Although Naomi is the novel’s narrator, her character is something of a mystery. Indeed, opacity is a key part of her personality. An earnest and quiet, almost silent, child, she turns into a self-contained, unknowable adult. As a girl, she suffers various serious traumas, most notably displacement, internment, and sexual molestation. To live a functional adult life, she shuts herself off from her past and her emotions. In the first chapters of the novel, Naomi tells us next to nothing about herself or her life. We lack basic information about her, an intentional gap Kogawa uses to suggest Naomi lacks basic information about herself.
As the novel progresses, Naomi rediscovers that information. We learn a great deal about the questions that preoccupy her. We know she thinks about what happened to her mother, and whether it’s better to leave the past alone or to investigate. We also know she ponders to what extent classic Japanese character attributes oppress young women. Yet by the end of the novel, we don’t know much more about Naomi—her likes and dislikes, her quirks and foibles—than we did at the beginning. This persistent opacity points to the lasting effect of childhood crises.
We do know that Naomi is a survivor. Her life is a catalogue of miseries: Her next door neighbor abuses and possibly rapes her; her mother disappears without explanation; her family is forced to move, and move again; her father dies; she must work her fingers to the bone on a beet farm and live in a chicken coop; her older brother moves away and all but renounces the family; and she endures the casual racism of her students and neighbors. Despite this litany of disasters, Naomi is uncomplaining. She shows flashes of bitterness here and there and feels passionate anger about the most horrifying of the many injustices heaped on her family. However, she endures the outrages in silent stoicism while they happen, looking back on them with careful interest once they are in the past. Refusing to play the role of victim, she is amazingly wry, observant, and lyrical.
Naomi’s aunt is the quietest character in the novel, but she is also one of its most forceful personalities. As a young woman, she is almost silent. As an old woman, her silence intensifies because she is nearly deaf and because she intentionally uses wordlessness as a shield against a world in which she doesn’t feel she belongs. Despite the scarcity of her words, Obasan is a source of love and unwavering support for Naomi and Stephen. When their parents disappear, it is Obasan who steps in, selflessly shouldering the burden of caring for the nearly orphaned children. She feeds them, clothes them, and looks after their well-being in impossible circumstances. She is unflaggingly committed to them, even when they neglect her or, as Stephen does repeatedly, treat her impatiently or rudely. According to Naomi, Obasan embodies the Japanese ideal of wagamama: She always thinks of the needs of others. Her every action is geared toward making the people around her comfortable and happy. Despite her silence, Obasan stands at the center of the narrative and of Naomi’s life, making both possible.
Aunt Emily is a smart, energetic woman who campaigns relentlessly on behalf of Japanese Canadians. She insists on the importance of facing up to the past, of talking about it, analyzing it, protesting it, and understanding it. All of her conference-attending, letter-writing, and data-compiling is founded on the idea that only by understanding the past can we expunge our anger over former mistakes and thereby prevent ourselves and others from repeating them. A passionate woman, she cares deeply about her family members and their happiness. Her intelligence is admirable, as is her engagement with the world she lives in. Still, her obsession with chronicling the past, and her efforts at advocacy, are treated with deep ambivalence. Emily witnessed plenty of appalling sights during the war, but there is some suggestion that she wasn’t in the trenches with Obasan and Uncle, or Father and Mother, and doesn’t quite grasp how painful it is for other people to remember their wartime experiences. To that end, Naomi remains skeptical about Aunt Emily’s constant flurry of letters and petitions. Aunt Emily is a whirlwind of energy, but it is never clear that her efforts make more of an impact than does, for example, Obasan’s deeply quiet and concentrated focus on her immediate family members.
Stephen is a sensitive and talented boy whose personality is warped by the war he lives through. His adulthood is far from unsuccessful. To the contrary, he becomes a celebrated musician and forms a functional romantic relationship. Professionally and personally, his is a more traditionally successful life than Naomi’s. But despite this outward flourishing, Stephen is a troubled, unhappy man. As a college student, he is embarrassed by and impatient with Uncle and Obasan, fleeing from the house when he comes home for vacations, refusing Obasan’s food, and generally behaving badly. As a grown man, he renounces the Japanese side of his identity almost entirely, willfully expunging the language from his memory and exhibiting obvious discomfort whenever a food, gesture, or habit of speech strikes him as “too Japanese.” He hardly ever comes home, and years pass between his visits with Naomi, the one person in the world who best understands what his formative years were like. Like Naomi, he survives by suppressing memories of his childhood and by becoming, to some extent, unknowable. But his suppression and opacity are more dramatic. In addition to turning away from his past, he turns away from his ethnicity, his family, and his country.