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Joy Kogawa's Obasan
"I want to break loose from the heavy identity I am tired of living between deaths and funerals, weighted with decorum, unable to shout or sing or dance, unable to scream or swear, unable to laugh, unable to breathe out loud." (102). In Joy Kogawa's Obasan. Naomi, a young female of Japanese decent is forced to adapt and grow into the Canadian society. She is faced with great pressures because of the events of WWII and the internment of Japanese Canadians. Her childhood is complicated by the absence of her mother and she is driven to grow up under two separate definitions of womanhood. Guidance is provided by her two aunts, Obasan and Emily. The complication arises due to their contrasting views of life, Japanese and Canadian. Born in Japan, Obasan believes in the more quiet and traditional Japanese lifestyle, based on loving "Silence". Meanwhile, Emily was raised in Canada and attempts are made to teach Naomi to be more outspoken and to form strong moral values. Due to this Naomi is tossed between the guidance of her two aunts, Obasan and Emily, through their differing forms of communication, lifestyle traits and Nisei and Sansei traditions, as a result she forms her own lifestyle path and discovers her complete identity.

The differing forms of communication by the two aunts play a role in Naomi's lifestyle choice: Obasan with her use of Japanese silence and Emily through her straight forwardness. Obasan lives her life through a shell that traps her thoughts and feelings inside. She expresses her feelings in her actions and with occasional Japanese phrases. This is evident in the following description by Naomi; "I feel that each breath she takes is weighted with her morality. She is the old woman of many Japanese legends, alone and waiting in her ancient time for the honour that is an old person's reward.". Naomi throughout the book is constantly searching for messages and attempting to find Obasan's love. Complicating the situation for Naomi is the use of the Japanese language by Obasan. Naomi was raised in Canada and had learned only the basic Japanese words. Naomi's brother, Stephen, has totally ignored the Japanese language as we see in this quote, "He grunts as Obasan tries to help him with it. Stephen has made himself altogether unfamiliar with speaking Japanese." (231). This demonstrates that Naomi is forming her own pathway between her two aunt's lifestyles, neither shutting out English or Japanese dialect. Obasan's voice can be described in this quote; "Uncle and his wife live in almost total silence. They speak a mixture of Japanese and English, mostly in two or three word sentences. Much of their speech is evasive, sliding away from questions." (Suanne Kelmam pp. 39). Obasan represents a very traditional Japanese woman, living in humbleness and silence. The fact that Naomi struggles to understand her aunt shows that Naomi has been integrated into the Canadian lifestyle. Early in the book, Naomi describes her Aunt following her husband's death; "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." (14). At a young age Naomi was extremely silent, imitating the ways of Obasan, but as she matured her voice became louder and more expressive. The person responsible for this transition was Aunt Emily. Aunt Emily is the complete opposite of Obasan, due to her strong political stances and emphatic lifestyle. Naomi describes Emily as being very out spoken and explosive; describing her as "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." (34). Emily is never scared to express herself, she speaks her mind and fights diligently for the rights of Japanese Canadians. From Emily's character, we discover the influence that Canadian society has had on her compared to Obasan. This being the adaptation to complete dialogue in english and communication skills. Naomi gives the comparison, " How different my two aunts are. One lives in sound, the other in stone." (32). Emily unlike Obasan is better able to express idea and love within the family. However, at no point in the book does Naomi totally agree with Emily's concepts but rather she shows her displeasure. Naomi compares talking to Emily to "walking through a minefield."(34). Naomi's voice is never silent but never reaches the intensity that Emily possesses. This finds her at a happy medium. Willing to pray and to have a quiet bath with Obasan, but also able to express herself and feelings when needed. Naomi has found her own path of communication and has split the traditions of both Canadian and Japanese societies.

The Lifestyle traits of the aunts cause get stresses in Naomi's life, for she must decide between traditional Japanese ways or modern Canadian living. Obasan, lives on the basic requirements of life, while Emily lives in the large metropolis of Toronto, enjoying modern day luxuries. Obasan's house is cluttered with antique furniture and pictures; described by Naomi in the following paragraph:

"The house is indeed old, as she is also old. Every home-made piece of furniture, each pot holder and paper doily is a link in her lifeline. She has preserved in shelves, in cupboards, under beds - a box of marbles, half filled colouring books, a red, white and blue rubber ball. The items are endless. Every short stub pencil, every corn-flakes box stuffed with paper bags and old letters is of her ordering. They rest in the corners like parts of her body, hairs cells, skin tissues, tiny specks of memory. This house is now her blood and bones." (15)

Obasan lives her life very much on the motto of "let things be", for she ignores and attempts to block out the trials and tribulations of war. Emily agrees with Obasan views on the war at first, demonstrated in the following quote, "Life is so short The past so long. Shouldn't we turn the page and move on." (42). Emily however in response to this states that "The past is the future." (42). Emily seems to live each day with the goal of correcting the wrong doings of the past and more importantly to get compensation for the crimes against Japanese-Canadians (WWII). At a young age Naomi is unaware of the situation and standpoint around the moving from place to place and the whereabouts of her parents. As she grows however she begins to sway more towards Emily's lifestyle, "Naomi is thirty-six years old, unmarried, uncomfortable with her life, unhappy. She is tired of silence, ready for change." Gary Willis (239). Emily is the only member of the family who attempts to fight back and to win the freedom for which they deserve. Emily is as Naomi states, " Aunt Emily, BA, MA, is a word warrior. She's a crusader, a little old grey-haired Mighty Mouse, a Bachelor of Advanced Activists and General Practitioner of Just Causes." (134). As Naomi, Stephen and Obasan are sent off to Alberta, Emily flees to the comfort of the big city where her cries will be heard. Stephen follows Emily more than anyone else in the family as he breaks free from the traditional ways, becoming a acclaimed piano player. Naomi however sticks to her label as a Japanese-Canadian, encompassing both Emily and Obasan's ways.
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Obasan. EssayMania.com. Retrieved on 11 Oct, 2010 from