I have long been aware of the shameful treatment of Japanese Americans during the second World War. They were forcibly relocated from the West Coast and put in internment camps, suspected of treachery with no evidence, the victims of hysteria and political expediency. I was not aware, however, that Canada had a similar policy with regard to Japanese Canadians. During World War II, over 22,000 Canadian citizens of Japanese origin were forced to relocate from British Columbia to prairie provinces They were made to believe that their goods were to be held in trust until they returned or resettled, but in fact their homes and assets were sold cheaply at auction. White-collar jobs were not open to them, and thousands were deported to Japan, a country they had never seen. Joy Kogawa’s Obasan is a novel that tells this story, lyrically, sometimes didactically, but ultimately movingly.
Obasan is told mostly from the point of view of Naomi Nakane, a third-generation (“Sansei”) Japanese Canadian. Her uncle has died, and she returns to her aunt, Obasan’s, house, to prepare for the funeral. As she sifts through documents, she goes through the painful reconstruction of memories she had been repressing as useless: an idyllic childhood in Vancouver, and then the bewildering horror of war, suspicion, separation from her parents, and the disappearance of everything she has ever known. Naomi and her brother, Stephen, are in the care of their aunt and uncle. They go first to a ghost town called Slocan, populated only by displaced Japanese. This place, though spartan, eventually becomes homelike, with a communal bath and a store where they can buy familiar foods. But another wave of displacement comes from the government, and they must go to Alberta and work as beet-pickers under the worst possible conditions. Naomi’s heart hardens as much as her hands.
The theme that rings throughout this book, to the point that it is sometimes a bit didactic, is that these people are Canadian citizens. They are not Japanese nationals, and it’s clear almost from the first that there is no reason to suspect their loyalty. At first, they trust the RCMP, they nail a Canadian flag to their shack, they trust that all will come right: surely a citizen cannot be deported from his own country. But the scapegoating, greed, racism and hysteria continue and assume nightmare proportions. Canadian-born Japanese are treated worse than German-born Germans living in Canada, and none of them understand it until it’s too late.
Kogawa’s prose (when it is not simply spelling out real regulations like curfew and displacement orders) is lyrical and beautiful. She uses images of stones and streams to talk about silence and forgetting, acceptance and prejudice. The Nakane family are Christians, and there is a stunning scene of a hasty Communion, shared around a flickering lamp, the language slipping between Japanese and English. It recalls Passover, and later the flight into Egypt, the family about to leave for an unknown land. “That there is brokenness,” says the priest, another Japanese man caught in the trap. “That this world is brokenness. But within brokenness, the unbreakable name. How the whole earth groans until Love returns.” And in the end, through all the hardship and tragedy even worse than the hardship Naomi and her family experience, love does return. This is a quiet, burning book, that opens a window on an experience I knew little about.