Finding one’s identity can be a strenuous task, seemingly impossible at times in a world where many people live dependently on others. Joy Kogawa, a proud Japanese Canadian and the author of the award winning novel Obasan and its bestselling sequel Emily Kato (formerly Itsuka), is no stranger to the constant search for identity and individuality that so many people across the globe find themselves struggling to obtain. The reader witnesses her constant strain to develop confidence and to find the courage to voice her opinions to others throughout her two semi-autobiographical novels.
Using writing as a gateway to her memories, Kogawa paints vivid illustrations of the ruthless prejudices she was forced to face in the past simply because of her heritage through Naomi Nakane, the main character in both Obasan and Emily Kato. Due to the massive extent of discrimination shown towards the Nisei people during and following World War Two as well as personal abuse, Naomi allows friends and family to rule over her life. Although her family provides Naomi with an essential sense of security, she unfailingly clings to their support and walks in the quiet shadow of their decisions, preventing necessary personality growth.
It is not until change forces its way into her life and she joins the redress committee in their ongoing fight for Japanese Canadian rights that Naomi begins to develop the character traits she envied in others for so long. Kogawa’s personality directly reflects upon that of Naomi’s, specifically through her pursuit of validation, her devotion to family, and her constant desire for justice. Joy Kogawa is an award winning author whose first novel quickly became required reading in many Canadian schools, but unlike many writers she is not confident in her works.
During a presentation at the University of British Colombia, Kogawa reveals that her illustrated short story, Naomi’s Road, was not originally published as it can be found today. Unsure of what was required for the story while writing, Kogawa felt uncomfortable with the result. She decided to revisit the story and completely rewrite it, only to later question whether the original version had been better after all. Her uncertainty, she says, “[…] is one of the reasons it got rewritten, […] because I’m a person of too much doubt. (An Evening with Acclaimed Canadian Authors).
Unless she is informed of expectations or praised, Kogawa feels insecure about her work. Naomi’s Road is not the only situation in which Kogawa has made adjustments she also rewrote her novel Itsuka, which is now titled Emily Kato. Joy Kogawa strives for validation from her readers and when expectations are not achieved, she opts to make revisions rather than utilize the criticism in future works. Similarly to how Kogawa desires the support of her readers, Naomi longs for her aunt and uncle’s approval.
After their mother is trapped in Japan and their father is separated into a different internment camp where he dies of illness, Naomi and her older brother Stephen are adopted by their uncle and aunt Obasan. While lying in her death bed, Obasan asks if Stephen would be coming home for Christmas, completely ignoring Naomi. This leads her to believe that “It was Stephen who was entrusted with hopes and dreams and it was he in the end who was needed more than me. ” (Kogawa, 104). Due to feeling insignificant compared to her brother for the majority of her life, Naomi gives up all ambition and decides to live a quiet life.
She becomes a teacher at the local school in Cecil, Alberta mere minutes away from her Uncle and Obasan, and avoids social events. After Obasan’s death, her aunt Emily, convinces Naomi to move in with her in Toronto. This is Naomi’s first step towards independence. With Emily’s intrusively determined personality as a guide, Naomi is forced into new situations and begins to develop her own sense of individuality. Even though she starts gaining confidence, Naomi, much like Joy Kogawa, continues to require reassurance from her peers.
Both Joy Kogawa and Naomi also have deep connections to family. Kogawa spent the first few years of her life in a well-respected community with her father, mother and brother, but when World War Two began they were evicted. Kogawa’s mother had been visiting relatives in Japan at the time and although she was initially unable to return to Canada due to Canadian war polices, it was later revealed to Kogawa that she had been killed in the bombing at Nagasaki (Alward, Emily). This greatly affected Kogawa, and was a major inspiration when writing her novels and in developing Naomi’s personality.
With the same family related events, Naomi is essentially the fictional representation of Kogawa. In real life, Kogawa does not often speak of her mother’s death, but expresses the periods of depression and emotional crisis’ she faced through Naomi in Obasan and Emily Kato. Once evicted, Kogawa and her brother were separated from their father and adopted by their uncle and aunt in the same fashion as Naomi and Stephen. In Emily Kato, Naomi is very faithful to Obasan. With her uncle already deceased and unable to take care of Obasan, Naomi takes the responsibility upon herself.
When Obasan’s health diminishes Naomi attempts to contact her brother, asking for him to come home to see Obasan one last time, but he refuses stating that he is busy. In her final attempt to convince him to return home she screams “You don’t understand! You just don’t understand! ” (Kogawa, 104). To Naomi family is as sacred as religion, and she cannot fathom that Stephen could consider something to be more important than visiting Obasan in her deathbed. In this sense, Kogawa and Naomi are both extremely dedicated to their families.
Other than being an exceptional author, Joy Kogawa is also incredibly well known for her work to educate Canadians on the subject of Japanese Canadians and her participation in the fight for government redress (About Joy). At the 2013 International Human Rights Day Student Symposium, Kogawa gave a speech on human rights in the Asia-Pacific war. During her presentation, she made the statement “There are certainly all kinds of differences. […] Differences of culture, differences of values, all kinds of differences.
But we all have hearts. We all feel. Kogawa has been on the negative side of discrimination and is acutely aware of the damage it can cause. She is a strong believer of justice, and has assisted many groups in their search for equality over the years, her first cause being the governmental redress program following the Second World War. Kogawa is not only a supporter of anti-discrimination, but also an active member of campaigns against sexual abuse. Although she focuses on the matter of child molestation in a different novel, the horrific theme is evident throughout Emily Kato as well.
Not only was Naomi molested by her white neighbor as a child, but one of her friends, Anna, was also repeatedly abused. On the night of Anna’s baptism, the priest lured her into a dark room where he told her that “Little slave girls had to please their owners. ” (Kogawa, 58). She could not comprehend as he “held her up, pushing her into the wall, […] telling her she was a little Jap girl, a little Jap girl, a good slave child. ” (Kogawa, 58). For years the scarring pain of rape hung over Anna. She was stripped of her childhood nightmares and panic attacks that grew worse with every ‘friendly visit’ from the priest.
It is evident that Joy Kogawa feels deeply about all forms of injustice, and strives to use her gift of writing to raise awareness of the misdeeds being committed within our society today. In conclusion, Joy Kogawa writes with emotion and infuses her writing with pieces of herself. She understands the search for identity and lack of confidence that is an increasingly large issue in the world today, and uses her novels to portray the message that it is never too late to become an independent individual.
Kogawa also demonstrates the importance of a loving, supportive family throughout Emily Kato as well as in her own life. Finally, she uses personal experience to stress the influences of discrimination and abuse within the community. Joy Kogawa is a modest and experienced author whose strong beliefs can easily be seen reflected into her writing, particularly her desire for validation, her appreciation of family, and her longing for justice.