Study Guide

Obasan Sea

By Joy Kogawa


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.