In 1941, around the time of Naomi’s molestation, Mother disappeared, going with her own mother to see her ill grandmother. Naomi and her family went to the harbor to see Mother off on the ship bound for Japan. When Naomi got home, she tucked away streamers from the harbor and two toy chicks in Mother’s sewing drawer, hoping she would find them upon her return.
Obasan moved in, but despite her comforting presence, the house still felt empty. One night, during a blackout, Naomi went downstairs and discovered Old Man Gower in the living room, agreeing to hold on to the Nakane family’s possessions. One day Stephen came home with his glasses broken. Naomi wondered if he was feeling the kind of shame Old Man Gower produced in her. A girl in Stephen’s class had told him that he, like the other “Japs,” was bad and would be sent away. Naomi asked Father if they were Japs, and he said they were Canadians.
Naomi recalls taking part in a Christmas pageant as her relatives looked on. She remembers the numerous presents she and Stephen received during the holiday season. Stephen got The Book of Knowledge, which contained stories of brave children. Naomi wondered which members of her family could bear up under torture.
One night Naomi was making paper cranes when she heard Father coughing and talking to Aunt Emily. She snuck into Father’s study, where she heard Aunt Emily say that the old people would be left in the Sick Bay, where they would die. Naomi thought Sick Bay must be similar to English Bay or the other beaches she had visited. Aunt Emily wanted to appeal to someone she knew at the Security Commission. Father said his time was up, and that despite his bad health he had to go.
Naomi explains that Japanese Canadians along the coast of Vancouver were forced into Hastings Park, a holding area, before being sent to labor and concentration camps. Some families fled to old, abandoned towns Naomi calls “ghost towns.” Naomi’s Grandma and Grandpa Nakane were imprisoned in the holding area. Naomi says she didn’t understand the racism then, and she doesn’t now. What’s real to her is Uncle’s death and Obasan’s solitude. Aunt Emily calls from the airport, where she is going to meet Stephen. Naomi takes a bath with Obasan, whose body reminds her of a prehistoric formation.
She looks at the book of Aunt Emily’s letters to her mother, written when her mother was in Japan. The letters chronicle the deterioration of conditions for Japanese Canadians during World War II. What began with the confiscation of business licenses and cars turned into the forced roundup for Japanese without Canadian citizenship. By March of 1942, all people of Japanese descent were being forced to leave. Conditions in the labor camps were abysmal. Houses were looted. Some families fled, although many Canadian towns barred all Japanese. Ghost towns reopened to accommodate the refugees.
Through the letters, we learn that Naomi’s family fared poorly: Father and Grandma and Grandpa Nakane wound up in a camp. Father sent letters full of musical exercises for Stephen. Stephen developed a limp. In one letter, Aunt Emily asked her sister if it was true that she was pregnant when she went to Japan. On May 22, 1942, Obasan moved with Stephen and Naomi to Slocan, a ghost town.
The specter of racism has flickered throughout the narrative, but mostly in the form of outdated letters and clippings, or old but still painful grievances. In Chapter 12, racism afflicts one of the characters head-on for the first time in the novel. The bodily harm done to Stephen is upsetting, but the hatred voiced by his classmates in the third grade is downright chilling. When the little girl says, “ ‘All the Jap kids at school are going to be sent away and they’re bad and you’re a Jap,’ ” it is obvious that she is repeating the gist of what her parents have told her. The ease with which children soak up racism is on shocking display here. When Naomi wonders if her brother is feeling the kind of shame she experiences, she draws a link between sexual violation and racism. Both are cruel and violent, and both inflict lasting pain on their victims. The exposure of children to racism is particularly awful, just as the exposure of children to sexual molestation is particularly appalling.
Kogawa captures the difficulty with which children piece together what is going on around them. While Naomi understands that something is amiss—they don’t see their relatives nearly as much as they used to, Aunt Emily and Father talk in unfamiliar voices, and so on—she doesn’t know the truth about the internment camps, because the grownups have intentionally shielded her from it. Even when she happens to overhear a frank conversation between Aunt Emily and Father, she can’t grasp what they are talking about. With details such as Naomi’s confusion of the Sick Bay (a place where ill people are kept) with English Bay (a beach), Kogawa shows how frustrating and bewildering it is to be a child living through troubled times.
Chapter 14, which consists mostly of Aunt Emily’s letters to her sister, amounts to an anguished cry of pain and betrayal over the unforgivable persecution of Japanese Canadians. What began with nasty schoolyard remarks in Chapter 12 swells into systematic persecution of an entire race in Chapter 14. The letters written by the energetic and informed Aunt Emily allow Kogawa to provide her readers with an easily digestible history lesson. The letters also allow her to create tension and forward momentum. When she wrote the letters, Aunt Emily didn’t know what would happen, and we watch as her initial optimism turns to despair, disbelief, and fury. Rather than simply summarizing the plight of Japanese Canadians in World War II, the letter device allows us to witness the downward spiral as it happens.
A fuller portrait of Aunt Emily emerges in Chapter 14. She is the most practical and hardworking member of the family. Suffering men surround her—Stephen has a limp, her father’s health is failing, Naomi’s father is ill—and she steps up to the plate and cares for the family, making difficult decisions about where to go and what to do. Neither is she impatient with the impracticality of others. When Naomi’s father sends a letter full of musical instructions for Stephen, Aunt Emily is amused by his abstraction. She doesn’t get angry at his failure to recognize that the world is falling down around their ears. Emily is also a fervent patriot, which makes the situation especially painful for her. She remembers idealizing the Mounties, for example. It appalls her to realize that white Canadians care more for white foreigners than they do for Canadian citizens of Japanese descent. Over and over, she remarks that she is Canadian, that her family members are Canadian. The repetition indicates both her continued love for the country mistreating her and her inability to believe such outrages are being practiced upon Canadian citizens.