Written by students of FC1750.06
at Founders College, York University
One could easily attribute their differences to the fact that Emily is a North American-born Japanese and the sand woman represents an ultra-traditional Japanese. There are other elements more worthy of description, however. The sand woman seems surprisingly more at ease with her life even though it is desperately dismal** whereas Emily continues to dig up historical injustices and bring them to the surface. The sand woman has learned acceptance, and this is the only way for her to survive. She has created a sort of sublime existence despite the circumstances controlling her life. Living in the more liberal west, Emily fights the powers that be and in the process keeps alive her painful past.
Emily's desire to know about her past affects her niece, Naomi, considerably. Emily spends most of her time in the Seventies, twenty-five years after the war, digging up documents pertaining to the Japanese internment in Canada when her family was torn apart by the policies of the Canadian government. She attends conferences and writes essays on the inhuman treatment to which her family and friends were subjected. In short, she is the archetypal modern western woman with strong views, waging a battle against history. Although she lives as a free woman, she is enslaved to the past.
Emily's efforts seem fruitless. Why is she preoccupied with the past? In fact, her niece is troubled by her constant references to documents and events of the Forties. "Aunt Emily, are you a surgeon cutting at my scalp with your folders and filing cards and your insistence on knowing all?" Naomi asks (Joy Kogawa, Obasan, 194). While women around her are moving on, perhaps into denial, Emily "did not crash into the oblivion of either bitterness or futility but remained airborne" (Kogawa, 79).
Likewise, the sand woman does not crash into the feeling of futility, but rather fulfills her role as defined by her captors. When the narrator, Nikki Jumpei, stumbles across the barren sand-filled village, he quickly finds himself imprisoned by the villagers' tricks. He is lowered into a sand pit, from which he never escapes. Thus he is forced to live with the sand woman, who has been in this pit for an unexplained period of time. Her daily routine is completely dominated by the sand. In order to keep the village from being buried in sand, she digs every night in an exhausting effort. Jumpei, like Emily, refuses to accept the futile lot assigned to him. The sand woman, however, accepts the work as inevitable. Through the traditional Japanese concept of tate mae, she fulfills her responsibility without complaint.*** As the man is obsessed with the notion to escape, she simply says: "I'm really sorry. But honestly there hasn't been a single person to get out yet" (Abe Kobo, The Woman in the Dunes, trans. E. Dale Saunders).
Conceivably, Emily would be enraged with the sand woman's simple reasoning and resignation to her fate. The sand woman doesn't flinch when talking of her dead husband and child. Though only a year has passed since they were buried in a sand avalanche, she seems entirely at ease with their deaths (Abe, 29), and instead concentrates on the tasks at home. Conversely, Emily tells Naomi, "Don't deny the past. Remember everything . . . Scream! Denial is gangrene," (Kogawa, 50). While this type of attitude might work in a North American society, Japan (even today) may not tolerate it. Emily lives in Canada of the Seventies where issues can be addressed in a public forum, but the sand woman lives in a closed micro-society where there is no choice but to fulfill one's role in a community. Therefore, faced with no alternatives, the sand woman maintains her pointless determinism.
Jumpei, like Emily, finds this blind devotion to endlessly shoveling the sand absurd. "You'll never finish, no matter how long you work at it" (Abe, 32), he says, asking if her nocturnal ritual of shoveling sand is a nightly routine. She gives a positive answer, without questioning her own assumption. She is not overly eloquent, never initiates philosophical conversations, and therefore seems to be little troubled by life's tribulations. Emily feels that "We are all hammers and chisels in the hands of would be sculptors, battering the spirit of the sleeping mountain. We are the chips and sand, the fragments of fragments" (Kogawa, 111). In the context of the book Obasan, Emily seems to be the visionary. Compared to the silent vigilance of the sand woman, however, Emily seems obsessed with pain. Although she preaches that "Reconciliation can't begin without mutual recognition of the facts" (Kogawa, 183), she is held prisoner by her thoughts. The sand woman's existence could be considered shallow, but she exhibits little of the anxiety that Emily does. Both women have developed coping mechanisms, but the sand woman's methods seem to provide the least emotional strife.
Emily sums up the Japanese-Canadian situation by saying, "It's time that has defeated us for the present but we won't give up yet" (Kogawa, 107). Emily places value on time, and defines her path to reparation by its terms. The sand woman has lost all perspective on the boundaries of time, which does not exist for her. The confines of her sand prison dictate this attitude. She lives for the day and has no expectations for the future. While Emily looks forward to the day when all the sins of the past will be rectified, the sand woman only hopes to be able to buy a radio one day. Her acceptance of existential power makes her strong. Emily is obsessed with a battle she can never truly win and therefore is enslaved to the past.
