Joy Kogawa, on reconciling with Japan’s past

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Joy Kogawa


Acclaimed Japanese-Canadian poet and novelist Joy Kogawa explains why she has chosen to write about the “painful and complicated” story of World War II atrocities in Asia, perpetrated by the Japanese Imperial Army, in her memoir, Gently to Nagasaki. She fears the book, Gently to Nagasaki, may not be published.


I met Joy Kogawa in the Map Room of Hart House, in the University of Toronto, seated in an oversized red couch and reading a copy of an Alice Walker book. (I rue that I did not pay closer attention or enquire after the title of the book.) She wore a trench coat, which she did not take off throughout the conversation, and was more soft-spoken than I had imagined. We moved to the landing between the second and first floors, where there was enough seating for the three of us, including a photographer colleague, and where the autumn sun, soaked in rain, slated in. As soon as she was seated, she turned and asked, “Could I not talk about the Writer-in-Residence?”

This meeting had been two months in the making. I first contacted her mid-July, hoping to talk to her about her experience of being the Jack McClleland Writer-in-Residence. At the time of my initial contact, she had been travelling and had been in Vancouver. She did not comment one way or another on the particulars of my request, which detailed that I wished to talk to her about her residency at U of T as one of its Writers-in-Residence as well as her upcoming memoir. Unsure about the exact time- window of her return to Toronto, she merely replied to my request for an interview by suggesting, “Sometime in late September perhaps.” The course of our brief burst of correspondence and my attempt at co-ordinating the interview went along with more or less the same brevity of responses from her, ambiguous time-lines proffered in one-word replies. I thought the exchanges a bit curt then, and wondered whether this was the same eloquence that bespoke delicate tenderness of ache in the now-canonical work, Obasan.

But the question, as so often happens, was stripped of its mystery when we started the conversation.

“Essentially, I believe I failed the students. So [I was thinking that] I am going to come to this [interview] and talk about myself as a failure,” she opined. “Because I was in my mind. I was writing [the memoir]. I was not present. I did not critique.”

Joy seemed discomfited by the act of recalling, but she continued. It seemed that the whole of her energy and headspace was devoted to this problem of writing her memoir, and the historical-political blanket of thorns that heavily sits on much of contemporary East-Asian politics, especially between China, Korea, and Japan. Over the next hour, as she discussed her latest book, her year-long position as a teacher, and her philosophy on writing, this theme of ambivalence and reluctance would return again and again.

Kogawa: As a public person, I’ve been called to speak about Palestinian issues and about the Middle East. But that [issue] does not need me. I have an ancestry that is not sufficiently covered. And that’s why I’m excited about your initiative. I would love to be able to see any kind of voice that comes out from this, from your and my ancestry, that tells zillions of stories that have been insufficiently told. We know the story of the Holocaust—everybody knows that. It’s a very important story. But it’s not the only story. We need more of what you are doing. So that these stories that very few people know or hear about, or that very few people have in their hearts, can be birthed.

I’ve been working on a book called Gently to Nagasaki, and in the journey of [writing] that book, I have fallen into the story of the Rape of Nanking via Iris Chang and Marjorie Chan, who wrote A Nanking Winter. I fell into this nightmare and I got trapped there. The story of World War II atrocities in Asia, perpetrated by the Japanese Imperial Army, are beyond beyond. There’s just so much that is insufficiently known, and there’s the need for reconciliation and the need to heard, to be told—to be grieved over, most of all…This is so important.

I cannot imagine asking people who have suffered that much to forgive. But because I think forgiveness is divine, I don’t think we could will ourselves to forgive. But I think forgiveness can happen. And it can happen when one really knows the other’s reality, whatever that reality might be, and when others know one’s own reality. And that’s what I am trying to do with this book, which may or may not make it.

Q: You are uncertain about its publication?

A:  I’ve been waiting to hear about it. I am 78 years old, and after a certain point, you give up. I am not giving up on life. I’m not giving up on doing what I think I am supposed to be doing—to work with a dream of reconciliation. The book begins in Obasan; the story has a bookend at the beginning and it’s August 9, and at the end you find that Mother was at Nagasaki. That’s the mystery that goes through the book. I never knew where that came from, never understood where Nagasaki came from. It was not something that I had in my first draft. But then as I started to write this book—it’s a memoir, more or less a memoir—I came to understand what Nagasaki meant for me. It’s because of the way, that particular day, the way that bomb fell on the part of Nagasaki called Urakami, two blocks away from Urakami Cathedral, which was the preeminent spot of Christianity in East Asia. So I see it as an event where the Christian West bombed their best friend in Asia, where [Asian Christians] had come to live after centuries of persecution.

