Identity is the fact of being who or what a person or thing is. In the novel, Obasan, Naomi has trouble figuring out her true identity. She has two, specific, women role models who couldn’t be any more different, she is confused as to her nationality (Japanese or Canadian?) and she was violated, in more ways than one, as a child. Throughout the book, Naomi embarks on a quest; a quest for her identity.
Throughout the novel, Obasan, Naomi struggles to know her true nationality. She is, of course, of Japanese heritage but she was born in Canada. She faces many questions about her nationality due to the fact that her outside image isn’t the same as the way she is perceived by other Canadians. Naomi looks like she is originally from Japan, though, she is a Canadian. She is a victim of racist remarks from those around her, because they assume she is strictly Japanese. Naomi struggles to understand if she is supposed to be more one or the other (Japanese or Canadian). Naomi grew up in a Canadian culture, but was still influenced by Japanese language and traditions. In her family, some members still speak Japanese. “’Umi no yo.’ Uncle says as he points at the grass. ‘It is like the sea.’” (1).
Even though Uncle knows how to speak English, he still incorporates as much Japanese as possible. It keeps their heritage alive. Though, Stephen, Naomi’s brother, resents the Japanese heritage. During one of his visits, he even refuses to eat the Japanese food made by Obasan. This confuses Naomi. She looks up to her brother, but he is separating himself from his true identity which makes it hard for Naomi to know hers. Naomi is unaware of who she is supposed to be. She doesn’t know whether to embrace or resent her Japanese heritage, even though it sometimes punishes her with racist remarks. Naomi is unaware of her identity, due to the confusion of her nationality, within her family.
“Would you like me to tell you a story?” (62) Old Man Gower would ask when he would take four year old Naomi to a place of privacy. Old Man Gower abused and violated Naomi in unmentionable ways, making her feel helpless and afraid. This was the only “love” she was ever subjected to. Obasan did not show affection. Naomi “never once saw” Obasan and Sam “caressing” (6), and when Naomi asked Uncle if they were in love, he responded with “’In ruv? What that?’” (6). No one showed Naomi affection, other than the man who treated her in the worst possible way. The touching and fondling done to her by Old Man Gower was the only love that she had ever known. She is told to keep silent about this “love” and she is told that she is supposed to enjoy it. Her identity is amiss, for she does not know the real meaning of love. If she does not know the real meaning of love, how can she know if she is really loved by her family? Naomi’s quest is a quest for identity, to help her understand the real meaning of love and affection.
“How different my two aunts are. One lives in sound, the other in stone. Obasan’s language remains underground, but Aunt Emily, BA, MA, is a word warrior. She’s a crusader, a little old gray-haired Mighty Mouse, a Bachelor of Advanced Activists and General Practitioner of Just Causes.” (Kogawa 39). According to Naomi, in the novel Obasan, her aunts, Emily and Obasan, are polar opposites. Obasan remains silent about nearly everything that happens in her life. For starters, when the persecution of the Japanese Canadians begins, Obasan says nothing to Naomi, assuming she is better off learning through “whispers, frowns and too much gentleness” (73). When Obasan’s husband dies she also chooses to cope, with silence. “The language of her grief is silence.” (14).
Despite her silence, Obasan has good reasoning behind her decisions. She chooses to be silent, at one point, “for the sake of the children” (26). Naomi looks up to her aunt Obasan, because even though she is silent, she has good intentions. Though, Naomi also looks up to her aunt Emily, who is completely different from Obasan. Emily is more aggressive and open as to how she is feeling, especially when it comes to the past. When Naomi is grown up, Aunt Emily tells her “You are your history. If you cut any of it off then you’re an amputee. Don’t deny the past. Remember everything. If you’re bitter, be bitter. Cry it out! Scream! Denial is gangrene.” (49). Aunt Emily is encouraging Naomi to stop being silent about her past, and to let people know of the horrifying things she faced. This is confusing to Naomi, because Obasan tells her different.
Obasan thinks it is better if Naomi forgets and gets over what happened in her past, opposed to speaking up and making a big deal of something that has already happened. Naomi remembers Obasan telling her this. “Some memories, too, might better be forgotten. Didn’t Obasan once say, ‘It is better to forget’? . . . What is past recall is past pain” (45). Being told to be two completely different kinds of people by two of the role models in her life, make it hard for Naomi to understand who she is supposed to be. This makes it hard for Naomi to know who she really is. Should she be silent or outspoken? She’s being told both. Having two different mother figures in her life, make it difficult to understand her true identity. Naomi is unsure if she is supposed to be more like Obasan, quiet and collected, or like Emily, outspoken and aggressive. Naomi’s quest is a quest for identity.
Her family members and neighbours are all telling her to be someone completely different; Japanese, Canadian, Japanese-Canadian, silent, outspoken, in love, loved or unloved. Naomi wants to be herself, but is unaware of who she is. She must know who she is in order to do that. Finding her identity is a big deal, because it will allow Naomi to be whoever she wishes to be. Throughout Obasan that is the quest that Naomi embarks on. Naomi Nakane’s quest is a quest for identity.