Study Guide

Aunt Emily Kato in Obasan

By Joy Kogawa

Aunt Emily Kato

Aunt Emily talks so much in this novel, we are surprised it's not titled after her. The longest chapter, Chapter 14, is dedicated to her journal. Every couple seconds her voice pops into Naomi's head. While the majority of the other characters are all about silence, you couldn't get Aunt Emily to shut up if you tried.

There's a reason why this lady won't keep her mouth shut. She's trying to spread knowledge about what happened to the Nisei (second-generation Japanese) and other Japanese-Canadians. While the other characters think the best solution is silence, she has taken another approach. She's become a Japanese-Canadian crusader.


"Write the vision and make it plain." These are the words from the Bible that open Aunt Emily's journal. It's her motto as she wages her oral and written crusade against the silence surrounding the Canadian Japanese internment. They are God's words to the prophet Habakkuk, telling him to record his revelations so that other people can see and act on them. So Aunt Emily is positioning herself as Habakkuk, the prophet, and she is writing down the history of her people so that they can fix past problems.

That's a pretty different way of looking at things when compared with the first generation Japanese Canadians around her. While the rest of the family hides in silence, Aunt Emily uses words like finely sharpened weapons. She knows that words have power, and so she uses them wisely. For example, Naomi notices her correction to a paper:

Wherever the words "Japanese race" appeared, Aunt Emily had crossed them out and written "Canadian citizen." (7.21)

It may seem like a tiny change, but there's a huge difference between thinking of people born and raised in Canada as part of the "Japanese race," or as "Canadian citizens."

And it's not just her love for words that separates her from everyone else. She's emotional. Specifically, she's angry. About what? About everything. Naomi explains:

Injustice enrages Aunt Emily. Any injustice. Whether she's dealing with the Japanese-Canadian issue or women's rights or poverty, she's one of the world's white blood cells, rushing from trouble spot to trouble spot with her medication pouring into wounds seen and not seen. For her, the injustice done to us in the past was still a live issue. (7.26)

Racism? She's on it. Economic inequality? She wrote a paper on it. Sexism? She will be there at the protests. You get the idea.

Instead of hiding in silence, she tackles the problem head-on. We're not going to lie; sometimes she's totally annoying. Naomi just wants her to shut up sometimes. But at least she's trying to do something, right?

But why is she so angry about everything? Well, did you notice that Aunt Emily is the only Nisei that we get to know? There is Naomi's mom, but she goes to Japan. Naomi's dad is just sick all the time. There's even Uncle Dan, but all we know about him is that he gets arrested. Things didn't turn out well for the Nisei.

What's worse is that the Nisei consider themselves Canadian. Of course, the Issei (people born in Japan) don't like being arrested or interned either, but it's even worse when the country of your birth is doing it to you. Aunt Emily's anger is a part of this problem.

Issei are born Japanese, so they don't have an identity problem. Even though Sansei (third generation Japanese) are still working things out, their path to acceptance has already been blazed by Nisei. So the Nisei, and Aunt Emily, are right in the middle. They are the ones doing all the hard work to be accepted in society, and they are the ones who get the most rejected by it.

No wonder Aunt Emily is angry.

But even she is not perfect in her crusade. She doesn't want to make all the things in her life plain.


Here is one point about Aunt Emily that's very strange. She suddenly goes quiet whenever Naomi asks about her mother. This is typical:

"What do you think happened to Mother and Grandma in Japan?" I asked. "Did they starve, do you think?" Aunt Emily's startle was so swift and subtle it barely registered. But I could feel that somewhere, beneath her eyes, a shutter had clicked, open and shut at my mentioning Mother and Grandma. It was as if my unexpected question was a sudden beam of pain that had to be extinguished immediately. (27.33)

What happened to little miss chatterbox?

For the first time we see a chink in Aunt Emily's armor. Even though it's easy to talk and be angry about her treatment during the war, her sister's history is another story. This moment seems pretty hypocritical, doesn't it? But just like Obasan grieving over Uncle, this moment reminds us that Aunt Emily is not just a political argument-spewing machine. She's a person. A person with a big sister who went through some bad stuff.

What do you guys think? Is she a hypocrite because she talks about her public problems but not her private ones? Or is she just human?