Places: Obasan

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1981

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical realism

Time of work: 1972, with flashbacks to the 1940’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Vancouver

*Vancouver. ObasanLargest city in British Columbia that was home to many Japanese Canadians before World War II. Schoolteacher Naomi Nakane’s grandparents came to Canada from Japan in 1893, and she herself was born in Vancouver in 1936 and has lived there happily through her first six years in a large and beautiful house on West 64th Avenue in the Marpole district.

In 1972–the time present of Obasan–the thirty-six-year-old Naomi remembers the house vividly: its living and music rooms, her father’s study, the kitchen, the playroom, the backyard. She also remembers exploring Vancouver with her family, from Kitsilano Beach to the zoo at Stanley Park. She recalls as well the exhibition grounds at Hastings Park, however, where in 1942 many of the twenty-three thousand Japanese Canadians living along the British Columbia coast “were herded into the grounds and kept there like animals until they were shipped off to roadwork camps and concentration camps in the interior of the province.”


Slocan. Ghost town in British Columbia’s interior to which Naomi and her extended family are sent. In this former mining settlement, they spend three years living in an abandoned two-room shack. Aside from their shack, Naomi and other internees spend some of their time at the Odd Fellows Hall in town, where they watch movies every Saturday night, and in the public bathhouse. (The original Native American name for this village was “Slow-can-go,” meaning “If you go slow . . . you can go.”)


Granton. Small town in southern Alberta, not far from the city of Lethbridge. From 1945 to 1951, Naomi, her brother, her Uncle Isamu, and her Aunt Aya (the “Obasan” or “aunt” of the novel’s title) live in a hut on the Barker farm, some seven miles outside of Granton. Prohibited by the Canadian government from returning to Vancouver (where their home has been confiscated) after the war, Naomi and her makeshift family live in “a small hut, like a toolshed, smaller even than the one we lived in Slocan.” Naomi’s father, who has been hospitalized for years, dies of tuberculosis in 1949. In 1951, Naomi and Stephen and their uncle and aunt finally move into a house in Granton itself. It is on a bluff a half mile from the Barker farm to which Naomi and her uncle go, at the beginning and end of the novel, to stand at the edge of the Canadian prairie that reminds Uncle Isamu of the Pacific coast, where he worked as a master shipbuilder and fisherman before the war. It is to this house that Naomi returns to be with Aunt Aya when her uncle dies in 1972.


Cecil. Small rural town some 150 miles northeast of Granton, where Naomi Nakane is a single school teacher in the time present of the novel.


*Nagasaki. Japanese city on which the United States dropped an atom bomb in 1945. After the war ends, Naomi learns that her mother died a horrible death as a result of that atomic attack.

Her mother had returned to Japan in 1939 to nurse her mother and was trapped in Nagasaki by the war. The novel personalizes the bombing, but, even more directly, questions the internment of loyal Canadian citizens who were uprooted from their coastal homes and forced to spend the remainder of their lives in internal provincial exile. At the end of the novel, in a metaphor that taps the earthy imagery used throughout Obasan, Naomi muses:

Where do any of us come from in this cold country? Oh, Canada, whether it is admitted or not, we come from you we come from you. From the same soil, the slugs and slime and bogs and twigs and roots. We come from the country that plucks its people out like weeds and flings them into the roadside. . . . We come from Canada, this land that is like every land, filled with the wise, the fearful, the compassionate, the corrupt.

Suggested ReadingsCanadian Forum. LXI, February, 1982, p. 39.Cheung, King-Kok. Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. Enhances understanding of the writing of three significant Asian American women. The forty-page chapter devoted to Obasan examines the negative and positive aspects of silence in the novel.Chua, Cheng Lok. “Witnessing the Japanese Canadian Experience in World War II: Processual Structure, Symbolism, and Irony in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan.” In Reading the Literatures of Asian America, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. Explores the form and the symbolism in Obasan, concentrating on Kogawa’s biblical references.Davidson, Arnold E. Writing Against the Silence: Joy Kogawa’s “Obasan.” Toronto: ECW Press, 1993.Horn Book. XLVIII, October, 1982, p. 553.Jones, Manina. “The Avenues of Speech and Silence: Telling Difference in Joy Kogawa’s “Obasan.” In Theory Between the Disciplines: Authority/Vision/Politics, edited by Martin Kreiswirth and Mark A. Cheetham. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. Discusses the power of narrative and the strategies behind storytelling in the novel.Library Journal. CVII, May 1, 1982, p. 905.Lim, Shirley Geok-lin. “Japanese American Women’s Life Stories: Maternality in Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter and Joy Kogawa’s Obasan.” Feminist Studies 16, no. 2 (Summer, 1990): 288-312. A primarily feminist reading of two novels of the Japanese internment experience, focusing on the mother-daughter relationship.Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 11, 1982, p. 3.Maclean’s. XCIV, July 13, 1981, p. 54.The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, September 5, 1982, p. 8.The New Yorker. LVIII, June 14, 1982, p. 134.Rose, Marilyn Russell. “Politics into Art: Kogawa’s Obasan and the Rhetoric of Fiction.” Mosaic 21, no. 3 (Spring, 1988): 215-226. Discusses Obasan in terms of “persuasion” and “history,” and explains how the language illuminates the message of the novel.Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia. Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Categories: Places