Joy Kogawa Biography

Joy Kogawa Biography

Joy Kogawa's childhood home in Vancouver was first slated for demolition in 2005. Since then, “Save the Kogawa House!” has been the cry of many across Canada. Kogawa is a noted and much-loved Canadian novelist and poet. Her somewhat autobiographical novel Obasan, which focuses on the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II, is her most popular and well-known work. It has been adapted as a children’s book and an opera and is considered one of Canada’s most important historical novels. In addition to writing, Kogawa has also been an elementary school teacher and studied music at the college level. Her latest projects include a children’s work titled Naomi’s Tree.

Facts and Trivia

  • Kogawa was sent to an internment camp in British Columbia as a young child. This experience greatly shaped her later writing.
  • In 1982, she became involved with Sadan-Kai, an activist trying to get the Canadian government to provide redress to Japanese-Canadians mistreated in the 1940s.
  • Kogawa’s work has tended more toward poetry and become far more free-form in her later years.
  • Kogawa has been praised for the feminist themes explored in Obasan, a word which can be translated to mean “aunt” or “woman.”
  • Itsuka is the sequel to Obasan and picks up the story of Naomi, the lead character in Obasan. Although interesting, it has not been as widely loved or critically well-received as Obasan.


Joy Kogawa was born Joy Nakayama in Vancouver, Canada. She is a second-generation Japanese Canadian, or nisei, born to Reverend Gordon Goichi Nakayama, an Anglican priest, and Lois Masui Nakayama, who had immigrated to Canada as a Christian missionary. She was taught as a child to assimilate into Canadian culture, which she wanted very much to do. She became a person who often would not speak, would not question, and did not expect to be heard.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Canadian government began a movement of Japanese people to internment camps and also confiscated their possessions and property, including land, houses, boats, cars, and personal possessions. Kogawa, age six, and her family were evacuated from their comfortable Vancouver home to an internment camp in Slocan in central British Columbia and later to Coaldale, Alberta. At the camps, she and her family lived a life of field labor until the late 1940’s.

Kogawa pursued studies in education at the University of Alberta and taught elementary school in Coaldale for a year. She then studied music at the University of Toronto, followed by studies at the Anglican Women’s Training College and the University of Saskatchewan.

She later fought for redress from the Canadian government for the internment of twenty thousand Japanese Canadians during the war. Kogawa worked with the National Association of Japanese Canadians. In 1988, they received a formal apology from the Canadian government for injustices. They also received a $350 million settlement for retribution.

In 1957, she moved permanently to Toronto. There she married, had two children, and divorced in 1968. In 1959, she began writing. By 1964, she had her first short story published. Kogawa...

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Canada includes people of diverse races and ethnicities. Joy Kogawa’s novels consider the victimization of the Japanese Canadians and how their dual culture inflects their experience during three generations, the issei, nisei, and sansei. Traditional Japanese values strengthen the revolutionary elements in the community so it can speak to the government to achieve justice. She also explores victimization of children by a British Canadian clergyman who fogs over his crimes with the privileges of class and religion. The light of truth prepares the way for healing mercy.

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Joy Kogawa grew up in the relatively sheltered environment provided by her minister father in Vancouver. That security was shattered with World War II relocation policies, which sent Japanese Canadians to internment camps in the inhospitable interior lands of Canada. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States also profoundly affected her.

As a young woman Kogawa attended the University of Alberta, the Anglican Women’s Training College, and the Conservatory of Music. She married David Kogawa on May 2, 1957; they had two children, Gordon and Deirdre. The years 1967 to 1968 seem to have been a transitional period in Kogawa’s life, since her first book of poems (The Splintered...

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