A State of Exception

The Nature of Citizenship and Democracy in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan

Andre Forget

As a seminal Canadian text that has been used as a pedagogical-political tool to instruct Canadians about the Japanese internment since its publication in 1981, Joy Kogawa’s Obasan contains some rather troubling elements for the contemporary critic. The healing moment that comes for Naomi, the novel’s narrator (who was interned as a child and who has tried as an adult to forget the experience) is an internal one dealing largely with the personal overcoming of silence by herself and her family unit after her uncle’s death. I will not get into the theme of silence which runs through the novel except to say that if this novel is, as Erika Gottlieb suggests, about turning “silence into sound” (52), then the sound is a quiet and private one. Even as Naomi struggles to fully face what happened to her, her family, and her people after 1942, she is never tempted to join her activist aunt, Emily Kato, in her battle for justice. She says shortly after introducing Aunt Emily that “people who insist on bringing up their own victimization make me uncomfortable” (Kogawa 36), and while she learns from Emily the importance of facing the pain of her memories, she still affirms at the end of the novel that “this body of grief is not fit for human habitation. Let there be flesh. The song of mourning is not a lifelong song” (270). What is troubling to the critical reader about Naomi’s progression is that, unlike her Aunt’s, it seems centripetal; Naomi does not view herself as an agent for greater change the way Emily does, indeed at one point she silently queries that “[g]reed, selfishness, and hatred remain as constant as the human condition, do they not? Or are you thinking that through lobbying and legislation, speech-making and story-telling, we can extricate ourselves from our foolish ways? Is there evidence for optimism?” (219). I want to argue that this is not constitutive of an abdication from politics, but is in fact the result of a specific politics born out of different assumptions regarding citizenship and the nature of the state.

In Chapter 14, in anticipation of her Aunt’s arrival, Naomi reads the journal her Aunt has sent her detailing the events leading up to the internment. In the first three entries, democracy is referenced six times (87, 88, 93); it becomes clear that Emily’s outrage springs in part from her understanding that what is happening is not only unjust but also a failure of the Canadian state to do right by its citizens. She communicates this by returning again and again to the rights of the Japanese as Canadian citizens (87, 90, 93, 102, 112). This is also the substance of her activism after the internment – Naomi describes an official document from the period that Emily has modified to make her point: “[w]herever the words “Japanese race” appeared, Aunt Emily had crossed them out and written “Canadian citizen” (34). And later she says “[w]hat this country did to us, it did to itself” (35). The tacit assumption behind Emily’s work would seem to be that if people only knew the injustice their government was guilty of, they would hold it responsible.

Naomi, however, seems not to share these assumptions and shies away from the kind of language that is used to express them. She communicates her thoughts more frequently through subtle allegories and metaphorical images. One of the most striking of these is the scene from her childhood where group of young chicks are introduced to a hen, which proceeds to viciously attack them (62-63). The obvious reading is that the “white hen” is Canada (the whiteness being signficant), the “yellow chicks” are the Japanese, and the scene is a foreshadowing of the violence that the parental state will employ against its adopted children. But if this is the relationship between the state and its people, it is not a democratic one – the image of the state-as-parent more quickly brings to mind the sort of autocratic or monarchic system that Emily Kato spends a good deal of time arguing that Canada isn’t (“you can’t compare this sort of thing to anything that happens in Germany. That country is openly totalitarian” [93]). This image of the state is compounded by a later image, that of the King bird, who Naomi’s friend Kenji claims took speech away from all other birds and who circles ominously above, able to strike at any time (153-154). Later in the novel, Naomi herself suggests a connection between these things and sees both as a manifestation of the Angel of Death (165-166). The images Naomi consistently uses to understand herself are not only of abject powerlessness, but of powerlessness in the face of an all-powerful figure who has the power to end life at any moment. She is not hunted; rather, the power that “passes by” (166) may choose to strike at any moment.

Naomi’s dramatic literary understanding of the Japanese internment is more radical than Emily Kato’s because she understands that citizenship is a fluid category and subject to what Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer (following Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt’s use of the term) calls a “state of exception” (15). While the citizen has certain rights before the law, the law itself is subject to change and to re-writing. Constitutions (which are put in place to enshrine and protect things like minority rights) are also subject not only to change but to suspension through legislation. Agamben uses the term “sovereign” to talk about the one who has the power to suspend the law or constitution (17). In this analysis, the problem of the Japanese internment is not so much a case of the breakdown of a political order but a working through of its ultimate logic; as Naomi admits, “[t]he darkness is everywhere, in the day as well as the night. It threatens us as it always has” (75). The only protection the minority could claim against the kind of rampant racism present throughout the early twentieth century was a juridical one predicated on rights. However, the legal structures of democracy make that a fundamentally unstable claim. The sovereign – capable of declaring a state of exception – always has a metaphorical finger on the trigger, and it is only the magnanimity of the sovereign that allows for the rights of the minority in the first place.

Obasan is deeply perspicacious in its portrayal of the situation: Naomi, through powerful literary metaphors, fleshes out a political understanding which accounts not only for the particular violence done against the Japanese but for the persistence of this violence. As she writes towards the end of the novel, “no doubt it will all happen again, over and over with different faces and names, variations on the same theme” (Kogawa 219). While this is certainly an uncomfortable reality to accept, one wonders if, in the long view, it does not more deeply apprehend the actual nature of citizenship in a democracy.

Andre Forget is a member of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He recently moved to Halifax to pursue graduate studies in English literature. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.

Agamben, Giorgio.  Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. Ebook.

Gottlieb, Erika. “The Riddle of Concentric Worlds in Obasan.” Canadian Literature 109 (1986): 34-53. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 18 Sep. 2012.

Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 1983. Print.


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