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Saturday, May 13, 2006

Repairing Broken History: Japanese Canadian author Joy Kogawa's childhood home in Vancouver saved


What this country did to us, it did to itself.

But the earth still stirs with dormant blooms. Love flows through the roots of the trees by our graves.

– Joy Kogawa, Obasan, 1981
The real-life drama to save the Joy Kogawa House in Vancouver reached its climax at on April 28, 2006, with The Land Conservancy of British Columbia deciding to take a mortgage to buy the house after not yet raising the necessary funds for purchase and restoration.

The Land Conservancy (TLC) is preserving the house as a memorial of the Canadian treatment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Kogawa, the daughter of an Anglican priest, was six-years-old when she and her family, including her brother, Timothy, now also a priest, were forced from their home during the relocation and incarceration of Japanese Canadians. TLC also wants to offer the house to writers-in-residence who have survived human rights abuses.

Joy Kogawa responded to the news:
What the house means to me — these days it's a sense of miracle that surrounds me.

The fact of The Land Conservancy coming along and taking this on, the fact that it just happened to be that Naomi's Road was made into an opera at this time, that Vancouver Public Library chose Obasan as the One Book for Vancouver – these were miracles enough, without it all happening at this particular time…

When we look at the uncaring in our planet, here is evidence that relationships can be rehabilitated, the formerly despised can be embraced. The dream that writers who are presently among the despised of the world, can come and write their stories here, fills me with even more hope.

Racism is a present tragedy in the world, as it has been in the past. Here is one small way that we can say in Canada, that racism can be overcome.
Joy Kogawa is the internationally renowned second-generation Japanese Canadian author of a series of novels that provide insight into the experience of Japanese Canadians during and after World War II. Her first novel, Obasan, an allegorical narrative about the Japanese Canadian experience, centers upon a young girl, Naomi, who survives sexual assault by a white neighbor, loses her mother, is forced to leave her home during the relocation, and is separated from her father when he is sent to a forced labor camp.

Cared for by her aunt, Obasan, and her uncle, who both stoically suffer in silence, and also by her Aunt Emily, who speaks out fearlessly and engages in political activism, Naomi survives and begins a journey of healing, informed by both her aunts’ responses to trauma. She transforms from a child stricken by emotional repression of suffering into an adult who struggles to face painful memories before being reborn as an advocate for truth and justice. To arrive at this place of psychological empowerment required Naomi to face harsh realizations, including the discovery that her mother, who traveled to Japan prior to the relocation, had died in the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki.

Kogawa's second novel, Emily Kato, reflects upon how seeking justice as a political activist facilitates personal as well as collective healing, in a recounting of the Japanese Canadian quest for justice through an apology and reparations.

These narratives parallel the real life of Joy Kogawa, who emerged from her interrupted childhood and her troubled young adulthood onto the world stage as a prophetic literary and public moral voice.

Obasan, published in 1981, was the first by a Japanese Canadian to explore the wartime relocation experience.

Both Canadians and Americans have adopted it as the classic literary representation of the North American relocation and incarceration experience, requiring it for both university and high school reading. Translated into Japanese, it is a poignant narrative of their North American diasporan Nikkei experience. Kogawa adapted the story for Naomi’s Road, a children’s version. Last year, the Vancouver Opera created an operatic interpretation.

Kogawa’s rich synthesis of Buddhist and Christian imagery brings to mind the Japanese Christian novelist Shusako Endo’s greatest work, Deep River. Both authors treat the theme of divine abandonment. They both draw on water symbolism as a means of communion: Japanese family bathing in Obasan to losing one’s ego-centered self in the Ganges in Deep River. Both fuse parallel Buddhist and Christian motifs into an all-embracing vision of humanity's suffering and search for meaning, community, and love.

The motherless heroine, Naomi, presents a poignant and challenging counterpoint to the world’s best-known Canadian literary figure, Anne of Green Gables, another orphan, who is beloved in Japan.

TLC's initial campaign to save the Joy Kogawa house targeted individual donors to raise the purchase amount In April, a final drive to save the house received attention in Canada and in Japanese American circles, including the Nichi Bei Times, the oldest Japanese American newspaper. When donations were insufficient, TLC launched a last-minute appeal to the Canadian government which did not respond with an immediate promise of assistance so it was uncertain whether the house would be saved or not.

