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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 727

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 has published books of poetry, essays, children’s literature and novels. Her books of poetry include The Splintered Moon (1967), A Choice of Dreams (1974), Jericho Road (1977), and A Song of Lilith (2000), a book-length poem that is a collaborative work on the mythical figure of Lilith, Adam’s “first wife.”

She is best known for her three novels. Obasan (1981) tells the strongly autobiographical story of the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II. Its narrator, Naomi Nakane, relates her life as a child in Vancouver to a middle-aged woman on the prairie of Alberta as she cares for her aged aunt, Obasan.

Itsuka (1991), the sequel to Obasan, follows Naomi’s life after the death of her beloved aunt Obasan and the influence of her activist aunt Emily, her mother’s sister, and Father Cedric, an Anglican priest she falls in love with. All three work within the larger Japanese community to fight for redress from the Canadian government for the internment and confiscation of property.

The Rain Ascends (1995) stands by itself. Millicent Shelby, a privileged Canadian of British descent, is the daughter of an Anglican priest who she learns is a pedophile. She keeps her love for her father but slays the fictions of their lives that conspire to shield his crimes. She learns the truth, which allows mercy to heal her father and herself.

On December 5, 1998, Kogawa founded a movement called the Toronto Dollar in order to help the poor people of Toronto. She used her own money to start a community currency among businesses in and around the St. Lawrence Market area of downtown Toronto. Eventually numbering more than two hundred, these stores, restaurants, churches, and other businesses accept Toronto Dollars. Ten cents of each dollar go to a Toronto Dollar Community Projects fund to create work as well as community and homeless projects through for people who have low income...

(This entire section contains 727 words.)

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or are unemployed or homeless.

Kogawa says that the spiritual values that create her passion for this project came from writing The Rain Ascends, which she sees as a search for the presence of mercy. She believes that a person experiences the presence of mercy only in the presence of abundance. The opposite of the spirit of abundance is the spirit of scarcity. Kogawa believes that in the modern world there is not enough money for the real things of life, and the cry of hunger has to be addressed. The novel started her thinking about the growing gap between rich and poor. She saw money being channeled away from local needs, such as schools, hospitals, and homeless shelters, to pay down the national debt and wanted a way to give communities a voice and some measure of control.