At first glance, Obasan appears to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of silence, a warning to readers that wordless acquiescence to mistreatment can invite greater brutality, and that failure to talk over old wrongs can lead to poisonous anger and resentment. And it does make those arguments. Naomi’s family’s humble, silent acceptance of the Canadian government’s mandates doesn’t prove their loyalty or win them lenient treatment. Rather, it makes them easy to shunt aside. Naomi’s mother’s insistence on modest silence might make Naomi a praiseworthy child in the classic Japanese mode, but it exaggerates Naomi’s natural reserve to a dangerous degree. And the worst part of the sexual abuse Naomi suffers is the silence with which she reacts to it. Unable to tell her mother about Old Man Gower, Naomi soldiers through the disaster without speaking, all alone in her pain.
Despite these compelling arguments against silence, however, Obasan takes the nuanced view that keeping quiet has real benefits. Obasan’s silence protects her from the world. As an old woman, she says little and hears less. Muffled in a wordless existence, she doesn’t suffer from racist remarks or thoughtless comments. Keeping silent is also the way she mourns the loss of her husband. Rough Lock Bill, the most admirable white character in the novel, says that talk is often self-centered. He likens the egotistical chatter of city folk to the chirping of birds who can only say their own names. He criticizes his own talkativeness, and praises Naomi’s silence. Rough Lock Bill’s words carry extra weight because, apart from Naomi’s family members, he is one of the few trustworthy adults in her life.
By the end of the novel, Naomi believes that silence does not always prevent understanding. Despite the silence her mother maintained by failing to communicate with her children, and despite the fact that death silenced her forever, Naomi feels she can still communicate with her. Silence is undesirable only if it cancels out understanding, which, for Naomi, it doesn’t always do.
Obasan provides a long answer to the following question: Is it better to remember, or to forget? Each of Kogawa’s characters has an opinion on this matter, and their opinions fall along a spectrum. Uncle and Obasan, who believe that the past should be left in the past rather than dragged out and held up to the light, remain at one end of the spectrum. At the other end sits Aunt Emily, who believes that only by endlessly reconsidering past wrongs can we ensure that they never happen again and leave our bitterness behind. Naomi falls somewhere in the middle. She is torn between her fascination with her past and her conviction that thinking about it will only hurt her. The novel’s structure mirrors this dilemma. In the beginning, as Naomi resists the pull of the past, the narrative is rooted in the present day. As she starts to step backward into her memory, the narrative begins shifting back and forth between past and present. When she allows her childhood memories to immerse her, the narrative gives itself over fully to the past.
Obasan refuses to come down firmly on the side of forgetting or remembering. As a novel that chronicles the experience of Japanese Canadians, its very existence argues the importance of keeping painful memories alive. Naomi is a more peaceful person at the end of the novel than she is at the beginning, a change that comes from her willingness to explore her past and her new understanding of what happened to her mother and other relatives. At the same time, while Naomi does find out the truth about her mother, the timing of the discovery undermines the idea that remembering is therapeutic. Only after she decides that her search for the truth is a desecration of her mother’s memory, and only after she gives up trying to discover what happened, does Naomi learn the truth. What follows the revelation also suggests the relative unimportance of facts concerning the past. Instead of thinking about the details of her mother’s mutilation, Naomi waxes lyrical for a chapter, addressing abstractions to her mother that would have applied equally well had she never learned the truth.
Kogawa’s characters have varying attitudes toward their Japanese heritage, none of which are completely functional. While Aunt Emily campaigns vigorously for the rights of Japanese Canadians, she rejects the idea that her ethnicity makes her different from any other Canadian citizen. She refers to herself simply as Canadian, and dislikes the idea that her heritage sets her apart from her fellow countrymen in any way. Kogawa suggests that Aunt Emily’s attitude, while logically sound, does not reflect the experiences shared by all Japanese Canadians. Like it or not, Anglo-Saxon Canadians did, and continue to, discriminate against their fellow citizens of Japanese heritage. To object to that is essential, but to simply insist that no one should detect a difference between Canadians and Canadians of Japanese descent, Kogawa suggests, is to refuse to engage with the world as it exists.
