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Obasan by Joy Kogawa: Portrayal of Struggles of the Japanese-Canadians

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Joy Kogawa’s Obasan is the story of what Japanese-Canadians endured through during the Second World War. The book represents Joy’s story, the history, and the society at the time when these Canadians were treated unfairly.

Joy Kogawa lived through a rough time in Canadian history. A part of history the country is not proud of. Joy Kogawa was born in Vancouver in 1935. She lived there until her and her parents, whom were among the thousands of Japanese Canadians that were forcibly removed from the coastal areas and interned during the Second World War. The first place they were moved to was Slocan, British Columbia and a little while later to Coaldale, Alberta (The Canadian Encyclopedia). Joy wrote about what she remembers of the evacuation through a poem. She remembers her father telling her about the train and mountains, families being forced to leave many of their possessions behind, missing her doll, a puzzle given to her on the train, being made fun of, leaving friends behind, praying to God and wishing she was white (Kogawa, 152). Later on, in her life she studied education at the University of Alberta and music at the University of Toronto. She worked to educate people about the history of Japanese-Canadians, and is active in the fight for official government redress to obtain compensation and reparation for her community. She was married to David Kogawa on May 2, 1957 and they had two children. She is known and celebrated for her moving fictionalized accounts of the internment of Japanese Canadians. One of those accounts was her best-selling book Obasan which was preceded by three collections of poetry, The Splintered Moon, A Choice of Dreams, and Jericho Road. After Obasan, she continued the story of Naomi in the sequel Itsuka. Joy’s fiction emphasizes compassion and the arduous work of healing. She is a feminist who feels the necessity of identifying with oppressed humanity, regardless of gender (Pamela Kester-Shelton Biography in Context). Not only does she write about her experiences through her books and what went on during those years of interment, she also has been involved with political work concerning the rights of Japanese Canadians. In 1986, she was made a Member of the Order of Canada, in 2006 she was made a Member of the Order of British Columbia, and in 2010 the Japanese Government honored Joy with the Order of the Rising Sun, “for her contribution to the understanding and preservation of Japanese Canadian history (Kogawa).

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Her novel Obasan, was published 1981 and is an award-winning novel. Obasan is the Japanese word for aunt. Obasan is a lyrical and heart-rending account for the losses and suffering endured by Japanese Canadians endured during the Second World War (The Canadian Encyclopedia). It also talks about the inter-generational pain of the Japanese Canadians affected by the Canadian government’s relocation and internment of its citizens during World War II (Pamela Kester-Shelton Biography in Context). Joy Kogawa has stated in many interviews that her book Obasan is intensely autobiographical. It’s a story about breaking an imposed silence in order to induce healing (Encyclopedia/Joy Kogawa). Joy Kogawa is a feminist who feels the necessity of identifying with oppressed humanity, regardless of gender. In an interview with Williamson she said, “I am wary of the uglification of the soul that happens with one-dimensionality, and which is one of the dangers of political endeavor, including that of feminism” (Pamela Kester-Shelton Biography in Context).

Government policy during the war effected Japanese Canadian lives and shaped their futures. The prejudice and discrimination was on both Issei immigrants and their Canadian-born children, called Nisei (The Canadian Encyclopedia/ Japanese-Canadians). The prejudice and discrimination started after Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbour and the British colony of Hong Kong on December 7th, 1941. After the attack, many Japanese Canadian fishing boats were impounded and Japanese newspapers and language schools were shut down (History of Japanese Canadians World War II Internment). In later months, the government used the War Measures Act to remove men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry from the “Defense Zone” of 160 km from the B.C. coast. The evacuation for the Japanese meant the uprooting of the community, disbanding numerous businesses, breaking up families and home life, and losing substantial personal possessions and properties (Makabe, Tomoko pp. 362). They were removed from their homes and distributed to various locations across Canada (The Canadian Encyclopedia/ Japanese-Canadians). They were moved to roadwork, farming, or industrial projects set up by the government or sent to internment camps. They spent the war years and many years after the war in ghost towns, sugar beet farms, various farming areas, self-supporting projects in British Columbia, and road or industry projects (Makabe, Tomoko pp. 370). While being distributed across Canada, the Japanese were required to sign their property and belongings over to the Custodian of Enemy Property. The possessions which included homes, land, and businesses were subsequently sold in 1943; sold without the permission of the owners and at a fraction of their actual value. The proceeds of these sales were used to pay for the living expenses of the Japanese Canadians that had been interned (The Canadian Encyclopedia/ Japanese-Canadians). Near the end of the war the Canadian government wanted to stop any potential reestablishment of the West Coast Japanese communities. So, they were given two options: they could either accept paid passage to Japan or they reestablish themselves east of the Rockies (The Canadian Encyclopedia/ Japanese-Canadians). Yet again they were forced to up root their lives they had built during the war years; some chose to reestablish east of the Rockies and others chose to make the journey to Japan. They told the Japanese Canadians that the dispersion that was mandatory not voluntary, was to show their loyalty to Canada. Prime Minister Mackenzie King stated the basic principles of government policy as follows:

