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Joy Kogawa

by DG Graham | May 16, 2000

My parents, like two needles, knit the families carefully into one blanket. Every event was a warm water wash, drawing us all closer till the fibre of our lives became an impenetrable mesh ... If we were knit into a blanket once, it’s become badly moth-eaten with time. We are now no more than a few tangled skeins – the remains of what might have been a fisherman’s net. The memories that are left seem barely real. Grey shapes in the water. Fish swimming through the gaps in the net. Passing shadows.

— Joy Kogawa, Obasan, Penguin Books | 1983

Obasan is the story of a Japanese-Canadian family during the second world war, and is based on Joy Kogawa’s own experience with her family in British Columbia and Alberta. It was published in 1983, and although 40 years had passed, it was the first book to tell the story – through fiction – of what Japanese Canadians went through during the war and after. Until Kogawa published Obasan, few Canadians knew anything about it. Kogawa herself tried not to think about it for most of her life; she tried to do what the Canadian government said the Japanese were incapable of: assimilating into white Canadian culture.

A little historical background. In 1942, following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, suspicion of the Japanese was very high in North America. So, in order to allay fears that some or any of the Japanese living in Canada might be “spies” or “secret agents,” the Canadian government used the War Measures Act to strip 20,000 people of their property and forcibly move them to internment camps where they were confined until after the war had ended. As if this wasn’t bad enough, after the war, the government refused to return the property they had confiscated and sold.

Imagine: you work for years, save money, buy a house, put some nice things in it – lamps, pictures, china – and then, suddenly, it’s all taken away overnight, never to be seen again. It would be hard enough to understand if you had just arrived from a different country and hadn’t been here very long and didn’t have your citizenship yet, but what if you were a nisei (second-generation) Japanese and had actually been born here? The question on your mind might be: what gives here?

Kogawa has devoted a great deal of energy in her life to trying to educate Canada about what happened during the war and after, and also to helping other Japanese Canadians seek redress from the Canadian government. She says while politics informs her writing, she’s also concerned about it narrowing her focus: “I’ve become so political, and in many ways very one-dimensional, that I’m afraid of destroying the poetry, the richness, of realities other than political realities. There are thousands of realities, but the political reality is so overwhelming in the world, I get drawn to it now.”

Kogawa has thought a lot about reality and what it means. She thinks that we “are on a never-ending search for what constitutes some basic feeling of reality” and that there is an immense power in the universe, both for good and evil. (Yes: very much like The Dark Side and The Force. There is a lot of Buddhism in Star Wars.) These forces can both inspire and destroy: it is up to each person to choose which power to embrace. Nationalities, societies and special interest groups can also tap into this power.

Kogawa believes that women’s groups have amazing potential to accomplish great things, but that the exclusivity of some can hinder their effectiveness. As an example, she says that when she tried to enlist the help of the National Action Coalition on the Status of Women (NAC) to support the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC), NAC refused because they felt that NAJC was “a male-dominated organization.” Kogawa doesn’t understand that sort of reasoning; in an interview in 1993, she said that she felt that women should “identify with oppression, period, not just with women.”

Joy Kogawa was born Joy Nakayama in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1935. She and her family were moved to an internment camp in Slocan, British Columbia in 1942, and all of their property was taken away. She studied education at the University of Alberta, then music at the University of Toronto. She taught for a while, then began writing for the Prime Minister’s Office in the 1970s. She married in 1957, had two children, then divorced in 1968.

Her experience in the camp at Slocan affected her deeply, but her reaction for the first part of her adult life was to deny her Japanese-ness by not having Japanese friends, not speaking the language and by trying to blend into white Canada. Then, she came across the material of Muriel Kitagawa in the Public Archives, and it was this outspoken woman’s work that jolted Kogawa into facing the reality of what happened to her and other Japanese Canadians. Also, she says, the pen has a power and direction of its own, and it seemed to want to write about that time.

