Skip to main content
Select Source:

Kogawa, Joy Nozomi

Joy Nozomi Kogawa

Writer and activist Joy Nozomi Kogawa (born 1935) has combined personal, historic, and political endeavors in critically acclaimed literary works to shed light on the injustices suffered by Japanese Canadians during World War II. Her versatility as a poet, novelist, children's author, and speaker has resulted in an unusually broad audience for her challenging and humanitarian subject matter.

Early Life

Joy Nozomi Kogawa was born Joy Nakayama on June 6, 1935, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Her parents, both issei—first–generation, born in Japan—immigrated to Canada's west coast before Joy was born. Her mother Lois Yao Nakayama worked as a kindergarten teacher, while her father Gordon Goichi Nakayama made his living as a minister. Kogawa was raised as a nisei—second–generation child of Japanese immigrants—and began her childhood in a predominantly white, middle–class community.

The harsh reality of World War II flooded Canadian and American coastal societies alike with government–enacted racism. All Canadian citizens of Japanese descent living on the coast were suspected of being allied with Japan—potential spies for the enemy. Kogawa, age six at the time, and her family were "evacuated" to the interior of the province to Slocan—described in Cynthia Wong's 2000 Asian American Novelists biography as "a ghost town in the old silver-mining region of eastern British Columbia." They were put to work in the beet fields with the other families under the Canadian government's "dispersal policy." Regardless of the terms used to describe the exodus—evacuation, relocation, dispersal—Kogawa often clarifies that they were essentially imprisoned in internment camps, their property liquidated and sold, despite the fact that not a single Japanese Canadian was ever found to be a traitor.


Kogawa's primary and secondary education was gleaned from the poorly–funded and poorly–staffed schools run by the various detention centers she and her family inhabited. She began school in Slocan, continued in Saskatoon, then settled in Coaldale, Alberta. She attended the University of Alberta in 1954, studying theology and music as well as writing and literature. In 1956, she took courses at the Anglican Women's Training College and the Conservatory of Music. She married David Kogawa on May 2, 1957 and they had two children together, a son named Gordon and a daughter named Deidre. She attended the University of Saskatchewan in 1968, then worked as a school teacher until approximately 1974.

Life as a Writer

Her first position as a writer was composing correspondence for the Office of the Prime Minister in Ottawa, Ontario from 1974 to 1976. When she completed her stint there, she began to work as a freelance writer—the occupation she still lists today. Her literary career began with her first poetry collection The Splintered Moon, published in 1968 and followed by A Choice of Dreams (1974), Jericho Road (1977), and Six Poems (1978). She successfully contributed pieces to many literary publications, from anthologies to poetry reviews, including Canadian Forum, West Coast Review, Quarry, and the Chicago Review. She served a term as Writer in Residence at the University of Ottawa in 1977, and became a member of the Canadian League of Poets, the Writer's Union of Canada, and the Order of Canada in 1986.

Kogawa then decided to try her hand at fiction. Her novel Obasan, Japanese for aunt, was first published in the early 1980's when Japanse Canadians began demanding reparation for their forced internment from the Canadian government. Kogawa's novel featured female protagonist Naomi Nakane who is sent to a detention camp with her family at the same age that Kogawa herself was "evacuated." Kogawa has stated in interviews that Obasan is intensely autobiographical, a story about breaking an imposed silence in order to induce healing. She followed the success of this novel with a sequel titled Itsuka, Japanese for someday, written 11 years later, and published in 1992. Itsuka follows the characters introduced in Obasan as they seek to chronicle the fight for governmental recompense.