The Canadian government has not supported memorialization of Canada's forced removal, detainment and deportation of Japanese Canadians to the extent that the U.S. government has for Japanese Americans. People living in democratic nations tend to take their civil liberties for granted and assume that human rights is a problem “out there,” and are often oblivious to the historical human rights skeletons and spectres of contemporary civil rights abuses rattling loudly in their own backyards.

Slocan City, an abandoned ghost town in the interior of British Columbia, where the Canadian government deported Joy and her family, all Canadian citizens. Little remains of Slocan (and other Japanese Canadian prison camps) today. After the war, Ottawa did not preserve Slocan as a memorial park. (Image: Kogawa Homestead)

While at least the contours of the wartime forced removal and detainment of 120,000 Japanese Americans are well known (although the worst details remain obscured – high school and university textbooks make the incarceration seem more like a summer camp experience), few outside of Canada know that Japanese Canadians, most of them naturalized or Canadian-born citizens, were also removed from their homes and incarcerated. The reason that the Canadian government gave for the wartime forced relocation of 22,000 Japanese Canadians on the Pacific Coast was “national defense.”

In photographs of the Nakayama family—Reverend Nakayama, wearing an Anglican priest's collar; Mrs. Nakayama, smiling; and two small children, Tim and Joy—this family look like top candidates for the least-likely in Canada to aid wartime Japan’s anti-Christian militarist government that had created its own state ultra-nationalist religion.

The reason commonly given for what happened to Nikkei in North America was “wartime hysteria,” bringing to mind images of widespread panic. This was not the case. Instead, a small group of virulently racist British Columbia politicians, long looking for an excuse to expel Japanese immigrants from the west coast, seized their chance when war broke out, cynically and shrilly proclaiming a threat of Japanese invasion. Senior Canadian military officers and civil servants countered: arguing against the forced removal, on the grounds that Japanese Canadians did not pose a threat. However, racist politics won out against reason.

What happened to Japanese Canadians in Canada happened in stages—starting with curfews, interrogations, the closure of Japanese language newspapers before the relocation began. The Canadian government first targeted male non-citizens, followed by male citizens, and finally women and children (who did not know what had happened to their disappeared sons, husbands, and fathers).

As Kogawa recounts in Obasan:
None of us escaped the naming. We were defined and identified by the way we were seen. A newspaper in B.C. headlined, "they are a stench in the nostrils of the people of Canada." We were therefore relegated to the cesspools.
“Excremental assault,” a practice also used in Nazi death camps, was indeed what happened to the women and children. They were sent to Hastings Park Manning Pool, a maggoty livestock pen smelling of urine and manure that the Canadian government converted into a holding pen for human beings. Open troughs became toilets. Cattle stalls became living quarters. Some of the later “internment” housing included former chicken coops. Forcing innocent women and children into animal pens could only have had one motive: degradation, humiliation, and demoralization.

Men were separated from their wives and children “to prevent further propagation of the species,” and sent to road camps to as forced laborers to work on roads and railroads.

These practices were so inhumane and abusive that they can only be construed as intentional psychological and physical violations, motivated by racism. This was a state-perpetrated hate crime with long anti-Asian roots.

The Canadian government also confiscated Japanese Canadian property, selling it at rock-bottom prices. Joy Kogawa’s brother, Reverend Timothy Nakayama describes the selling of their father’s church:
It must have been decided that our removal from along the Western Coastal 100-mile zone would be permanent, because while we were in "camp", all our property was sold by the government's "Custodian of Enemy Alien Property".

The Anglican Church, Diocese of New Westminster, must have come to the same conclusion, because the new Church of the Ascension, kindergarten building and property were sold to a pharmaceutical firm. All the buildings including the new Church were razed, to be no more. A place for the cure of souls became the location of a medicine factory.
The Canadian government's final plan, at the end of the war, was to deport all Japanese Canadians, including Canadian-born and naturalized citizens (most who could not speak Japanese) to defeated, bombed and starving Japan.

However, public support for Japanese Canadians had been building in the East throughout the wartime period. A few political leaders, joined by Christian organizations, created even more momentum by publicizing the atrocious treatment of detainees. To the credit of ordinary Canadians, widespread protests erupted against Ottawa's calls for wholesale deportation of citizens of Japanese heritage succeeded.