Neither does Kogawa endorse the attitude taken by Obasan and Uncle, which is the extreme opposite of Aunt Emily’s. They refuse to engage in a different way, by retreating into themselves and failing to grapple with what it means to be Japanese Canadian in Canada. They practice the customs of their Japanese forebears and, in the case of Obasan, meet racism with intentional incomprehension. Their gratitude toward a country that has treated them with such shocking cruelty may protect them from pain, but it requires a distorted view of reality. For someone of the younger generation, like Naomi, Obasan and Uncle’s model of curling back into an old world is a model that is impossible to follow. Naomi must engage with the world around her, and she does so in a way that strikes a balance between Aunt Emily’s repudiation of her Japanese ethnicity and Obasan and Uncle’s collapse into it. She recognizes the racism, subtle and overt, that surrounds her, and she gradually begins to think hard about what it means to be a Japanese Canadian. But even her moderate stance, Kogawa suggests, does not necessarily result in happiness or total enlightenment.
The color red is associated with Naomi and appears at both happy and difficult moments in her life. She links red with New Year’s, when her family gives gifts to her and Stephen. Every gift she receives—a change purse, a brooch, a necklace, and others—features red prominently. Red also dominates Naomi’s memory of the train ride to Slocan. She remembers carrying a red umbrella and wearing a shirt decorated with red flowers. When she recalls standing on a bridge with Obasan before Grandma Nakane’s funeral, the “wine-colored loafers” she wore stick out in her mind. The vividness of red, which is among the only colors Naomi mentions consistently, suggests the vividness of her memories themselves. She doesn’t recall everything that happened to her when she was little, but the memories she does have are bright and intense, like the red possessions she treasured as a girl.
Men with guns, specifically white men with guns, haunt Naomi. As an adult, she dreams about them often. In one of her recurring nightmares, military men control three naked, powerless Asian women; in another, bloodthirsty armed men watch a private family ceremony. The dangerous men in her dreams point to Naomi’s two central childhood traumas: the abuse she suffered at the hands of Old Man Gower, and the persecution she and her family endured at the hands of white Canadians. The guns represent her tormentors’ potential to do harm. The mastery the clothed soldiers have over the naked women reflects Old Man Gower’s sexual power and abuse, and the women’s humiliation echoes Naomi’s disturbing and shaming response. The fact that Naomi dreams about these men so frequently, even as an adult, shows that while she can suppress her fear during her waking hours, she is subconsciously still in the grips of her difficult childhood. As she says, “We die again and again. In my dreams, we are never safe enough.” She doesn’t live in fear, but some part of her always worries that what happened once could happen again.
The sea is an essential and part of Naomi’s family heritage. She comes from a line of fishermen and boat builders who feel most at home on the ocean. The government’s seizure of their boats not only robs them of their livelihood, but also of their connection to the place they feel happiest. Their banishment to the center of the country, first to Slocan with its muddy lake, and then to Granton with its dusty plains, is doubly painful. A forced relocation to anywhere at all would be bad enough, but to be made to move away from the ocean, which fed their families and seemed to embrace them, is almost impossible to bear. The novel’s first chapter, which depicts Uncle on his annual pilgrimage to the coulee, underlines the importance of the sea and the family’s distance from it. The coulee is a special place to Uncle because it reminds him of the ocean. While he does find a measure of peace there, his attachment to it is poignant and sad. It is not the real sea, after all; it is just a pale shadow of the place Uncle loved.
Obasan’s house symbolizes Obasan herself. It is filled with clutter that to the outside eye might look like trash, but is actually a collection of carefully arranged and catalogued objects. Some objects will be reused for the sake of thriftiness, others remind Obasan of some episode in her life. The old rubber ball, for example, is a toy that survived Naomi and Stephen’s childhoods, seeing them through many painful moments before winding up in Obasan’s home. The library of objects reflects Obasan’s library of memories. And the old, creaky house represents Obasan’s advanced age, her frail body. After Uncle’s death, Naomi briefly wonders whether Obasan could move in with her. The idea seems impracticable, however, because Obasan’s identity is so wrapped up in her home. The house, Naomi says, is Obasan’s “blood and bones.”
The spiders in Obasan’s attic symbolize memory. The first two spiders scuttle up when Obasan accidentally brushes their web as she searches through a box, just as memories float up uninvited, triggered by related memories. The spiders are quick, almost violent, just as Naomi’s recollections seem to take on a life of their own, running unbidden through her mind. After she sees the first spiders, she looks up and sees the vast “graveyard and feasting ground combined” that stretches across the ceiling. Naomi’s experience of underestimating and then understanding the number of spiders foreshadows her experience with her own memories, which come slowly at first and then overwhelm her. Like the spiders, the memories are dangerous, and Naomi treats them just as she treats the spiders: with a mixture of reverence, fear, fascination, and repulsion.