The 1980's were a rewarding decade for Kogawa. In 1985, she published another collection of poetry titled Woman in the Woods, and Obasan received a windfall of awards, acclaim, and attention. Its success prompted Kogawa to adapt the story for a younger audience, in the hope of influencing the way future generations would learn about this dark period in Canadian history. The adaptation, titled Naomi's Road, was quickly translated into Japanese in 1988 (Naomi no Michi) and released in Tokyo as well as in Canada. This Japanese issue is still used as a school textbook in Japan, and considered to be relevant and accurate despite its fictional framework. Kogawa also addressed the injustice Japanese Canadians faced during that time in a series of essays and interviews that identified her as an activist fighting for the redress of people like herself.

In 1995, she released the novel The Rain Ascends, an emotionally intense story about a woman who discovers that her father, a minister, had sexually abused young boys in the past. The character, Millicent Shelby, faces the impossible decision of how to confront her father, and whether or not to notify the public of his transgressions. While Kogawa has suggested that the rich characterization was based largely on the memories she has of her own father being a minister, she has not made any statements to the effect that the story is autobiographical in the way her previous work has been.

Critical Reception

Touted as a superbly gifted writer, Kogawa is most famous for Obasan and Itsuka,, despite her recognized prowess as a poet. The two novels about the experiences faced by Japanese Canadians during World War II belong to a genre defined in Asian American Novelists by Linda Hutcheon as "historiographic metafiction" that "inscribes and then subverts its mimetic engagement with the world. It does not reject [mimesis] . . . but it does irrevocably change any simple notions of realism or reference, by confronting the discourse of art with the discourse of history." Another popular term for Kogawa's unique brand of fiction is "expressive realism." Obasan was the first novel to deal with the distasteful truths of internment, and its adaptation—Naomi's Road—was the first book for young readers to do the same. The word "obasan" can also mean woman in Japanese, and many feminist critics have lauded the powerful, feminist undercurrent that informs the novel's treatment of culture and racism.

In Obasan—an exploration of the critical moment when silence must be broken in order to liberate the spirit—Kogawa effortlessly combines fiction and documentary to define truth, yet manages to avoid didacticism while she's carefully criticizing oppressive systems. Asian American Novelists' Cynthia Wong praises Kogawa for trying to address the injustices left out of "official" histories through a "skeletal story conveyed with all the cadence and intonation of poetry; the powerful evocation of imposed silence . . . rendered with aching beauty in [her] prose."

Despite the fact that she is better known for her novels—which deal with the recurring themes of family honor, and endurance in the face of grave circumstances—Kogawa is also a celebrated poet. Contemporary Women Poets critic Pagnoulle remarked on the way Kogawa's poetry "elicits a sense of wondering surprise at unexpected combinations of words or at clinching assonances that suggest emotions without spelling them out." Although the material Kogawa deals with tends to fall on the darker side of the spectrum of human emotions, she is not without mirth. Pagnoulle points out that "even confronted by the most blatant injustices, [Kogawa] usually remains detached enough to instill humor in her indictment."

Much of Kogawa's poetry plays on rich veins of biblical allusions and the whispers of nursery rhymes. The reader also encounters a strong empathy for the animal world, and a deft wielding of lyricism—many of her poems presented as songs—that infuse her work with multiple layers of texture and meaning. Despite her Japanese heritage, critics agree that her work does not maintain an identifiably Asian tone or construction. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature's Peter Stevens explains that her poetry relies on an "epigrammatic tightness . . . [that expresses] a moment's experience without comment; yet they do not, like haiku, summarize the transitory quality of the experience through a tight focus on one image, but rather state the experience directly in pared-down phrasing." Instead, she blends a traditionally Asian appreciation for silence with a distinctly Western awareness of words. Kogawa has said that the practice of poetry was, for her, "the sweeping out of debris between the conscious and the unconscious." Critics often focus their analysis of her work on the way she lets silence speak the horror of the experiences, walking the fine line between personal and social elements.

