Racial Discrimination: Referencing the Novel Obasan Written by Joy Kogawa

Racial Discrimination: Referencing the Novel Obasan Written by Joy Kogawa

During the years of WWII throughout Canada, the novel, Obasan written by Joy Kogawa, reflects into the life of Naomi Nakane, a Japanese Canadian, who is rather confused of her background and the vicious and evil eyes of society. The novel Obasan reveals how the Japanese Canadians received cruel, racial discrimination from Canadian society. Kogawa creates a vivid mental image of the cruelty and anguish that these very innocent Japanese Canadians endured, as a result of their ethnic origin. Naomi and her family experienced the horrific trauma where Kogawa depicted their hardships through many images of chicken pecking a baby chick, the attic, and Old Man Gower, all reflecting on their treatment of persecution, forgetfulness, and victimization. The immense amount of racial discrimination Naomi and her family went through as well as many other Japanese Canadians went through was so destructive and cruel, allowing Kogawa’s readers to somewhat understand their pain and anguish through these many difficult years.

Due to the growing racism against the Nisei, Naomi and her family experienced the horrific trauma, which is not found in other races. Kogawa uses excellent imagery of a chicken pecking a baby chick, to portray the harsh persecution given to the Japanese Canadians by the Canadian Government. While in school, both Naomi and Stephen are deeply affected by harsh acts of ridicule and jokes all because of the way they look. As the novel progresses, Kogawa uses chicken symbolism and imagery in an effort to exemplify how the Japanese –Canadians were really treated during this violent war.
“Without warning, the hen’s sharp beak jabs down on the chick, up again and down, deliberate as the needle on the sewing machine. A high trilling squeal and the chick spreads its short wings like a fan as it flops forward. Again and again the hen’s beak strikes the chick, lies on its side on the floor, its neck twisted back, its wings, out stretched fingers. The hen lifts a scaly leg, the claws collapsing and clutching as it struts around the cage, bayoneting the chicks darting past her feet, their wings outspread.” (Kogawa, 59)

As the chicken begins to attack the baby chicks, Kogawa implies that the chicken only attacks the defenseless/ weaker chicks. This idea suggests that the larger chick who attacks the baby chick, represents the Canadian government who victimized and terrorized the Japanese Canadian immigrants. The baby chicks symbolize the innocent and defenseless Japanese Canadians, who appear to be too weak to fight back. Although all chickens were placed into the same pen, some still take over and gain control through intimidation and harsh acts of violence. Similar to the representation of the Canadian Government who took control over Naomi’s family, as well as other Japanese Canadian citizens. He forces Naomi, Stephan, Aunt Emily, and their uncle to undergo manual labor, where they endure so much pain and suffering. As the baby chick falls to the ground after the chicken viciously attacks it, there is great representation as to how the Japanese becomes victimized by the Canadian Government. Even though everyone should be treated equally, the Japanese Canadians singled out, the Canadian Government made them suffer in internment camps, separating them from their families all because of their heritage.

Kogawa uses extensive forms of symbolic imagery to enhance how Naomi and her family’s memories were forgotten. The author makes many references to the attic in the beginning of Obasan proving how easily precious memories and objects can be pushed aside. “I arc the flashlight along the floor where there are some glass Kerosene lamps covered in thick dust. In the nearest corner by the eaves is a dead sparrow on its back, its feet straight back like a high diver’s. (Kogawa, 28)

Naomi looks around in the attic, only to discover all these lamps and boxes covered in dust, along with a dead sparrow, representing the lost memories of their home. Obasan kept all these boxes as they serve as memories way back to her homeland in Japan. The dust covering these boxes and lamps mask her many memories, forcing Obasan to move on and forget her past, allowing her to focus on what is occurring right this second. The dust symbolizes the lost memories that are shoved in the attic, hiding forever. This bird represents the idea of death and decay. The family’s memories are eroding away, much like the dead sparrow, where over time it will decay and be lost forever. “As she pushes a box aside, she stretches the corner of a spider’s web, exquisitely symmetrical, balanced between the box and the magazines.” (Kogawa, 24)

Here, Kogawa uses bug imagery, where she vividly describes the spider’s web. A spider’s web is similar to the streamers in the novel, where they can easily be broken down and destroyed. A spider’s web is so fine and thin however, it is able to obtain the spider’s nutrients and food, allowing it to survive. Just like the spider’s web, the Nakane family had memories of their past that they were able to recall, but because of the shame that was placed on the Japanese Canadians, all their memories rapidly fade away. As their remembrances were held together by Naomi’s family’s bond and hope, the mass amount of racial discrimination and how the government embarrassed those whom were of Japanese decent, allows Naomi’s family to let go of their past and move on. As the government place shame on these innocent people, it made them want to forget their painful memories and question whether they are Japanese, or Canadian, or both. Those who are assimilated and attempt to forget their shameful Japanese past were forced to start a new “slate” forgetting, leaving their Japanese culture behind.

The Canadian Government victimized and harmed thousands of Japanese Canadians, especially Naomi and her family. The Canadian Government took advantage of the Japanese Canadians, wrongfully knowing that he has more power and with the thought that because they immigrated to Canada, he is able to do anything he wishes. Kogawa also uses victimization imagery in an attempt to emphasize the discriminate actions by the Canadian government.
“He begins to undress me I do not resist. One does not resist adults. But I knew this is unnecessary for my knee. He is only pretending to fix my scratch.” (Kogawa, 63)

After being brutally raped by Old Man Gower, Naomi becomes extremely confused, as she is unsure if she should tell someone what happened to her. Naomi explains how she was not able to resist Old Man Gower as she felt inferior to him, as she was still a child. Old Man Gower is comparable to the Canadian Government who victimizes and takes complete advantage of Naomi (representing the Japanese Canadians), due to their ethnicity of Japanese decent, forcing them into internment camps, separating families and destroying so many innocent lives. Very similar to Old Man Gower, where he victimizes and traumatizes an innocent child because he felt more power and more superior, not thinking Naomi would stand up for herself. Naomi mentioned how she was not able to resist him because she feared him, being the large adult that he was. The Japanese Canadians remained in silence not standing up for their rights, allowing the Canadian Government to continuously victimize them. The Canadian Government racially discriminated the Japanese Canadians, where he made them suffer and would take advantage because he is in control and they felt they could not take a stand as the government made them feel shame and less superior.

As Joy Kogawa provided many symbolic images as to how the Canadian Government persecuted, made the Japanese Canadians forget their past, and victimized them, it allowed the readers to understand how cruel the Canadian society become to the Japanese during this time. Racial discrimination is quite evident throughout Obasan, where it depicts the chicken pecking the baby chick, the attic, and Old Man Gower. Naomi and her family, as well as other Japanese Canadians suffered immensely from the Canadian’s harsh and cruel racial discrimination, causing them to live confusing and destructive lives.