan, there is more chick-killing, but this time it's by boys instead of hens. Naomi describes it like this:

    "Kill it, Sho." Although the air is raining with feathers and sudden red splatterings, there is a terrible stillness and soundlessness as if the whole earth cannot contain the chicken's dying. Over and over, like a kite caught in a sudden gust, it plunges. "Kill it, Sho." (22.59)

    All of a sudden, the novel gets very Lord of the Flies.

    And Weakness

    Okay, so now every time that she sees chickens, Naomi thinks of death. As if that wasn't enough, she picks up another horrible association for chickens: weakness.

    You know how little chicks are yellow? Well you know what else is yellow? The yellow peril a.k.a. the totally racist word for the crazy idea that Asian people will immigrate to the Americas en masse and destroy society.

    Naomi is a smart girl, and she can put two and two together. She says:

    To be yellow in the Yellow Peril game is to be weak and small. Yellow is to be chicken. I am not yellow. I will not cry however much this nurse yanks my hair. When the yellow chicks grow up they turn white. (22.26)

    So the equation is: Yellow=Weak+Afraid=Japanese. Naomi decides that she's not going to be yellow.

    All Together Now

    Chickens represent death, weakness, and the Japanese Canadians who are affected by the internment policies. Naomi is young when things start going crazy, so she doesn't understand very much. These symbols help her understand.

    When she puts all of these associations together she ends up with some pretty frightening dreams. This is what she dreams in the hospital:

    Chickens with their heads half off flap and swing upside down in midair. The baby in the dream has fried-egg eyes and his excrement is soft and yellow as corn mush. (22.89)

    It could have been a little less gross, we know. Naomi is deeply affected by the events she as experienced with chickens and the result is some insane-o, disgusting nightmare food.

    So next time you look at a chicken in Obasan remember that they aren't cute. They're terrifying.

  • Obasan

    Without Obasan, there would be no story. Think about it. How do Stephen and Naomi even manage to grow up during such a tumultuous time? Who steps in when their parents both disappear and cannot take care of them? That's right: it's Obasan to the rescue.

    Think of all the things that a mother should be (at least according to very traditional ideals): calm, caring, self-sacrificing, loving, and quiet. Until recently all women were expected to become mothers, so this list is also a bunch of ideal traits for women in general. Obasan ticks every box.

    She's the perfect woman.

    She is not wagamama, or selfish. Even though she is suffering too, all of her actions take care of other people. She sticks with Stephen and Naomi through thick and thin. Even Stephen's continuous rudeness can't send her away.

    What's the big deal? Well the big deal is Kogawa centers her story on women, not men. Women are the strong ones in this here novel. Even Aunt Emily says:

    The men are luckier than the women. It's true they are forced to work on the roads, but at least they're fed, and they have no children to look after. Of course, the fathers are worried but it's the women who are burdened with all the responsibility of keeping what's left of the family together. (14.114)

    Women are the ones who have to keep the pieces of society together after the men are taken away. They have to raise the kids and hide their feelings. Just like Obasan.

    So by titling this novel Obasan, Kogawa is not just talking about her own auntie. She's talking about all the women like her.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central Narrator)

    The narrator in Obasan is none other than our very own Naomi. Sure, Aunt Emily hijacks the story for a bit with her journals, but in the end it still Naomi telling us her story. Since the novel begins when Naomi is very young, and we see everything through her eyes, the narrator is very important to how we understand Obasan.

    When it begins, Naomi is too young to understand war, death, or illness. So these things are explained through fairytales. She imagines:

    Tad is what I think I'll call my frog—short for Tadpole or Tadashi, my father's name. [...] Prince Tadashi. He wears a dark green suit, not the rough green army garb, but a smooth suit, silky and cool as leaves. He is from the mountains. Certainly not from Granton. He was hidden under the tree roots waiting for me, a messenger from my father. (31.24)

    It's more comforting to think your father is a frog Prince than swallow the knowledge that he's dead.

    As she gets older, Naomi learns more about her surroundings and so we do to. By the time she's a grown-up, she is kind of tired of all of her memories. She says:

    I am tired of living between deaths and funerals, weighted with decorum, unable to shout or sing or dance, unable to scream or swear, unable to laugh, unable to breathe out loud. (27.6)

    We get it; we'd be tired of all of that too.

