Study Guide

Nakayama-sensei in Obasan

By Joy Kogawa

Nakayama-sensei

Nakayama-sensei is the only person who gets a title in the entire novel, so you just know he's Important McImportantPants.

Nakayama-sensei is a character that ends up being way more important than we could have imagined when we meet him. For most of the novel he's just the boring old Anglican minister, so how were we supposed to know that he would be the key to unraveling a thirty-year mystery?

You might have heard the word sensei before in the movie Karate Kid. You probably know that it means teacher. But did you know that lots of people get called sensei? Almost anyone in a position of authority, guidance, advanced artistry, or mentorship is called sensei.

Nakayama-sensei is kind enough to demonstrate at least three definitions of the word sensei for us. He is a minister, a leader, and a teacher.

The first one is easy. Whenever Nakayama-sesnsei shows up everyone starts praying. So let's talk about those other two definitions.

Leader

When Aunt Emily tries to find a new home for the family, Nakayama-sensei is the one who helps. He finds them a house. He helps them once they get to Slocan. We imagine that the Nakanes are not the only family that he helps.

He attempts to create a community amongst the exiled Japanese Canadians, getting them to work together. Naomi describes him: "Together," Sensei says, "by helping each other" … It sounds half like a rallying call, half like an apology as if he is somehow responsible" (16.43). Why do you think he feels responsible? Maybe he thinks that if he were a better leader the exile wouldn't be happening.

Nakayama-sensei travels all over the country just trying to serve his community. Aunt Emily says:

She described Nakayama-sensei as a deeply wounded shepherd trying to tend the flock in every way he could. But all the sheep were shorn and stampeded in the stockyards and slaughterhouses of prejudice. "I remember one time Mr. Nakayama came out east to take pictures of as many young Nisei as he could find to prove to the parents back in the camps that their children were alive." (27.30)

That's some serious dedication. Despite all of Nakayama-sensei's efforts, the Nisei never seem to form a strong community. But you can't blame the guy for trying.

Teacher

Nakayama-sensei's efforts to lead the Japanese Canadian community are impressive, but it's really as a teacher that he shines in the novel. A teacher is a person who helps you learn things that you didn't know. And that's exactly what Nakayama-sensei does. He makes the unknown known. This is the big scene:

"About this, I had no knowledge," he says in a low voice. [...] He puts the first page aside and reads the next and the next, groaning quietly. When he is finished he puts the papers down and addresses Aunt Emily. "Has there been no telling?" "No," Aunt Emily says quietly. "It is better to speak, is it not? They are not children any longer." (36.27)

Honestly, we think they were never going to tell them. They haven't been kids for a long time. If it wasn't for Nakayama-sensei, they may never have known the truth about what happened to their mother.

Like a true teacher, Nakayama-sensei shares his newly acquired knowledge. He could have kept it to himself, like everyone else. But it takes a person who has been called teacher throughout the whole novel to overcome the silence around the disappearance of Naomi's mother and grandmother.

Now, if only all teachers were that good.