1. Introduction
2. The historical background
3. “Obasan” as a means of cultural reconciliation
4. Conclusion
5. Bibliography

The world history is notorious for numerous humanitarian catastrophes. Unfortunately not all of them are widely known and as a rule people prefer not to discuss them if they did not suffer from any of it. Basically human social and cultural tragedies occur in the result of a war.
In fact the problem is that many people remembers the winners in the war and they think a little about those who have lost but what is really seldom is the analysis of the fate of the people originating from the enemy country and living in a country against which the country of their ancestors declared the war. It is exactly the fate of such people that Joy Kogawa traces in the book “Obasan”, to put it more precisely the author reveals the story of Japanese Canadians and their life in Canada during the World War II.
In this book Joy Kogawa goes beyond a simple description of fate of the whole national group of Japanese Canadians but what is probably more important the author rather poses questions and dilemmas the readers are supposed to answer themselves. One of the central points of the whole book is the power of cultural production, which can result in re-evaluation of some stereotypes that have been created because of some extraordinary circumstances and change the attitude of representatives of different nations to each other. In general, the author obviously make the readers think about universal human values which are absolutely identical for all people, regardless their origin and in the same time all people are equal and cannot be repressed as it occurred to Japanese Canadians in the World War II and a few years after its end and it seems that the only thing that can effectively provide such social and national harmony is really democratic society, deprived prejudices and stereotypes.
The historical background
Before discussing the work of Joy Kogawa and its main points, particularly those concerning the role of culture, it is necessary to dwell upon some historical details of the epoch and events depicted in the book.
First of all, it should be said that the theme and the plot of the book is very close to the author, who, being Japanese Canadian, knows quite well what were the sufferance of his people. Naturally it produces a dubious effect since, on the one hand, it adds some subjectivity to the book and perception as well as interpretation of the events that occurred during the epoch discussed, on the other hand there is probably no other author who could reveal the entity of the problem and show its terrible aspects, which, in all probability, would not be so obvious for the authors of a different origin. In such a way a reader can have a wonderful opportunity to look at the situation from within.
So, what happened than to Japanese Canadian during the World War II? In fact the answer is not very pleasant to here, especially nowadays, when Canada is considered to belong to the number of democratic counties. As it is well-known, Japan entered the World War II and attacked the US Pearl Harbour and after that the US had to declare the war on Japan. Canada, being a part of the Anglo-Saxon world and having close political, economic and cultural relations with the US and the UK could not do anything but join the war too. At this point the tragedy of Japanese Canadians starts. They were perceived as enemies in the country where many of them were born and in actuality they were not less Canadian than any other citizens of Canada.
However, such attitude to Japanese Canadians was basically formed by war propaganda, which officials supported in order to justify Canadian entering the war. As a result public opinion had a kind of extremist character. Not surprisingly that such a policy led to the internment of Japanese Canadians and their practical isolation from the rest of the Canadian society. Obviously the position of Japanese Canadians was unreasonably deteriorated and was absolutely unacceptable for democratic society. In the same time they became a kind of outcasts that led not only to their isolation but to the cultural conflict since rich Japanese culture was rejected by Canadian society while Japanese Canadians could not live otherwise forgetting their culture and traditions. The situation remained unchanged until 1949 when the policy of internment and deprivation had finally stopped and Japanese Canadians eventually had got an opportunity to develop their culture freely and integrate into Canadian society.
“Obasan” as a means of cultural reconciliation
Speaking about “Obasan” it is necessary to emphasize that the book is an autobiographic note but its main goal is not to reveal the story of sufferings of Japanese Canadians during the World War II but it rather aims at the cultural and moral reconciliation of Japanese Canadians and the rest of Canadian society. At this respect a story told in the novel is thought provoking and emphasizing the necessity to respect the culture of every community populating the country.
As for the story depicted in the novel, the story is told by Naomi, a schoolteacher, who is looking back at her past and attempts to understand what happened to her and her compatriots in the World War II and especially she is concerned about the fate of her mother whom she lost. The reason of such a lost is quite tragic but in the same time it does not depend on the main characters of the story, it is the war that separated the family leaving the mother in Japan and the rest of the family in Canada. Quite symbolically that the mother goes to the land of her ancestors, underlying the cultural unity with the country of her origin and with her past. In the same time she also is a symbol of an exiled Japanese culture, which, as it turns to be, has no room for development in Canada and the Japanese Canadian community has no opportunities for normal cultural and social integration in Canadian society after the war has broken out.