There’s this commandment, “Love thy enemy,” which we cannot do. But that commandment has been changed. It was a proscription, but it’s been altered by that event into a description: “You do love your enemies; you just do not know it.” You go out there and you think you have to bomb them, fight them, and oppose them. But then you discover they are not your enemies after all—they are your child, your best friend—somebody that you love, but you just don’t know.

What we are facing on this planet—the global warming, climate change, this catastrophe that is coming—and we are stuck in our animosities and our greed, and we can’t do what we are here for. What I want to be is part of un-sticking. I want us to work together to understand that “enemy is the best friend.” I want to see people, descendants of the perpetrators, take back…it’s just like the German students who heard about the Holocaust; then they grieved. The country grieved. And Japan has not yet grieved. It needs to grieve if it wants to become whole—in order for there to be peace in Asia, if they want to work together on climate change, which we do.

Q: On the matter of reconciliation, the Japanese government has refused to engage with its historical atrocities while Canada has formally apologized for the Japanese internment and the Chinese head tax. I wonder if you see reconciliation as a top-down project or a bottom-up project that is started by individuals?

A: I think Canada is a multicultural country, and it’s got a unique opportunity to showcase what can be done from within that context. The Japanese-Canadian redress was a long process. It was over 40 years before the community was able to get its voice, and the constant need to educate the government and the succession of ministers who came into power was a long process. Communities got split over it. Yet I think there [were] some people in the community who were politicized and were able to use that political energy. But for most of these kinds of movements, I don’t see a large group of people rising up together; it would be wonderful if we could believe that could happen, but I think that people follow their leaders. The leaders can be government leaders, or they can be grassroot leaders that they trust. But sometimes they can really go off the rails. There can be huge amounts of misinformation, and in the type of the world we live in now, in this democratic sharing of stories, there are a lot of instant reactions. Without the rigour of crosschecking facts, not exaggerating things or distorting truth, the danger can spread like wildfire, and can become like a cult, or like religion, that dismisses facts…Being able to trust that the truth is being told is a big issue.

The voices that are manipulative, that know how to scare you and get you to feel but not think, are dangerous. We still need to trust the academies and trust the worldwide rules and scientific journals, but I think we are still struggling with how to mobilize people in a way that is truthful and is trustworthy. There is a lot of lying happening on both sides, top and bottom…I think the challenge is for every single one of us. It starts with being true to ourselves, with what we believe in

Q: Could you share your experience as Writer-in Residence?

A: You know, before I came here, I was thinking that my experience as Writer-in-Residence was a failure. That I did not succeed, because I was in my mind. I was writing that book. I was not present. I did not critique. And I said I just couldn’t do that. Because I am not a critic. My mind is inclined to look for the good stuff, and so I am not trying to look for what’s wrong, which you need to if you are a critic. So, I didn’t offer things that could help them.

Essentially, I believe I failed the students. So [I was thinking that] I am going to come to this meeting and talk about myself as a failure. Well, that’s true. But I didn’t want to [talk about it]. But I think failure is important to have, to admit it, and to learn from it. I think walking on veneer, pretending everything is all okay, is very dangerous. The veneer collapses. It doesn’t carry the weight.

Q:  The 1.5 or 2.0 generation migrants may be raised in a household that is apathetic toward their direction to the “homeland”; they may feel that assimilation is the only way to succeed in this new land. But if these second-generation Japanese are confronted with not only the trauma of Japanese internment but also the trauma of Imperial Japan, what happens then?

A: There are two things. One is not dealing with [the history of Imperial Japan] because if you deal with it, you are called a Japan-basher. So you become complicit, or go along with things that you do not think are right. That’s a safety thing, wanting to be safe and be silent,  [to say that] “it’s got nothing to do with me.”

But then there is where you go “because we were victimized…because we were considered the enemy….” So you want to have nothing to do with the enemy [and instead say,] “I’m Canadian. I’m not Japanese.” I know some people who are adamant that they will have nothing to do with Japan, those older than I am who say they will visit every country in the world but never Japan, because they have to deny that identification. It’s a real problem.

There’s ALPHA (Association for Learning and Preserving the History of World War II in Asia), an organization that is mainly Chinese and is really dedicated to having these stories known. They are not going to have many people of Japanese ancestry gladly moving in and being part of that. So, since I’m the only one there is, essentially, I get to be the person who says, “I’m a person of Japanese ancestry, and I do think the stories need to be told.” It’s painful and complicated. I am a victim of Japan as much as of Canada. So I am doubly victimized by that, but I am not going to lie down like a victim and say that’s all I am. I am more than a victim.

