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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.
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