In the same time in the centre of the book remains another character Obasan, the aunt of Naomi who is a kind of a guardian of old Japanese traditions in Canada and who tends to ignore all the problems Japanese Canadian faces, or, as Naomi says, she responds to the injustice and hardships by turning to stone. In such a way the author probably intended to show that Japanese culture remains untouchable and develops independently regardless the efforts to isolate Japanese Canadians and make their life unbearable in a kind of ghettos they had to live during and a few years after the war. Another fact that underlines the role of Obasan as a guardian or keeper of Japanese culture and traditions is the fact that she cannot or does not want to explain Naomi what happened but she possesses the box of letters and diaries of another aunt Emily, in which she recorded the events of that epoch. On reading these letters and diaries Naomi gets acquainted with appalling details of the past and realizes what has happened during the World War II to her family and to Japanese Canadians at large.
Further, on reading the novel, it becomes obvious to what extent unjust and intolerant was attitude to Japanese Canadians in the period of the World War II. The book reveals how much Japanese Canadians were devoted to the land they live or used to live and they are ready to help regardless their current situation. At this respect the episode when Naomi told by her aunt. Naomi says that “she told me that when the Fraser Valley flooded and the land that had once belonged to Japanese Canadians was under water, there was a public outpouring of help to the farmers and residents of the area” (Kogawa). Moreover, she continues ‘We sent money,’ she said, ‘money to help the people who had taken our farms! I imagine we were hoping that it would show our good faith” (Kogawa). Obviously in such a way Japanese Canadians wanted to demonstrate that they are an essential part of Canadian society and they could live in peace with their neighbours regardless their origin and the offences made in the past. Unfortunately what they have got in response was quite the contrary to their expectations: “we end up being despised twice as much and treated like cringing dogs” (Kogawa).
Moreover, in a situation of extreme deprivation of Japanese Canadians Canadian government forced them to emigrate and leave the country, where many of them were born and which they considered to be their motherland. Such a policy had a juridical support since Japanese Canadians had to sign papers agreeing to emigrate to Japan, while “those who refused to sign were described as uncooperative and denied privileges” (Kogawa).
Obviously the policy of Canadian government during the World War II were wrong and absolutely unacceptable for a democratic country. Unfortunately the period of political and socio-economic repression was also a period of numerous cultural problems since it was not easy to develop the culture in such circumstances. Nonetheless Japanese Canadians highly appreciated their culture and were very concerned about it as well as about their traditional crafts and customs. At this respect, it is noteworthy to pay attention to the episode when “Uncle and Father as young men standing full front beside each other… One of Uncle’s hands rested on the hull of an exquisitely detailed craft. It wasn’t a fishing vessel or an ordinary yacht, but a sleek boat designed by Father, made over many years and many winter evenings. A work of art. ‘What a beauty!’ the RCMP officer said in 1941, when he saw it” (Kogawa). The latter fact is particularly important because it reveals the fact that Canadians can really appreciate works of art and real beauty, regardless its creators.
Unfortunately, such a link between communities has been lost because of the war, which separated Canadians people. In such a situation, Japanese Canadians turns to be the most suffering community sine they feels as aliens in the country which was their home. Sadly to admit but many Japanese Canadians had the same fate as her Uncle when he “was taken away, wearing shirt, jacket and dungarees. He had no provisions nor did he have any idea where the gunboats were herding him and the other Japanese fishermen in the impounded fishing fleet” (Kogawa). Not surprisingly that the most bright and positive recall of Naomi is about the house of her childhood “more splendid than any house I have lived in since” ().
Finally, the author can suggest nothing else but remembering the old traditions, culture and the past, exactly like aunt Emily who appeals to Naomi saying “you have to remember! You are your history” (Kogawa). Moreover, what is probably more important is that she appeals not only to Naomi and her compatriots but it rather sounds as the general appeal to all people of Canada, or even the entire world: “Don’t deny the past. Remember everything. If you’re bitter, be bitter” (Kogawa).

Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that the author appeals to remembering that is the only way to prevention the repetition of mistakes of the past and he attempts to reconcile both cultures Japanese and Canadians for through remembering their past and knowing it in details they would more probably forgive each other and become equal and mutually enriching each other. It is also obvious that such reconciliation is possible due to the art, which is universal and representatives of different communities can understand it. Anyway, on reading “Obasan” by Joy Kogawa, a reader realizes that such tragedies should not be repeated and in really democratic countries all people should be really equal in both rights and responsibilities.

1. Adachi, Ken. The Enemy That Never Was: A History Of The Japanese Canadians. Toronto: OUP, 1998.
2. Beeler, Karin. Biography of Joy Kowaga. Toronto: Routeledge, 1999.
3. Knutson, Susan. Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada. Ed. W.H. New. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.
4. Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. Boston : David R. Gordine, 1982.
5. Roy, Miki. Justice In Our Time: The Japanese Canadian Redress Settlement. Toronto: OUP, 1999.
6. Stevens, Peter. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Ed. Eugene Benson and William Toye. Toronto: OUP, 1997.