    By choosing Naomi as her narrator, Kogawa not only tells us the story of Japanese-Canadian internment, but the individual story of one little girl growing up through wartime. Naomi both speaks for all the Japanese-Canadians interned during WWII and speaks for herself, with her own unmistakable voice.

    We would totally be friends with Naomi.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    This isn't the kind of comedy that ends with laughter. It's the kind of comedy that ends with truth: the kind of truth that sets you free and paves the way for happiness. Naomi learns the truth about the past, and she's able to move on with her life. No laughs. Just truth. Can't lose.

    Shadow of Confusion (No One Knows The Truth)

    Everyone is confused when the novel starts.

    In the present-day of the novel, adult Naomi is still confused about the past, but she's managed to block it all out and has nothing to show for her past trials and tribulations but a bunch of shadowy, super-unpleasant dreams.

    This history of confusion has gone on for-freaking-ever. Back in the 1940s, young Naomi doesn't know why her mother leaves, but everyone tells her she'll come back soon. No one in Naomi's family understands why internment camps are happening, or even who will be next to go. Every time someone is certain of something it's wrong. No one, not even the adults, knows the truth.

    Pressure of Darkness (Everyone thinks they know the truth)

    We stay firmly in the past in this section of the novel: it's all big band music and sweet 1940s fashion (did someone say shoulder pads?) here.

    Several years later, and Naomi has gotten used to her new life. She's accepted it: she is sent into exile to remote, dusty towns by the Canadian government. Her father is dead and her mother is missing. She's never going back home. She'll live out the rest of her days in a filthy shack, spending her waking hours on a sugar-beet farm. Life is Grimsville.

    The characters are normally under the spell of darkness. They think they know the truth—that life will continue to suck forever.

    Everything Comes to Light (Everyone finds out the real truth)

    Things get way worse before they get better; just letting you know. Naomi finds out the truth about her mother: she suffered horribly in the Nagasaki bombings and was permanently disfigured. She wanted to hide the truth from her children in order to shield them from the possibility of evil in the world.

    When Naomi finds this out, back in the present-day of the novel, the clouds lift. The sky turns blue. The birdies start singing. She understands her mother's love towards her and, with that, comes happiness.

    Okay, yes: this isn't a laugh-out-loud kind of comedy. But still: comedy in its basic form is the persistence of a sort of twilight state of doubt for the majority of the novel/play/story, followed by an emergence into the light. This can come in the form of a "Will they or won't they?" sexual tension that culminates in happily-ever-after with a wedding… or it can be about one woman's doubts about the past finally lifting.

  • Plot Analysis

    (Exposition) Initial Situation

    It's Miss Nah-Canny to You, Buster

    Naomi Nakane is your everyday schoolteacher. She's also Japanese-Canadian. She lives a normal life: she has an Uncle, an aunt named Emily, and another aunt called Obasan ("obasan" means "aunt" in Japanese). Pretty normal stuff. There's just one thing that bothers her sometimes: she doesn't know what happened to her mother…

    Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

    The Worst Phone Call

    Just as we're getting settled, there's a phone call. Uncle has died. That one little phone call leads to Naomi going to visit her Aunt, which leads to her remembering a lot of things she would rather have not remembered, which leads to… the plot getting interesting.

    Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

    The Mailman Was a Little Late

    After paragraphs, pages, and chapters full of wondering what happened to Naomi's mom we finally get the answer: she died in the bombing of Nagasaki. This is so terrible that it makes everyone sick when they listen to the letter describing the events of the bombing. Yeah, it's gruesome, and totally heartbreaking.

    Falling Action

    Listening to Her Mother's Voice

    Naomi doesn't know what to do with this information at first, but then she makes her peace. She can finally stop asking questions. It's like after all of these years she's reconciled with her mom, and they are a loving family again. The main problem of the novel is getting wrapped up, don't you think?


    It's Like the Sea

    Naomi goes to Uncle's favorite valley, partially to mourn his death and partially to celebrate his life. She admires the beauty of the land and smells the flowers. That's it. There's nothing more to do.

  • Three-Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    Naomi is a teacher, and life is normal (bratty students and all) until she gets an important phone. This is the message: Uncle is dead. Her Uncle acted as a surrogate father for her, so this is extra-sad. Naomi's father had died and Naomi's mother… well, no one knows what happened to Naomi's mother.

    Naomi travels to her aunt, and her old house brings back some pretty unwanted memories. She tries to push them aside, but then Obasan (her Aunt) gives Naomi a huge package. Once she starts reading that, there's no going back.

