Quick! Tell us Obasan's favorite food. Can't remember? How about her hobbies? Do you even remember what she looks like, besides old? Yeah, we didn't think so.
It seems a little weird that we know so little about the title character, doesn't it? To some that might seem like poor character development, but we're pretty sure that Joy Kogawa does this intentionally.
The word Obasan just means Aunt. In Japan you would use it to refer to any woman who seems like she could be your mom's age. So by using the word Obasan, Kogawa summons up a universal picture of an older woman. If she put too much detail into Obasan's character, she wouldn't be Obasan anymore. She'd be Ayako.
But there are at least two things that are important to her character, things that are important to the universal Obasan. The first is her silent servitude. The second is her calm and dedicated love.
We're pretty sure that throughout the whole novel, Obasan never speaks more than five words at a time. Even when other people are arguing, or crying, or basically doing anything, Obasan is silent. There are two Japanese phrases mentioned in the book that seem to explain Obasan's silence. "Kodomo no tame," or "for the sake of the children", and "gaman shimasho," or "let's endure."
Let's take the first phrase: The number of times that the characters in this novel say "for the sake of the children" makes it one of the most recognizable phrases in the whole book. And it's always accompanied by silence. This scene is pretty typical:
"Please tell me about Mother," I would say as a child to Obasan. I was consumed by the question. Devoured alive. But Obasan gave me no answers. I did not have, I have never had, the key to the vault of her thoughts. (5.28)
At first, this makes Obasan seemed almost mean. Yet when we find out the horrible things that she didn't tell Stephen and Naomi, we realized that it was out of kindness that she was silent.
Now for the second phrase: Gaman means to endure, but not just that. It means to endure without complaining, or even letting anyone know that you have something to endure. Obasan's reaction to Uncle's death seems unnatural when we meet her. She doesn't seem sad; she seems to simply accept it. But because Naomi knows her, she knows that she is silently grieving.
The language of her grief is silence. She has learned it well, its idioms, its nuances. Over the years, silence within her small body has grown large and powerful. (3.39)
But honestly, to anyone else it might seem like Obasan just isn't sad about the death of her husband. We see this over and over again. Instead of getting emotional, Obasan is silent. Who knows what's going on inside there?
Well, we have a suspicion. Obasan's two favorite phrases are usually associated with mothers and maternal feeling in Japan. Silence and acceptance are seen as maternal values—how a mother shows her love to her children. Obasan is silent out of love.
Obasan's love is a little different from other people's type of love. Are she and Uncle Sam in love? Here's Uncle's answer: "In ruv? What that?" Uncle asked. I've never once seen them caressing." (2.15) Obasan doesn't hug. She doesn't kiss. She doesn't do all those things that you might expect as signs of love. But that doesn't mean she doesn't love.
It's not until the last chapter of the book that we really see her as a person who loves. Naomi says about Uncle and Obasan:
Is it enough that Obasan shared her lifetime with Uncle, and all these Granton years, through the long winters in the hut that could not be warmed, in the summer heat, her skin becoming the colour of earth, through spring wind and chinook, through sleet and hail? They were constant together in all that shifting weather. They attended one another. (39.8)
Those sentences remind us that Uncle and Obasan have been through a lot together. After all that time, they never left the other's side. They must have cared for one another, right?
It's only when the silence about Naomi's mother's past has been broken that we get to see a sign of Obasan's love. Naomi tells us:
Obasan is small as a child and has not learned to weep. Back and forth, back and forth, her hands move on her knees. She looks at me unsteadily, then hands me the ID card with Uncle's young face. (39.10)
So she did love him after all, or else she wouldn't be so sad to see him go.
But this isn't the only time that we see Obasan's love. After all, why did she endure all those years if not because she loved Stephen and Naomi? Why did she hide things from them if not because she wanted to protect them?
When we think about her as someone who loves and has feelings, she changes. Instead of being a mythical, emotionless, fable aunt, she becomes a person. Someone you could know. She could still be anyone's mom; she feels more real. We realize that as hard as the novel's journey has been for Naomi, it must have been even harder for Obasan. But she never said a word.
Just like most of the things in this book, Obasan and her love are deeper than they appear. They almost get lost in translation, but Kogawa makes sure that, by the end of the novel, we know Obasan is a lot more than just a quiet lady who makes tea.