For Obasan, Joy won:

  • the Books in Canada First Novel Award
  • the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award
  • the Canadian Authors Association Book of the Year Award
  • in December 2005, it was listed as one of the 100 most important Canadian books ever written by the Literary Review of Canada.

It was Joy’s first novel, and it was published when she was 46 years old. Until then, she had written poetry – three volumes of it. Her very first writings in the early 1960s were short stories, but she says that poetry was much more accepted then than short stories and, so, she switched genres.

Kogawa says that politics isn’t altogether natural for her, and that the negative mud-slinging aspects have been uncomfortable for her. But she supports the redress issue, she says, because she believes in it. She writes, on the other hand, because it frees her:

Language to me is a tool – a very clumsy tool. And words are garden tools with which to till the soil of one’s life ... I think it’s possible to be so lost in labour (and for writers, that labour is with words) that time-consciousness fades, which maybe feels like being free.

The goal of eventually becoming free is, I think, one for which everyone, consciously or unconsciously, is aiming.

resources for this story

books and poetry by JOY KOGAWA

  • Obasan, Lester and Orpen Dennys, Toronto | 1981
    Penguin Books | 1983
  • Itsuka, Penguin Books, Toronto | 1992
  • A Choice of Dreams, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto | 1974
  • Jericho Road, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto | 1977
  • “From the Bottom of the Well, from the Distant Star,” in Telling It: Women and Language Across Cultures, Telling It Book Collective, Press Gang, Toronto | 1990

books and articles about Joy Kogawa

  • Writing Against the Silence: Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, by ARNOLD DAVIDSON, ECW Press, Toronto | 1993
  • Speaking For Myself: Canadian Writers in Interview, by ANDREW GARROD, Breakwater Books Ltd, St. John’s, Newfoundland | 1986
  • Language and Longing in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, by A. LYNNE MAGNUSSON, Canadian Literature 116, pgs. 58–66 | 1988
  • Interview in Other Solitudes: Canadian Multicultural Fictions, by MAGDELENE REDEKOP, Linda Hutcheon and Marion Richmond, eds., Oxford University Press, Toronto | 1990
  • Politics into Art: Kogawa’s Obasan and the Rhetoric of Fiction, by MARILYN RUSSEL ROSE, Mosaic21, numbers 2–3, pgs. 215–26 | 1988
  • Sounding Differences: Conversations with Seventeen Canadian Woman Writers, by JANICE WILLIAMSON, University of Toronto Press, Toronto | 1993


  • The Pool: Reflections of the Japanese Canadian Internment, Falcon Films/International Telefilm, video call number 57723 | 1992
  • Vision TV has a National Treasure feature on Joy Kogawa

books about the Japanese in Canada

  • The Enemy that Never Was: A History of Japanese Canadians, by KEN ADACHI, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto | 1976
  • Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame, by BARRY BROADFOOT, Doubleday Books, Toronto | 1977
  • Issei: Stories of Japanese Canadian Pioneers, by GORDON C. NAKAYAMA, Britannia Printers Ltd., Toronto | 1983
  • The Aquisitors, by PETER C. NEWMAN, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto | 1981
  • Stone Voices: Wartime Writings of Japanese Canadian Issei, by KEIBO OIWA, ed., Vehicule Press, Montreal | 1991
  • The Exodus of the Japanese, by JANICE PATTON, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973
  • The Forgotten History of the Japanese Canadians: volume 1, by YUKO SHIBATA et al., New Sun Books, Vancouver (excellent and exhaustive bibliography) | 1977
  • The Politics of Racism: The Uprooting of Japanese Canadians During the Second World War, by ANN GOMER SUNAHARA, J. Lorimer, Toronto | 1981
  • A Child in Prison Camp, by SHIZUYE TAKASHIMA, Toronto: Tundra Books. 1971
  • The Japanese Canadians, by C.H. YOUNG, H.R. REID and W.A. CARRUTHERS, University of Toronto Press, Toronto | 1939

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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