    Act II

    We follow Naomi through her childhood in her parents' home, full of happiness and music, to the beginning of World War II. The war changes everything. Her family is ripped apart and forced into exile because they're of Japanese descent.

    That's bad enough, but after Naomi is finally comfortable in her new home (you know, the one she was exiled to), the Japanese Canadians are forced to move again (yup, this is exile from exile).

    By the end of Naomi's reminiscing, she's no closer to answers then she was when she began. What happened to her mom? She simply resolves to accept not knowing what happened.

    Act III

    Then something happens. There is a letter from Japan, and it has the answers to all of Naomi's questions. She finally knows what happened to her mother, that she loved her, and why she never heard from her again: she was in Nagasaki when the bomb fell.

    The novel ends peacefully. Naomi is calmer than she has ever been. She doesn't feel so lost and confused. The past doesn't have a hold over her.

  • Allusions

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • The Bible, Habakkuk 2:2 (7.9), Daniel 1-3: Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego (9.7), Gospel of John (15.4), Ezekiel 37:1-14 (23.4)
    • Walter Scott, "The Lay of the Last Minstrel" (7.72)
    • Cupid (7.84)
    • Mary (Mother of Jesus) (8.11)
    • Momotaro (10.8)
    • The Brothers Grimm, "Snow White" (11.50)
    • Jesus (13.4)
    • The Book of Knowledge (13.7)
    • Peter Rabbit (13.35)
    • New Canadian (14.27)
    • James Oliver Curwood (14.109)
    • Humpty Dumpty (15.36)
    • Snow White (16.36)
    • Goldilocks (17.25)
    • Emerson, "The Mountain and the Squirrel" (19.45)
    • Long John Silver (19.58)
    • Rapunzel (22.4)
    • Highroads to Reading, Book Two (22.6)
    • Alfred Lord Tennyson, Minnie and Winnie (22.6)
    • Little Tales for Little Folk (22.22)
    • Chicken Little (22.22)
    • Johanna Spyri, Heidi (23.1)
    • Louisa May Alcott, Little Men (23.1)
    • Vancouver Daily Province (23.3)
    • Little Orphan Annie (23.3)
    • The Gumps (23.3)
    • The Katenjammer Kids (23.3)
    • Myrtle (23.3)
    • Paul Bunyan (26.6)
    • If all the Seas were One Sea (26.7)
    • Anne of Green Gables (30.16)
    • The Secret Garden(30.16)
    • Girl of the Limberlost (30.16)
    • The Frog Prince (31.24)

    Historical References

    • Chief Sitting Bull (1.13)
    • Japanese Canadian Internment (4.4)
    • Rule Brittania (4.6)
    • Royal Canadian Mounted Police (4.29)
    • The Crusades (7.10)
    • Winston Churchill (7.17)
    • Stephen Leacock (7.17)
    • World War II (7.22)
    • Japanese American Internment (7.25)
    • 1907 Vancouver Anti-Asian Riots (7.34)
    • Red Cross (7.68)
    • Stanley Knowles (7.90)
    • Mackenzie King (7.92)
    • Ninomiya Kinjiro (9.31)
    • Hastngs Park Internment Camp (14.2)
    • Hitler (14.45)
    • The Holocaust (14.45)
    • Alderman Wilson (14.66)
    • Etsuji Morii (14.76)
    • Ian Mackenzie (14.93)
    • The British Royal Family (20.1)
    • Yellow Peril (22.24)
    • V Day (23.3)
    • King George V (25.46)
    • Beethoven (33.55)
    • Nagasaki Bombing (37.14)
    • Tokyo fire bombings (37.15)

    Pop Culture References

    • Edo Lullaby (3.36)
    • Mandrake the Magician (4.14)
    • Charlie Chaplin (4.28)
    • Life (5.18)
    • New Liberty(5.18)
    • Mechanix Illustrated (5.18)
    • Salvation Army (5.22)
    • Mighty Mouse (7.14)
    • Gloria in Excelsis Deo (13.5)
    • Mickey Mouse (15.42)
    • Silver Threads Among the Gold (17.21)
    • Batman (18.9)
    • O Canada (22.65)
    • "The White Cliffs of Dover" (24.40)
    • Waltzing Matilda (24.40)
    • Guy Lombardo, "Auld Lang Syne" (26.3)