Author Joy Kogawa on Healing Old Ghosts

As part of my ongoing series about “laying the children’s ghosts to rest,” I thought readers would find this article interesting. Author Joy Kogawa is known to millions for her novel Obasan, which deals partly with the story of Japanese internment during World War II. Now she has found a way to help lay those ‘ghosts’ to rest. 

Author Joy Kogawa—helping to close the circle of historic abuses. Courtesy Canadian Poetry Online

Sometimes history truly does come full circle, with the help of people committed to laying the ghosts of the past to rest. Author Joy Kogawa knows this as well as anyone—she has taken an active part in healing the rupture that historic abuses have created between people. This summer she was in the Slocan Valley for the dedication of signage commemorating Japanese internment.  Kogawa spoke to an audience in Kaslo’s Langham Theatre on June 17, 2012.

“You are your history,” she wrote in Obasan. “If you cut any of it off you’re an amputee. Don’t deny the past. Remember everything.” (italics mine)

Kogawa was present at the unveiling of signage at Lemon Creek and the Popoff farm. Ian Fraser, volunteer curator for the Langham’s Japanese-Canadian Internment Museum since its inception in 1992, and owner of 1896 Books and Silver, helped organize Kogawa’s visit with the Slocan Valley Heritage Trail Society. Kaslo received 80 of the more than 500 Japanese-Canadians interned in the Slocan Valley during the Second World War.

Obasan was the first Canadian novel to deal openly with the issue of Japanese-Canadian internment during WWII.

Kogawa was only six years old when her family was interned, so she remembers more of the children’s play than the swirl of emotions felt by older Japanese-Canadians. Racism ran high in the community, stoked by prominent Kaslo businessman and provincial MLA Howard Green, who was instrumental in getting internment legislation passed in BC. Yet as Fraser noted at the Langham event this June, Kaslo had been in a period of economic decline prior to the war and benefited greatly from the labour of Japanese-Canadians. Many run-down buildings were repaired and with most of the male population in the armed forces, the internees filled the labour gap they left behind.

Camps such as this one at New Denver, BC were set up throughout the West Kootenay. Courtesy Discover

Among the guests at the Langham that Sunday in June was Barbara McBride, granddaughter of Howard Green. When a Vancouver building was to be named for Green the BC Japanese-Canadian community protested and got the decision reversed. McBride said she knew nothing of her grandfather’s racist attitude until she heard of the controversy and began researching her family history. Through her research she met Joy Kogawa and learned more about the internment. It motivated Barbara and her sister Donna to be part of closing this circle of history. Barbara was present for the unveiling of the internment signage in the Slocan with her mother Cathy Green. Kogawa spoke there of the burden carried by the Japanese-Canadian community being designated as ‘enemies’ of Canada when they so loved this country. McBride and her mother were present for the ceremonies as a way to finally ‘lay old ghosts to rest.’


Japanese-Canadian girls working at Greer’s Cash-and-Carry store, New Denver, BC, 1944. Courtesy Cole Harris, from ‘Mist & Green Leaves: Japanese-Canadians on Harris Ranch,’ Slocan History Series booklet #4, Chameleon Fire Editions.

Reading the newspapers of the pre-WWII period, it’s not hard to see how widespread this racism was. By the 1930s the prejudice was well established in BC, with a tradition dating to the 1880s. The ‘yellow peril’ rhetoric had been thoroughly stoked by the media of the day. Even pioneering journalists like Nelson’s John ‘Truth’ Houston used the term freely in his editorials in The Tribune. Partly this was due to the growing union movement, which saw Orientals as potential competition for white labour. During the early 1900s riots broke out at the sawmill in Salmo, BC when Japanese workers were brought in during a strike. Meanwhile Chinese labour had been critical to the completion of the CPR’s trans-Canada railway line, although they were paid as little as half what white workers earned. BC pioneer communities also relied heavily on the laundry, gardening and cooking services provided by the Chinese. Nelson in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had a Chinatown to rival that of many larger Canadian cities. Yet fear of the so-called ‘yellow peril’ had led BC authorities to pass a Chinese ‘head tax’ legislation in 1885 to slow down immigration.

“We’ve had a wonderful journey, Barb and I,” said Kogawa. “It feels like a journey home to me. Here were these two courageous young women, wanting to understand the problem and wanting to know the truth.” Part of that truth was not just acknowledgement of Green’s role in the internment, but of honouring his genuine contribution to Canadian society. “This man was not the devil, not an evil person, this was a good human being who had served his country well. Some of it was very painful for Barb and Donna but we kept at it.”

Japanese elders at the dedication of the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre as a National Historic Site, July 2010 New Denver. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Japanese elders at the dedication of the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre as a National Historic Site, July 2010 New Denver. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

In her presentation at The Langham, Kogawa explained the genesis of her best-selling novel Obasan, which began as a short story. While doing research at the national archives on an unrelated story, she was given a folder of letters written by Muriel Kitagawa during the WWII internment. Her own memories of the internment were mostly obscured in the haze of early childhood, but she soon realized there was a story there. Muriel’s letters spoke eloquently of the politics of the war period and the bitterness she felt. Muriel became Aunt Emily in the novel, the “Bachelor of Advanced Activists and General Practitioner of Just Causes,” pushing for the full story of internment to become known. She is one of two aunts (‘obasan’) in the novel, the other being Aya, who prefers to let the past slip into silence. This tension between disclosure and silence is rooted in reality: when the redress movement began in the 1980s, even many within the Japanese-Canadian community were against it.


Elderly Japanese-Canadian men on the Harris ranch during internment, New Denver, 1944. Courtesy Cole Harris, ‘Mist & Green Leaves: Japanese Canadians on Harris Ranch,’ Slocan History Series booklet #4, Chameleon Fire Editions.

Kogawa through all this has learned to walk the talk. Though she has every reason to blame Green as one of the key players in the internment injustice, she has learned the wisdom of forgiveness. “Jesus had said, ‘you must love your enemies,’ and that was a commandment,” Kogawa said. “Once we identify somebody as the enemy, we cannot see anything good in them. In the same way you can’t see the bad things the people you love do; you stand by them. We don’t know that our enemy is our best friend. That’s been my journey.” Essential in Kogawa’s spiritual journey therefore, has been to appreciate the positive things Green accomplished. “He was so loved by his constituents he was re-elected over and over again, an amazing feat. And his stand on abolishing nuclear weapons was magnificent; we could use him today.”

Kogawa is just articulating what the great sages of history have said in wisdom literature and religious texts. Not an easy task, since few of us are the Buddha or even a Mohandas K. Gandhi. But, as the old proverb says, where’s there’s no wood the fire goes out. Vengeance only perpetuates violence, sometimes for generations. “If we destroy our Mr. Hydes, then we risk losing our wonderful Dr. Jekylls too. Somehow we need to be able to declare what’s true about them and not just utterly destroy what’s good. Somehow we need to get to where we see a whole human being and not just one thing.”

For Studies in Canadian Literature commentary on Obasan:

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
This entry was posted in Activism, History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Author Joy Kogawa on Healing Old Ghosts

  1. daniela elza says:

    I am glad I stumbled on this. Thanks Art.

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