Instead of painting a negative portrait of Emily, the protagonist sees her as a complicated and restless woman. Naomi is disturbed by "people like Aunt Emily [who] clack away at their typewriters, spreading words like buckshot, aiming at the shadows in the sky" (Kogawa, 189). It is largely because Naomi has chosen to get on with her life without dwelling on the horrors of the past that she feels this way about Emily. As well, she has become a confusing intrusion into her grown-up niece's life. Although Emily feels that "women are the bearers and nurturers of the human race" (Kogawa, 82), she has no children or a husband of her own. She has sacrificed personal relationships for her study of the past and is consumed with this social worker-type pursuit. She feels the need to proclaim these principles from her typewriter yet does not actually pursue them for her own life.
The sand woman is different in this respect. She proclaims nothing, yet once had a daughter and husband. As well, she becomes involved in a relationship with Jumpei and is impregnated by him. She has no predisposition for Jumpei, but because he is the only man in her small world, he becomes a sort of mate. Abe does not provide any complex insights into her feelings for Jumpei, but rather portrays her as just doing the natural thing. She does nurture as well as bear the human race. Even though she is treated quite unfairly and abused by the restless Jumpei, she washes his body every night. Though she works all night shoveling sand, she still cooks his dinner in the day time. Though he tries to escape and leave her in this predicament alone, and though he attempts to rape her in front of the villagers, she still accepts him without scorn. Once he ties and bounds her to use her as a hostage in an effort to persuade the villagers to release him from the pit and halt the sand digging. When the ploy fails, he drags her back to the cottage. As she lies on the floor in great pain, she politely asks, " I'm sorry to bother you, but would you just scratch the place on my neck behind my ear?" (Abe, 120). Abe is not striving to glorify "the pure Japanese woman," the opposite of Emily, but rather expressing his hardline view that suffering exists in the mind. The sand woman's ability to carry on despite hopelessness demonstrates her strength as a woman. She is literally a woman of sand as the title implies. The form she takes on is that which surrounds her. She is timeless and therefore adapts to all that is put before her. The North American Emily would strongly protest against these ideas, and perhaps this is what makes her restless.
From a Western viewpoint the sand woman seems subservient and pitiful. Her complacent state of mind could be interpreted as weak. Compared to the bold Emily, she seems to accept her fate of a wasted life, but one must question whether her life is really a wasted one. The sand woman has eliminated the victim's mentality to stay a survivor, conserving her energy to live an honest life. Emily is also a survivor. Is she, however, wasting her freedom to relive the past? Her lack of peace of mind seems to result from her inability to let sleeping dogs lie. On a positive note, however, it is exactly women like Emily who caused the Canadian government to attempt to recognize its past crimes. If it wasn't for the Emilies of Canada, reparations to Japanese Canadians may never have come about in the Eighties.
The delicate moral question seems to be what reparation does for crimes that have already been committed. Can the victims actually recover through a token apology or gesture from their former (or present) oppressor? The sand woman would see this question as irrelevant and accept things as they are. Emily, on the other hand, says, "Reconciliation can't begin without mutual recognition of the facts" (Kogawa, 183). She sees recovery as something that can only happen when the oppressor recognizes and admits his crimes. Is this, in an abstract sense, only trying to control something that is beyond one's grasp?
The prime difference between the sand woman and Emily is cultural perspective. The sand woman is a largely exaggerated character, but she does represent old Japanese society. In this comparative context Emily would not get very far with her personal quest in a controlled traditional society. The social apparatus for women to speak out as she does was simply not in place in postwar Japan. For both women's suffering, the reader feels sympathy. One can imagine meeting Emily and expressing this sympathy. Emily would most likely appreciate the sentiments and continue to discuss at length the suffering of her people. The sand woman in the same circumstances would likely turn her face sideways, shrug and suggest getting back to work.
*The Japanese word issei (literally first generation) refers to persons born in Japan while nissei (literary second generation) means those born abroad.
**The Japanese title for The Woman in the Dunes is Suna no Onna, literally, woman of sand.
***Tate mae is the old principle in Japan of upholding one's social obligations with dignity and gaman, or patience.
Abe, Kobo. The Woman in the Dunes. Trans. E. Dale Saunders. 1964; rpt. New York: Vintage International, 1991.
Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1981.
Copyright © 1996 by the author. Information from this article should be attributed to the author.