Obasan: Facing fear for Identity

Posted: November 28th, 2013

Obasan: Facing fear for Identity


Some people are born knowing their identity while others have to pass through different challenges in order to identify or come into terms with their true identity. The novel Obasan by Joy Kagawa is one of those literary works that gives an example of the latter form of knowing ones identity. In this novel, Kogawa tells the story of a 36 year old school teacher by the name Naomi Nakane. She is of Japanese origin but she lives in living in Alberta, Canada. She goes to visit her Obasan (aunt in Japanese) after the death of her uncle. This visit was not one that she was looking forward to; however, it ends up being one that she needed. Through this visit, her deaf aunt helps her in reveal some issues in her past, which enable her to embrace the present. The psychological fears faced by the protagonist enable her to come into terms with her identity.


It is clear from the early stages of the novel that Naomi has an emotional fear of the unknown. At the initial stages of the novel, it is evident that the Naomi is in her teen years. Her uncle thinks that she is too young to know the reason why they visited this virgin land in Granton, Alberta. She does not ask why they keep visiting the land and neither does she dwell on the subject when her uncle tells her that she is too young to know. It is as if Naomi is afraid of finding out the reasons. Due to her emotional fears she develops a physical fear. Naomi starts dreading the emergence of unseen snakes and dangers. Other encounters in her life make this fear dominate instead of diminish.

As the story progresses, the reader is taken through other experiences that Naomi may have encountered, resulting into her present emotional fear. She does not look forward to the visit she will make to her Obasan. This is because her aunt is symbolic in her life. She symbolizes her past and her present (Lefebvre p.155). Her aunt’s house brings back many memories of her past life, which are still a mystery to her. She knows that she has to face her past in order to overcome it and thus embrace the present. As the story progresses, the reader can identify with Naomi’s past life and the mysteries that surrounded her and how she came to terms with these mysteries. The story brings out the reasons for Naomi’s emotional fears.

One of the places that reminds Naomi of her past is Obasan’s antic. It reminds her of her uncle, her grandparents, her mother, and others, who were part of her life in one way or another in both her past and her present. The picture of Naomi and her relatives on the wall flashes back other memories that still remind her that there are questions that have remained unanswered since she was young. For example, she says that her Obasan refused to tell her any information on where her mother went when she was young. It is evident that Naomi still fears asking her where she went to.

Naomi also describes herself. “Megumi Naomi Nakane. Born, June 18, 1926. Vancouver, British Columbia.  Marital Status: Old maid.   Health: Fine, I suppose.  Occupation: Schoolteacher.  I’m bored to death with teaching and ready to retire.   What would anyone else want to know?  Personality: Tense.  Is that past or present tense?  It’s perpetual tense.  I have the social graces of a common housefly.  That’s self-degenerating, isn’t it?” (Kogawa p. 9). This long description of herself shows the reader that Naomi is not happy about herself. This is a psychological fear of self actualization. In the initial chapters, Naomi chooses to identify herself as a youth instead of identifying herself as a Japanese Canadian. As a result, she wonders whether parents were more surprised by her youthful looks or her oriental face when she first started teaching. She seems to be afraid of facing the challenges that came with being one of a different race. She seems to identify with Tami, a European-Japanese girl, who seemed secluded from the other during Naomi’s classes. The self-description that Naomi does shows that she has a big ego and loves herself.

Additionally, Sigmund, another new child in Naomi’s class, seems to identify the psychological fears of her teacher. Sigmund asks Naomi whether she had ever fallen in love. As a result, she starts recalling the terrible experience she had with a widower father of one of her students. Later in the novel, we identify that her reserved state had been influenced by the sexual harassments she had received from her neighbor during the “carry her away” times and the boy Percy during the hide-and-seek game. The racial encounters, the sexual harassments and the separation in her family have contributed to her current state of fear and loss of identity.

Despite facing all these challenges, she cannot stay in this state. In order to encounter her present and embrace it, Naomi chooses to face her past. Since talking about her mother seemed like an abolished topic, she chooses to remember her mother’s stories, songs and admonitions. She chooses to follow her ant’s advice of not forgetting the past as that is crippling one’s self (Wilson p. 35). Instead, she remembers of all those times Old man Gower had taken her away, placed her in his lap, and removed her clothes under the pretense of taking care of a cut and then making Naomi to promise that she would not tell her mother.

Furthermore, she remembers that “the weeds in the garden do not moan when they are plucked from the skin of the earth nor do the trees cry out at their fierce combing as they lie uprooted by the roadside” (Kogawa p.179). This thought stirs up her mind that she can only face her past and come into terms with what happened, and then embrace the present with what it brings. She remembers her Aunt Emily’s campaigns about the “Nisei” (the Japanese-Canadians of the second generation) who feel that they have got nothing to do or that they are forgotten yet they have a lot to do. This enlightens Naomi as she realizes that there is something she can do even at her age. Naomi realizes that she has to participate in her own life.

Between engaging the happening of the past and the results of the present, she realizes that she has always been different from the rest of her family since the time she was young. She remembers that her parents and her brother were musicians yet she was not one. While the rest played music, she identified herself more with a statue and the goldfish more than she identified with the family members. At this time she recognizes that being different has always been part of her and that there was nothing wrong with being so.

Slowly, Naomi starts accepting her past and the fears that come with it. The reader slowly identifies other positive things that have happened in Naomi’s life (towards the last eight chapters of the story). She has a different interaction with the white people like when Rough Lock Bill saves her life at the lake. This is different as most of the experiences were those of racial discrimination and sexual harassment. She can distinguish, when to react and when to be silent like when she reacted due to Bakers’ behavior when they came to pay their condolences due the death of her father (Wilson p.50). Her acceptance of her past fears encourages her to continue living and soldier on with life.


Naomi’s psychological fears had clogged her ability to know her true identity. She had not realized that it is through coming into terms with ones fears, that one is able to face the present and the future. Once she was able to remember her mother’s memories, understand Obasan’s character, and recall the sexual harassments and discrimination she had faced in her past, she got the ability to face the present and the future with more confidence. Naomi was able to identify herself as a Japanese-Canadian who was just different from her family.

NB: Quotes cannot be altered.


Works Cited

Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. Ontario, Canada. Anchor Books, 1994. Print.

Lefebvre, B. (December 19, 2010). In Search of Someday: Trauma and Repetition in Joy Kogawa’s Fiction. Journal of Canadian Studies, 44, 3, 154-173.

Wilson, Sheena. Joy Kogawa: Essays on Her Works. Toronto, ON: Guernica Editions, 2011. Print.


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