Word Warrior

In her novel Itsuka, the protagonist has grown into middle age and is searching for some closure. Kogawa, divorced in 1978, has lived and worked as a freelance writer in Toronto and Vancouver since 1979. Her rare gift for balancing the horrific with a sense of hope, and her willingness to speak her mind and heart has placed her at the forefront of the movement to obtain reparation for Japanese Canadians who were imprisoned during World War II. Her novels and essays have brought the injustices to light with both candor and courage. She has become a voice for Canada's multicultural and largely immigrant communities, attending to what Pagnoulle describes as "the impossible task of assessing responsibilities."

Pagnoulle also points out that "Kogawa does not simplify the questions for her readers; rather, she leaves them to ponder the multifaceted dimensions of the way human beings are interrelated in their destinies . . . who becomes responsible for the weakest and most vulnerable members of society when the strongest and morally righteous have failed them? . . . [and] what reparation is available to those so deeply wronged?" Until that day of reckoning arrives, and justice is served, Kogawa will continue to use her mastery of language to focus on what Feminist Writers' Gurleen Grewal calls the "arduous work of healing."


The Asian American Almanac, Gale Research Inc., 1995.

Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia—Fourth Edition, Harper Collins Publishers, 1996.

The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature, Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd., 1992.
The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Ousby, Ian, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Cheung, King–Kok, "Attentive Silence: Obasan, Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa, Cornell University Press, 1993.

Contemporary Authors—New Revision Series, Vol. 62, Gale Research, 1998.

Contemporary Novelists—Sixth Edition, Jenkins, Ron, St, James Press, 1996.

Contemporary Women Poets, Pagnoulle, Christine, St. James Press, 1998.

Day, Frances Ann, Multicultural Voices in Contemporary Literature, Heinemann, 1999.
The Feminist Companion to Literature in English, Yale University Press, 1990.

The International Authors and Writers Who's Who—Thirteenth Edition, Melrose Press Ltd., 1993.

International Who's Who in Poetry—Fifth Edition 1977–1978, Melrose Press Ltd., 1977.

Literature Lover's Companion, Prentice Hall Press, 2001.

The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature—Second Edition, Stevens, Peter, Oxford University Press, 1997.

The Oxford Companion to Twentieth–Century Literature in English, Oxford University Press, 1996.

Wong, Cynthia F., Asian American Novelists, Greenwood Press, 2000.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Kogawa, Joy Nozomi." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 19 Nov. 2017 <>.

"Kogawa, Joy Nozomi." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (November 19, 2017).

"Kogawa, Joy Nozomi." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved November 19, 2017 from

Kogawa, Joy


Nationality: Canadian. Born: Toronto, 6 June 1935. Family: Has one son and one daughter. Awards: Books in Canada First Novel award, 1981, Canadian Authors Association Book of the Year award, 1981, Before Columbus Foundation's American Book award, 1982, and American Library Association Notable Book award, 1982, all for Obasan; Ryerson Polytechnical Institute fellowship, 1991; Urban Alliance Race Relations award, 1994; Grace MacInnis Visiting Scholar award, 1995. D.L.: University of Lethbridge, 1991; Simon Fraser University, 1993. D. Litt: University of Guelph, 1992. Member: Officer, Order of Canada, 1986. Address: 447 Montrose Ave., Toronto, Ontario M6G 3H2, Canada; and 845 Semlin Dr., Vancouver, British Columbia V5l 4J6, Canada.



Obasan. Toronto, Dennys, 1981; New York, Anchor, 1994.

Itsuka. New York, Viking, 1992; revised edition, New York, Penguin, 1993.

The Rain Ascends. Toronto, Knopf Canada, 1995.


The Splintered Moon. St. John, University of New Brunswick, 1967.

A Choice of Dreams. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1974.

Jericho Road. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1977.

Woman in the Woods. Oakville, Ontario, Mosiac Press, 1985.


Naomi's Road (for children). Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1986.


Critical Studies:

Articulate Silences: Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joy Kogawa by King-Kok Chueng, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1993.

