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.