Study Guide

Obasan Setting

By Joy Kogawa


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.