* * *

Joy Kogawa, after several collections of poetry, published her first novel, Obasan, in 1981. It and its sequel, Itsuka, written eleven years later, show Kogawa's poetic origins, as they are extremely lyrically written books. Obasan is the story of the internment of Japanese Canadians and Canadians of Japanese descent during World War II. In so doing, it is one of few fictional accounts of the North American treatment of ethnic Japanese during this period, others being Carlos Bulosan's America is in the Heart of 1943, John Okada's No-No Boy, written in 1957, Jean Wakatsuki Houston and Jones Houston's Farewell to Manzanar of 1974, and Maxine Hong Kingston's 1980 novel, China Men.

Obasan ("aunt") is a unique and successful blending of the literary, the historical, and the autobiographical. Kogawa's novel is the account of two families' experiences told primarily from the point of view of Naomi Nakane, a schoolteacher in Alberta in 1972. The occasion of her uncle's death brings her brother (Stephen), her widowed aunt (Aya Obasan), and another aunt (Emily) together for the first time in years and precipitates a series of recollections and revelations about the war that begin when Naomi was about six (and Kogawa herself about seven). The war leads to the dissolution of Naomi's parents' families, the Nakanes and the Katos, and the seizure of their property. Naomi, her brother, father, aunt, and uncle are shunted progressively further east as the internment proceeds through and after the war, ending in Canada in 1949.

Obasan 's narrative is essentially retrospective, a backward movement into Naomi's childhood seeded by a packet of materials given to her by her Aunt Emily. They lead to a series of memories of childhood as seen through the consciousness of the young Naomi, and shaped by the literary consciousness of Kogawa, who delineates a texture of symbols that become the personal metaphoric language of this book. Thus, a loaf of "stone bread" baked by her uncle just before his death becomes a symbol of a Eucharistic sort as it is eaten by his grieving relatives. It also serves as a symbol of the Japanese exile to the prairies as it is connected to the manna of Moses' people in Egypt in Obasan 's epigraph. Kogawa develops a rich texture of personal and biblical symbolism throughout to reinforce her themes.

The novel moves into the present gradually, and the past and present are linked in the import of some documentary materials which have been kept from Naomi and Stephen until their adulthood. Naomi, who has grown up with a mixture of puzzlement and misplaced guilt about the failure of her mother to return from Japan, is eventually initiated into the horrors of her death in the atomic bombing at Nagasaki through a letter from the distant past.

This news breaks the silence of the past in Obasan, and begins the process of final healing. Aunt Emily, a fully Canadianized "word warrior" who crusades for publicity or compensation in the Japanese cause, and Aya Obasan, Naomi's ancient aunt who still has only rudimentary English after spending most of her life in Canada, seem diametrically opposed in their cultural adaptations. Secretiveness about the fate of Naomi and Stephen's mother is perhaps the only thing they have in common. Yet this novel does not attempt to dichotomize attitudes to silence into "good" or "bad," and itself negotiates the fine line between telling the past and giving the present room to grow. Obasan explores language, euphemism, and silence; traces the ties of the self to family and place; and initiates the process of healing.

Itsuka ("someday") resumes Naomi's story in Toronto in 1983, and traces her involvement in the Japanese-Canadian fight for redress for the internment, as Joy Kogawa was herself involved. The novel, like Obasan, is simultaneously mixed-up in both the personal and the political, but in Itsuka the sharp line that Naomi has tried to maintain between the two in her life becomes blurred. Itsuka also shows Naomi's personal development in her tentative romance with Cedric, a priest involved in her political world.

In Itsuka, Kogawa tells a story well worth telling, but perhaps not so successfully fictionalized. At many points the narrative verges on the didactic, and the psychology of Naomi remains static and somewhat tangential to the politics of the tale she narrates.

Ron Jenkins

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Kogawa, Joy." Contemporary Novelists. . 19 Nov. 2017 <>.

"Kogawa, Joy." Contemporary Novelists. . (November 19, 2017).

"Kogawa, Joy." Contemporary Novelists. . Retrieved November 19, 2017 from