“… it must be accepted as a basic factor that it would be unwise and undesirable … to allow the Japanese population to be concentrated in that province (British Columbia) after war…. The sound policy and the best policy for the Japanese Canadians themselves is to distribute their members as widely as possible throughout the country where they will not create feelings of racial hostility” (Makabe, Tomoko pp. 380).

The wartime and immediate post-war policy of the government brought two facts into focus. First, the dominant motivation for the evacuation was racial prejudice, not a need for national security. Second, these Canadian citizens were forced to realize that the authorities regarded them as Japanese rather than as Canadian (Makabe, Tomoko pp. 381). Even after the war they had restrictions. They were still not allowed to return to the coast or to vote (Makabe, Tomoko pp. 382). They were denied the right to acquire land, to grow crops, or to buy a house wherever they went by government order (Makabe, Tomoko pp. 383). The last of the restrictions were lifted not until 1949, four years after the Second World War ended. Even though the government was allowing them to move back to British Columbia-the place they had been forcibly removed from-majority did not go back. Many of the Japanese actually see them being evacuated as the “best thing that has ever happened to us” “a blessing in disguise”. To the Japanese, now it was a good thing, they were given the chance for a new environment and into new social relationships within a larger society. A society where they could grow with less prejudice toward minorities. For them the forced evacuation turned out to be a good thing even though they had to live through prejudice and discrimination.

Obasan by Joy Kogawa is a fiction book that talks about real events. The themes that show up in the book are also themes that relate to the reality of that time. In the book, there is prejudice, discrimination, memories and the past, and loss of identity. The prejudice in the book is everything being taken away from them, forced evacuation, and inhumane treatment just because they are Japanese. They were also discriminated because they were Japanese, even people that had known them for years, shared meals together, went to the same church or school, people who were friends discriminated them. The whole book is about memories and the past, those things are used to show what happened and what they went through. It also shows how they started to recover and heal. Last, is identity, the characters in the book were always struggling to figure out who they were because for years they had established themselves as one thing and then suddenly they were told that they were not that. They were confused, they just wanted to belong and be seen as people again, to be seen as Canadians. All the themes and the way they are portrayed in the book are the same as in reality. During the Second World War and years after there was prejudice, discrimination, memories and the past, and loss of identity. The prejudice, discrimination and loss of identity that happened in the book were the same in reality but the memories and the past had more. Obasan is the account of only one but there are thousand that have their own story of what they experienced, how they healed, and how they re-established. Joy Kogawa’s book Obasan depicts the reality of what the Japanese Canadians endured. The themes in this book show us that the world is not always nice, it can be cruel at times. Many people think about how these horrible things could have been done to people, especially in Canada. It changes peoples view about the country they have lived in their whole life. It makes people wonder if something like this will happen again and if it does who will be the target? Joy shows us that no country is perfect and people make bad decision but it is possible to overcome them and heal.

These events in Canadian history represent the deliberate destruction of a community and a form of “cultural genocide”. The internment of the Japanese Canadians has had a profound social, political and economic implications, it was an act of political violence (Sugiman, Pamela pp. 359–388). That is what Joy Kogawa wanted to show through her book Obasan, the difficulties they faced, how they fought for their rights, and how they healed and recovered. We can use the events that have happened in the past and change for the better. That’s why God created people who would write down our history, so that we can learn from our mistakes. We can use a Christian approach if something like what happened to the Japanese Canadians ever happens again. We must also have faith that God is putting us through those trials for a reason and that in the end after it is all over we are better people, better Christians. Everything that happened to the Japanese was something-I think- God would not have wanted. What the government did was inhumane, it was not something a country that is based on religion should have done. Even though they were not killing them, they were still discriminating, being prejudice, stealing and cheating them of their possession and livelihood, and treating them as livestock constantly forcing them to move. None of those things would be acceptable in the eyes of God, He wants us to treat everyone with respect and kindness.

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