obaasan's home

A visit to Obaasan’s (grandma’s) home typically offers a strong language barrier, strong green tea, and an antique grandfather clock that eagerly announces the passing minutes in increments of thirty. While this time with her is genuinely cherished, I tend leave with a sense of ignorance and guilt; built up feelings that express my regret for not taking the responsibility to bridge the gap between my generation and hers, my life and hers. I'm half Japanese, quarter English and quarter Scottish. Obaasan was born and raised in Hikone, Japan, with her first language being Japanese and her second being very basic and essential English. The lady who, in large part, provided me with the means to live the life I have sit before me, and I am unable to understand her past and the journey that has lead us to the present. As my recent visit to Obaasan’s home urgently reminds me, I must continue to seek pieces of the past before this significant link between generations ceases to offer its memories and knowledge.

After my half-year absence travelling and working across the country, I eagerly poked around the corner as Obaasan opened the door. Unaware of my intended visit, a sincere smile swept across her face as she greeted my mother and I. Upon arriving, Obaasan performed her typical routine and shuffled around her house, offering various items from one room to the next. She always seems to have something different to pass down each time we visit. Bear in mind, Obaasan has 6 children. My mom was given a vintage travel bag, a few binders, and some roasted bean snacks. With intrigue and honest thanks, I was given a photo album filled with film memories of my mom. As I sifted through the album, Obaasan frequently pointed to offer explanations in Japanese, which my mom would try to translate. The album offers snapshots through time as my mother grew from a newborn, to a toddler, child, teenager, young lady, and then to a woman in love and holding her very own newborn.

My happy mother, 1959 giggles.

My mother on her wedding day and her sister, Margaret, holding the curtain aside.

The majority of photographs were taken in Toronto, Canada, but one particular black and white shot dated 1958 caught my interest. With knotted net in the landscape behind, Obaasan is aboard a ship with my mother, Kay, and her two brothers, George and Harry.



This is the cargo ship that brought my mother from Osaka, Japan to Vancouver, Canada at the young age of eight months. This photograph captures the moment in time my grandmother boarded a ship with her three children to start life in a new country, unaware of the future, but hoping for something more than what she had. It is moments like this that I would like an explanation. What experiences preceded this moment that led Obaasan to consider such a drastic decision? What were her thoughts as she prepared for the journey ahead? What feelings consumed her as she boarded the ship? What were her fears? Her hopes? Her dreams?

As this collection of old photographs danced in my mind, I picked up my film Minolta and began to seek inspiration in the pieces of the past that surround me. These are some photographs that capture pieces of Obaasan’s home, pieces of her world:

Strong green tea.


The grandfather clock.


The curtain Ojiisan (grandpa) would always pull aside to see who’s coming up the driveway.

Brass reflections.

Traditional hobbies.

Before the trends.

Upon settling in Canada, Ojiisan worked as a taxi driver, carpenter and later as a chauffer. Obaasan was a dedicated seamstress for over fifteen years. With six children by 1965, the wages were less than modest. As a seamstress, Obaasan was paid per article of clothing produced. As my mother recalled, there were countless nights when she would hear the sewing machine running throughout the night. Obaasan’s faithful Singer still runs after all those long days, nights, and years.




Many emotions stirred as I photographed Obaasan’s sewing machine. It helped keep the family fed, housed and educated; this sewing machine is in large part responsible for my existence. I desperately wish to express the respect I have for her courage through time, and my sheer gratitude for the place I have found in this world. As the knowledge and experience of this April 2014 visit resonates in my heart and mind, I patiently await the next visit to Obaasan’s home. I will continue to seek pieces of the past in hopes of creating a fuller knowledge and understanding of my family and myself in present day.

Arigato, Obaasan & Ojiisan.

Samantha Shaw