The moment the Canadian government acknowledged—the moment that act happened—I could no longer play the role of the victim. I could no longer carry that label and say it is a true label. I was officially a restored Canadian. So from that perspective, identity of the victim is so easy to hold onto because those lines of purity, the sense that you’ve been wronged, is easy to cling to. But when you let that identity go and assume the much more difficult identity of being associated with the victimizer— when you do that, the responsibility is to speak to the victimizer as a victimizer. To be part of that, and within that act, there is a possibility of healing and restoration.

The world is changing so much, and the Asian face is rising. And it is the transition that is already happening so much. Being in the role of the lesser human being, I think, is very temporary. I think we are living in it still, but the change is already so dramatic. I mean, Asian kids are being accused of getting all the scholarships. There’s already a kind of backlash on that, but it’s also the fear. It’s interesting.

Q: In writing a memoir, have you found a significant difference between writing a fictionalized “I” and the memoir “I”?

A: Fiction is so much easier. You can hide. You don’t have to keep to facts. You can invent. It’s easier to get the scene and the emotion. As I was writing [the memoir], one of the persons I was writing about, who had initially said okay, wanted to be taken out of the book. But by then she was so integral to the book. So I had to really disguise her and fictionalize her. This family had to be disguised in order to be protected, and that makes it okay, but once I’d decided on a memoir I was so sorry. Because it was so hard.

Q: Was there a particular reason that you decided to put “Joy Kogawa” in the centre?

A: I had this title, Gently to Nagasaki, and I didn’t know what it was. I tried to make it a part of the trilogy, to make it a sequel. I tried to make it something else. It all felt quite hokey in many variations of the design. I was doing this for years. And it was so painful to feel so ambivalent all the time. So one day, I decided I was going to start something and I was not going to change. That’s when I decided it would be a memoir, after all. I was so sorry for its having to be a memoir.

It was such a mess. I don’t know whether it’s going to make it. I am waiting to hear. Maybe it would be good if it doesn’t [get published]. Because there is so much pain. I don’t know.

Q: Was the feeling of writing Obasan—which also deals with pain, remembrance, and reconciliation— much different from the latest work?

A:  I wrote the short story first for Obasan and then stretched it out. But then again, I’d been writing poetry for years before that. So in a way, I was just writing poetry. There was no structure in my mind; I was just writing. I didn’t know if it was going to be published or not, but when it did, it was so unreal.

And the thing I am writing now is very different. If this goes, this may very well be my last thing. If I am essentially a writer, and if that’s what I am here for, I will keep doing it for the rest of my days. But if this book does not go, then I think that’s it. I would do other things.

Q: Is it more difficult to speak or write as Joy Kogawa than it is to write as a creative impetus?

Kogawa: Everything is so hard. (laughter) I have this stone that I carry around, and it says “trust.” What I do is, essentially, trust. Whenever I speak, I say, “I will do that as long as I don’t have to prepare anything.” I trust and it will come out…I will trust and I will trust all the time. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I trust. It works.

Q: Is there something that you want to be remembered for?

A: These words, now I know, that I will always want to know: “To trust, and to trust always.” If I am going to be offering anything, it’s going to be that. It’s worth it to trust always. You are trusting something far deeper than you can imagine. It’s undergirded by what is trustworthy. It’s love. It’s truth. It enters the human condition, and in between all of us. It’s there in the plants, in the insects, and in the buildings. You are walking on it. You can trust that. I want to know that, to realize that, to hold that, to die with that, and to have it go on. Nothing can kill that.

Editor’s note:  Joy Kogawa received the Order of Canada, Canada’s highest civilian honour, in 1986. In 2006, she also received the Order of British Columbia, a civilian honour of merit in the province of British Columbia. Four years later, in 2010, the Japanese government awarded her the Order of the Rising Sun, “for her contribution to the understanding and preservation of Japanese Canadian history.” 

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  • […] A person of Japanese ancestry, Kogawa explains why she has chosen to write about the “painful and complicated” story of World War II atrocities in Asia perpetrated by the Japanese Imperial Army.  […]

  • […] A person of Japanese ancestry, Kogawa explains why she has chosen to write about the “painful and complicated” story of World War II atrocities in Asia perpetrated by the Japanese Imperial Army.  […]

  • December 19, 2013

    tree grates

    Nice read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch as I found it for him smile Therefore let me rephrase that: Thank you for lunch!