However, West Coast residents were not allowed to return home until four years after the war ended, in 1949. The Canadian government wanted to impede Japanese Canadian community and political empowerment. Removal and detainment; loss of property and income; and forced dispersals throughout Canada did succeed in destroying the original West Coast Japanese Canadian communities. Most Japanese Canadians now live in eastern Canada.

Japanese Canadians (and others) were told that racism was their fault because they failed to "assimilate" into the Anglo-Canadian culture. Only if they totally assimilated (whatever that meant), would they be given equal opportunity in Canadian society.

Celebrated in literary circles, Obasan won numerous awards. The power of the “freeing words” of this book was in large part responsible for the move towards reparations in Canada. Parts of Obasan were read aloud in the Canadian House of Commons when the 1988 restitution to Japanese Canadian survivors was announced, after Prime Minister Mulroney formally apologized.

In a 2002 interview, Kogawa explained how some Japanese Canadians abandoned their ethnic heritage because of their “camp” experience while others became more activist, joining with Native Canadians:
Japanese-Canadians who went through the political process of attempting to publicize their story and gain redress would have developed political wings, a new form of consciousness.

After the redress movement, many joined in alliance with native peoples and created an identification and moved on in a kind of solidarity. There are others who continued to move away from their origins, to dissociate themselves from everything poor and downtrodden in an attempt to become as rich as possible.These are psychological realities common to many immigrants. When the mainstream identifies any group as less than desirable, then you have that gap, and have to overcome that gap one way or another.
What happened to Japanese Canadians might be forgotten and dismissed as a wartime anomaly of otherwise democratic Canadian history, instead of a chapter consistent with Canada's struturally racist history. However the telling of this history by Joy Kogawa, Roy Miki, and other Japanese Canadian poets, writers, visual artists, performing artists, political activists, scholars, and ordinary people keeps this history alive and relevant. Japanese Canadians have joined with indigenous Canadians to address injustice:the National Association of Japanese Canadians dedicated a portion of the 1988 redress to establish the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, identifying the situation of Aboriginal Peoples a high priority, because Japanese-Canadians also understand the links between racism and loss of land in the Canadian context.

The Canadian government officially adopted a multicultural policy in 1971. However, unacknowledged racist history and contemporary issues remain a part of the Canadian landscape. Doudou Diene, the U.N. inspector who last year criticized Japan, did the same with Canada in 2003, recommending government reparations to Chinese Canadians and to African Canadian former residents of a Nova Scotia community, Africville. Diene’s report also called for a national commission to fight ongoing discrimination.

Prodded by the grassroots and outside criticism, the Canadian government is making efforts to conform to its multicultural persona. In April of this year, the government has responded to Chinese Canadian call for redress; immigrants were made to pay an excessive tax simply because of their heritage.

As Kogawa tells us in Obasan, "Don't deny the past. Remember everything.... Denial is gangrene.”

We are living in a time in world history when people are speaking out about the interrelated broken history we've all inherited demanding attention. This past is not “out there,” but inside of us, in our lives now, and a legacy that we pass down to our children. Joy Kogawa's novels are luminous examples of the genre of broken history, a genre that makes up much of contemporary world literature.

Last year, Vancouver Public Library selected Obasan as the book all people in Vancouver should read.

Todd Wong describes a reading:
When asked what was happening with the Kogawa homestead in Vancouver's Marpole neighborhood, Joy replied: "When we rediscovered it was still there, Tim and I tried to buy it but we didn't have enough money, so I let the idea go. When Roy Miki organized the reading at the house, it was very special. I was very excited to see the cherry tree again."

Then Joy held up a little plastic bag and said "Seeds from the cherry tree," as she smiled broadly.

Todd Wong says, “The Kogawa House at 1450 West 64th Avenue has become symbol of hope, and has also become a pilgrimage site for many readers of Obasan and Naomi's Road - not only for elementary, highschool, college and university students, but for people from around the world. It has been compared to Anne of Green Gables House in Prince Edward Island, and Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.
Joy Kogawa, forced from her home by her own government at age 6, has come "home."




(For further reading, Ann Gomer Sunahara charts this history in The Politics of Racism published online. Stephanie Bangarth's Voices Raised in Protest explores how some Canadians resisted the removal, detainment and deportation of their fellow citizens of Japanese heritage. More photos of Slocan City at Vanishing B.C., a website chronicling vanishing historical sites.)

Originally posted at the Kyoto Journal website

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