Obasan | Study Guide

Joy Kogawa

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Joy Kogawa | Biography


A Disrupted Childhood

Joy (Nakayama) Kogawa was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, on June 6, 1935. Her parents were Lois Yao Nakayama, a kindergarten teacher, and Gordon Goichi Nakayama, an Anglican minister. Both were Issei, or first-generation Japanese Canadians.

For years the family lived comfortably in a primarily white, middle-class neighborhood. But growing racism toward Japanese Canadians fueled by suspicion of espionage after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (1941) during World War II, shattered their lives. In 1942, when Kogawa was six years old, orders-in-council (Canadian laws) were put in place that required 21,000 Japanese Canadians to leave a "protected area" along the coast. The laws also empowered the government to confiscate the refugees' property and put them into internment camps. Kogawa's family was forced to move to Slocan, an internment camp set up in a deserted silver-mining town in the interior of British Columbia. The shock of being uprooted from her home and her family's experiences in Slocan would later become the basis of her best-known novel, Obasan.

After the war the Nakayamas were still displaced. Not only had they lost their home, but they and other Japanese Canadians were not allowed to return to Vancouver or other cities potentially vulnerable to foreign attack along the coast. Instead the Nakayamas moved to Coaldale, Alberta, an interior location. Kogawa completed high school there, and afterward she studied education at the University of Alberta and taught for a year. She then studied music at the University of Toronto and eventually moved back to Vancouver in 1956. In 1957 she met and married David Kogawa. They had two children but divorced in 1968.

A Writer Emerges

As an adult, Kogawa's past haunted her. In the mid-1960s she had a crisis of faith and purpose. She began to find understanding through poetry, and her work soon appeared in a number of magazines. Her first book of poems, The Splintered Moon, was published in 1968, and was followed by three more collections. In them, Kogawa explored such themes as the complexities of trust, her Japanese identity, and human relationships.

After a lukewarm reception for her second collection of poetry, Kogawa decided to try her hand at fiction. Her decision came at a fortuitous time. In the early 1980s Japanese Canadians were beginning to fight for reparation from the Canadian government for what had been done to them during the war. Their wartime experiences were given a voice when Kogawa wrote Obasan, a fictionalized account of the losses and suffering endured by her community. The book has since become a Canadian classic. Kogawa continued the story in her 1992 book Itsuka, which was later revised and published under the title Emily Kato in 2005.

Obasan was an immediate critical and popular success. It won the Books in Canada First Novel award in 1982, and it was named the Canadian Authors Association's Book of the Year. It played a key role in educating the government and the public about the injustices suffered by Japanese Canadians during World War II. After the book's publication, Kogawa continued to work in the redress movement, which attempts to obtain reparation and compensation for Japanese Canadians who lost their homes and years of their lives.


Kogawa's contributions to Canadian literature and culture have been noted and honored. In 1986 she became a member of the Order of Canada, the second-highest award of merit in Canada. In 2006 she was made a member of the Order of British Columbia, a civilian honor for merit awarded by the government that was portrayed so negatively in Obasan. In 2008 she was given the George Woodcock lifetime achievement award, which honored her outstanding literary career. Her honors have not been restricted to Canada, however. In 2010 the Japanese government honored Kogawa with the Order of the Rising Sun, for "her contribution to the understanding and preservation of Japanese Canadian history."

Perhaps the most symbolic of the honors Joy Kogawa has received was that her family's original Vancouver home, taken from them during the war, was saved from demolition in 2006 by the Land Conservancy of British Columbia. This was a clear testament to the importance of Kogawa's work to the history and culture of British Columbia and to the experiences of its Japanese Canadian citizens.

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