I mentioned on my Instagram a few months ago that I have very little experience reading Japanese-American literature, particularly when it comes to texts focusing on what it was like being Japanese during WWII. Aside from the classic No-No Boy by John Okada, which was assigned during one of my undergrad classes, I hadn’t picked up any Japanese-American literature until earlier this summer when I read Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine for the first time. From these stories and from my historical knowledge of the era — I actually did study Japanese identity during WWII but it was always centered on Japanese experience in Japan as opposed to Japanese-American or Japanese-living-in-America experiences — I knew about the ill treatment of citizens during war paranoia and the ugly racism that felt free to poke its head out from behind seemingly welcoming “American” faces.
However, I never looked too closely at the historical moment. For one thing, my academic career headed in an earlier era, so my vision became a bit myopic for a few years. But another reason is due to the fact that my family was not in the United States until fairly recently, so there was no one carrying these stories, no one passing them on to me; the stories of internment or ‘relocation’ were not the whispered relics of the past that were passed down by older generations. Instead, the stories of suffering and hardship during the war — 第二次世界大戦 (World War II) or 太平洋戦争 (Pacific War), officially, but most often referred to as simply 戦争の時 (the time of the war) in my family — came to me from the other side of the globe. I grew up with stories of terror and death during the war, but also of the famine, the poverty, and the existential confusion of the immediate post-war era. I heard stories about black-market rice and my grandfather required to black out references to the emperor’s divinity. These were the narratives around WWII and Japaneseness that I always heard.
But the current political climate has me thinking about mixed-race identity in different, more culturally-specific contexts, particularly with the continued talk of race and whether or not someone is allowed to ‘pass’ in post-Trump America. Regardless of how Asianist my upbringing was, I am in the United States now and the way Japanese-Americans were treated during WWII in terms of internment and the waiving of civil liberties has been calling to me more. At the very least, I felt the urge to learn more about it to see if that historical moment can help me make sense of the world now. You can therefore imagine my interest when I randomly found Joy Kogawa’s Obasan in my local used bookstore. While I admit I knew very little about Japanese Internment in the United States beyond the few books I read and the brief foot-noted history lessons I had throughout my schooling, I knew absolutely nothing about the treatment of Japanese-Canadian citizens during the same period.
Obasan recounts the the experiences of Naomi and her extended family, who went through the forced relocation and expulsion of Japanese-Canadian citizens during WWII. The narrative moves between the past through her memories and snippets of stories she remembers hearing from her relatives, as well as the present where a death precipitates her return to (one) familial home. On a fundamental level, what I loved about Kogawa’s writing was how utterly beautiful her prose was. Her descriptions of the Canadian landscape was so lush and evocative, so I found myself enjoying inhabiting her scenes, even when these moments were emotionally-charged and difficult to read. I think her ability to balance the beauty of the world around her, without diminishing the very real pain of her characters, was one of the most impressive literary feats of the text. As brutal as a lot of the book was, it truly was poetic in its execution. I also loved her natural inclusion of Japanese phrases and words within the dialogue; sayings that feel so familiar and are used at the precise moments when my family would use them, too. I love these types of linguistic inclusions, so they tend to catch my eye when I see them.
Another key element of Kogawa’s writing was the complexity of the characters’ different approaches to grief and historical trauma. What I liked about Kogawa’s handling of this issue was that the characters all had varied approaches to ‘dealing’ with the past. For instance, from the beginning Naomi is a very closed-off and reserved character; as a reader it is hard to enter into her mind as she is always keeping us at arms-length through her narrative voice. Her reserve stands in marked contrast with her Aunt Emily (a different aunt than the titular Obasan), who pours her energy into reparations and researching the history of Japanese-Canadians during WWII. In other texts the justice-oriented drive of Aunt Emily would be a little more glorified, particularly in contrast to the quiet pain of Naomi or Obasan, yet neither perspective is painted as more valid (or valorous) than the other. Instead, readers understand why each character reacts the way they do and Kogawa presents us with a subtle tapestry of memory, grief, and trauma. The way individuals relate to their past is never simple nor is it teleological. Some, like Aunt Emily, wish for something to come of the past and work to bring change while dealing with their internal struggles. On the other had, there are many like Naomi, who wish to leave the past in the past. To discount Naomi would be to do further injustice to one type of survival experience, but it is also unrealistic to believe all survivors are like Aunt Emily. Kogawa’s attuned approach to the complexities of trauma and grief made the characters feel so real — and so vibrant even with the heavy emotional burden they all carry throughout the text.
I felt the Kogawa also did an excellent job of highlighting the weight of historical trauma and how long the resonance of these events can linger within survivors. For many non-Japanese Canadians, I am sure that these historical events feel much more distant than they do for those who experienced them — or even for those who grew up hearing about what their family members lived through. The perpetrators tend to forget their misdeeds much sooner than survivors do and I think Obasan adeptly depicts the impact of history on the individual, as well as families and larger communities. This hard look at the impact of historical trauma forces all of us to consider what effect current political decision may have on future generations, but also how lives are being torn apart now and how the present pain will remain for decades to come.
Reading Obasan was a bit of a struggle in some ways, particularly in terms of external factors happening in the United States when I picked up this book. In many ways, books like Obasan are texts that can be something like a case study — an example of a moment or event in history when the wrong choice was made and lives were brutally ripped apart because of that bad, state-sanctioned decision. We write about such events in the hopes that we can learn from them and naively hope that we are in a time when such decisions will not be made ever again. And yet we look at the way that marginalized individuals are being treated across the United States, the way some women are being treated in the public eye, and it becomes evermore clear that in many ways we are nowhere near making “better” or “good” decisions than in the past.
Can we learn from these histories and can we try to pattern a different world? It is hard to say. For what it’s worth, books like Obasan are excellent places to begin unpacking these issues and confronting the things that happened in the past. I highly suggest picking up Obasan for anyone, like myself, who is unfamiliar with what happened to Japanese-Canadian citizens during WWII. But I also highly suggest Kogawa’s work to anyone who loves beautiful prose and for those who want a more complicated examination of trauma.