Joy Kogawa was born Joy Nozomi Nakayama on June 6, 1935, in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her mother, Lois Nakayama, was a musician, and her father, Gordon Nakayama, was an Anglican minister. During World War II, the Canadian government confiscated the Kogawa family’s home, as it did the homes of thousands of Japanese Canadians. Ordered inland, Kogawa’s family moved to an internment camp in Slocan, B.C. There Kogawa attended elementary school. After the war ended, the government forced Kogawa’s family to move to Coaldale, Alberta. Like many Japanese Canadians, they found work as field laborers on a sugar beet farm. After finishing high school in Coaldale, Kogawa attended the University of Alberta, where she studied education. She taught elementary school for a year and then returned to school for graduate studies, attending the University of Toronto, the Anglican Women’s Training College, and the University of Saskatchewan. In 1957, she married David Kogawa, with whom she has two children. Kogawa and her husband divorced in 1968.

Kogawa’s fiction is deeply influenced by the Japanese Canadian World War II experience. On December 7, 1941, Canada declared war on Japan. The following day, the Canadian government confiscated all Japanese Canadian fishing boats, stating Japanese Canadians might otherwise use them to escape. Because the Japanese Canadians’ economy depended on fishing, the loss of their boats came as a severe blow. Many non-Japanese Canadians believed their fellow citizens of Japanese origin were working as spies for the Japanese government. The Canadian government forced Japanese Canadians to move to labor camps or independent farms. In February 1942, the Canadian government moved 22,000 Japanese Canadians from the East Coast of Canada—from where, it was believed, they might be sending sensitive information across the Pacific Ocean to Japan—to detention camps farther inland. It was the largest human movement in Canadian history. Families were forced to separate: Men worked at road camps or on beet farms, while women and children moved to towns in British Columbia. The government seized and sold off the displaced families’ land, houses, and possessions.

Even after the end of World War II, Japanese Canadians continued to suffer at the hands of non-Japanese Canadians. They were prevented from returning to their homes and forced by the government to continue working in camps or on farms. It wasn’t until four years after the end of the war that the government finally freed its Japanese Canadian citizens. One judge suggested giving Japanese Canadians reparations in the amount of 1.2 million dollars, or $52 per person. The property of Japanese Canadian property was seized under the War Measures Act. It was not repealed until 1987, when the Emergencies Act passed to prevent the violation of civil liberties in the case of future conflicts.

Obasan (1981), Kogawa’s best-known work, tells the story of one Japanese Canadian family living through World War II. Although a work of fiction, Kogawa describes events based on her own life and the novel aims to present an historically accurate picture of the Japanese Canadian wartime experience. During the war, many Japanese Canadians endured brutal mistreatment in silence, rather than voicing their anger or standing up for their rights. In Obasan, Kogawa conveys the devastating effects of silence. Simply by writing the novel, she registers her refusal to keep quiet about the cruelty of racism. The novel won several awards, including the Book of the Year Award from the Canadian Authors Association, and the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. The Literary Review of Canada listed it among the most important books in Canadian literary history.

Kogawa went on to recast the Obasan story as two children’s books: the Japanese-language Ushinawareta (1983) and the English-language Naomi’s Road (1986), adapted into an opera by the Vancouver Opera, and eventually translated into Japanese and published as Naomi No Michi (1988). Kogawa continues Naomi’s story, the main character in Obasan, in her novel Itsuka (1992), which examines Japanese Canadian efforts to win redress from the government. Itsuka was republished as Emily Kato in 2005. Kogawa’s other works include the novel The Rain Ascends (1995) and the poetry collections The Splintered Moon (1967), A Choice of Dreams (1974), Jericho Road (1977), Woman in the Woods (1985), A Garden of Anchors: Selected Poems (2003), A Song of Lilith (2000).

Kogawa participated in the Redress Movement, a demand for compensation that culminated in 1988, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signed a Redress Agreement that allocated $21,000 to each surviving Japanese Canadian interned during World War II. The Agreement also reinstated Canadian citizenship for every Japanese Canadian deported to Japan during the war years. In 1986, Kogawa was made a Member of the Order of Canada. In 2006, she was made a Member of the Order of British Columbia.