The narrator and main character of the novel. Naomi, a thirty-six-year-old schoolteacher, is both tormented and fascinated by her childhood memories. She has endured a great deal, and has coped with her painful past primarily by forgetting it. As an adult, she has made her own way in the world. She feels a strong attachment to Obasan and Uncle, the people who raised her, but does not see them very often. She is not close to her brother, Stephen, and has no family of her own.
A boatbuilder. Uncle’s given name is Isamu. He is Grandma Nakane’s son by her first husband, Grandpa Nakane’s cousin. Uncle is older than his brother, Naomi’s father. He marries Ayako, whom Naomi calls Obasan (aunt). Uncle is a quiet, kind, and steady man. A good husband to Obasan, he is also an excellent provider and father figure for Naomi and Stephen.
Uncle’s wife. Obasan’s given name is Ayako. Like Uncle, Obasan lost her father when she was a child. Although she is quiet and traditional, Obasan is also a woman of steely strength. She takes responsibility for Naomi and Stephen after they are orphaned.
Naomi’s fifty-six-year-old maternal aunt. Aunt Emily is unmarried and lives in Toronto. A firebrand and lover of words, Aunt Emily couldn’t be more different than Obasan and Naomi’s mother. She has no patience with notions of traditional Japanese femininity. Instead, she prizes speaking up loudly and often, and standing up for one’s rights. It is she who nudges and prods Naomi toward a full understanding of her personal history.
Naomi’s brother. Stephen is three years older than Naomi. As a child, he reacted to the privations of World War II with quiet sullenness. As a man, he is restless and mercurial. He is very successful and has lived in London, New York, and Montreal. Always musical as a child, he becomes a lauded concert pianist. Spending time with his family makes him deeply uncomfortable, as does anything that strikes him as “too Japanese.”
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Naomi’s mother. A kind and gentle woman whose approach to parenting and being a woman resembles Obasan’s, Mother goes to Japan to tend to her sick mother and never returns. She is the focus of Naomi’s obsessive love and thoughts.
Naomi’s father. An elegant man, Father helped Uncle design and build boats. He is something of a dreamer. While in the work camp, he sends Stephen letters full of musical instructions, as if he is writing a leisurely missive from a spa. He comes and goes in and out of Naomi’s life in a way that totally mystifies her. She is almost never sure where he is or what he’s doing.
Naomi’s paternal grandfather. Grandpa Nakane was a boat builder and the first of Naomi’s grandparents to move to Canada.
Naomi’s paternal grandmother and Uncle’s mother. Grandma Nakane was imprisoned in Vancouver Hastings Park, an internment camp, during World War II.
Naomi’s maternal grandfather.
Naomi’s maternal grandmother. Grandma Kato prizes silence far less than her daughter. It is Grandma Kato’s letters that finally reveal the truth about what happened to Naomi’s mother. Initially she agreed not to speak, hoping that keeping quiet would dull the pain, but eventually decides that only by sharing her grief will she ever have any hope of easing it.
An Anglican minister. Nakayama-sensei happens to move around more or less in concert with Uncle and Obasan, winding up in Slocan with them.
An elderly, ill woman with whom Naomi, Stephen, and Obasan share their house in Slocan. Surprisingly, Nomura-obasan recovers enough to return to her daughter’s care.
Naomi’s next-door neighbor in Vancouver. Old Man Gower molests Naomi on multiple occasions. He is a manipulative and cunning man who has the audacity to pose as a generous friend to Naomi’s father.
A solitary, gruff, but kind man who lives near the lake in Slocan. Rough Lock Bill saves Naomi from drowning.
A friend of Naomi’s mother. Mrs. Sugimoto is a fussy, prying woman who falls apart when her husband is forced to move to an internment camp.
An intelligence officer for Canada in the Far East. Naomi is not related to Dan, but calls him Uncle because he is such a close friend of her father.
Aunt Emily’s friends during wartime.
One of Stephen and Naomi’s classmates in Slocan. Kenji leaves Naomi to drown in the lake. Under government orders, his family goes to Japan.
Another Slocan classmate of Naomi’s. Miyuki is delicate and well dressed.
A high-school aged girl Naomi knows in Slocan. Sachiko cares lovingly for her grandfather, Saito-ojisan.
Sachiko’s grandfather. Saito-ojisan is an aged, shaky man.
Owner of the beet farm on which Naomi’s family works. Mr. Barker is a man of good intentions, at least when World War II is a distant memory. However, the fact remains that he allowed his workers to live in subhuman conditions.
Mr. Barker’s first wife. Mrs. Barker dislikes Naomi and Stephen and doesn’t want her daughter to play with them.
Mr. Barker’s second wife. Vivian seems uncomfortable in Obasan’s house.
Daughter of the Barkers, the beet farmers Naomi’s family works for. Penny is cruel to Stephen and Naomi.
Naomi’s mother’s cousin. Both Setsuko’s eyes are gouged out during the bombing, and her skin comes off in strips.
Setsuko’s son. Tomio survives the bombing, but wanders off and is never found.
Setsuko’s baby. Chieko closely resembles Naomi. The last Naomi hears of her, she is dying of leukemia.