Addicted to novelty since 2001

Should Joy Kogawa’s Childhood Home Be Saved?

As I
a while back, there’s a movement afoot to save Joy Kogawa’s childhood home. Kogawa, in case you don’t know, is a prominent Canadian novelist. Her book Obasan is a memoir of her internment in BC during
World War II. It’s a small, lovely book and pretty much required reading for every Canadian student.

Her childhood home–a south Vancouver bungalow at–is threatened with demolition. “Friends, academics, fellow members of the CanLit community and the Land Conservancy of BC” want to save the house and turn it into a writer’s retreat. The cost: CAN $1.25 million dollars.

Here’s the case for preserving the house: [more]

  1. It is a historical and literary landmark – Joy is one of Canada’s most influential and honoured authors. Vancouver has only two literary landmarks and both are in Stanley Park – Robbie Burns statue and Pauline Johnson memorial.
  2. The house will become a writing centre – There will be a writers-in-residence program working in conjunction with writing associations across Canada. Special consideration will be considered for “Writers of Conscience”, who write topic of human rights and racial/cultural harmony/issues.
  3. The history of the house itself provides a landmark to the Japanese Canadian internment – one of Canada’s darkest historical periods. There is no acknowledgement or memorial in Vancouver for this incident.

Let’s examine these points:

  1. Kogawa lived in the house for all of five years. Yes, it’s featured in Obasan,
    but what’s the minimum duration for this sort of thing? At least Emily Carr
    was born in Emily Carr House in Victoria. And I’m not sure an apparent shortage
    of literary landmarks is a resounding reason to add some.
  2. A writing retreat in Marpole? It’s not the first place I’d choose to pen
    a novel. I don’t know the house’s exact address, so I can’t say what sort
    of neighbourhood it’s in. I’d imagine that a lot of that $1.25 million is
    going for insane Vancouver property prices. That money would buy two or three
    writer’s retreats in, say, the Interior. Regardless, writer’s retreats are,
    in my experience, traditionally outside of major urban centres.
  3. The third point, that ‘There is no acknowledgement or memorial in Vancouver for this incident’ looks just plain wrong. What about the Momiji Gardens (and there are other
    elsewhere in the province)? Yes, the internment was a savage cruelty inflicted on 22,000 of our citizens. It took the government forty
    years, but in 1988 they formally apologized and spent $300 million to for redress and to compensate the internees, apparently to the satisfaction of Japanese-Canadian activists. A second memorial certainly can’t hurt, but let’s be clear on what’s already
    been done to address this issue.

I respect the folks trying to save Kogawa House. They’re well-intentioned, and certainly there are worse ways to spend $1.25 million. That said, and I suspect this is an unpopular opinion, I’m not sure I can get behind this cause. I’m unconvinced about the house’s significance, it’s a questionable, costly location, and there’s been no shortage of redress or recognition of Canada’s dark days of internment. I welcome disagreement on this, so please, have at me.

9 Responses to “Should Joy Kogawa’s Childhood Home Be Saved?”

  1. Andrea

    Where’s the movement to preserve David Suzuki’s childhood Marpole home? I think Suzuki’s Metamorphosis says that he went to school with Kogawa. Does the house still stand? Why not preserve that instead? It’s not the fault of the people who bought Kogawa’s house that Kogawa et al then turned around and started protesting what they wanted to do with private property.

    Better yet…the shore in Marpole is going to turn into condo housing for something like 10,000 people. Why not move the house to the waterfront park there? You could have a fishing boat, fishing info, and some other artefacts and maybe a picture of the old townsite and stuff like that. You could do up a proper memorial without running into the problems of being in the middle of a residential district. Given the age of the house, the actual structure can’t be worth much. WHy not spend $250k on moving it a few blocks and keep the other $1M for preservation/restoration and what-not. You could still have a writers’ retreat there.

  2. Todd Wong

    Thank you for commenting on the movement to save Kogawa House, and bringing up your view on how you see things.

    The Land Conservancy ( has chosen Kogawa House to become their first Vancouver site project. This speaks well to the historical significance of the house. Heritage Vancouver has also placed the house on their Top Ten list of endangered heritage sites of Vancouver. Vancouver Heritage Foundation was also an early supporter of the campaign.

    Some rebuttal thoughts…

    1 – Joy would have lived longer in the house at 1450 West 64th Ave, and possibly could have lived as long as Emily Carr at Emily Carr House… but she was forcibly evicted because of Anti-Asiatic sentiment that had permeated government and which was still enjoying a legacy of 62 years of legislated racism against Chinese immigration and reunification of families because of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

    The House at 1450 West 64th Avenue became a 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 PEI, and Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

    2 – Yes… Marpole prices have risen dramatically, since the house was put up for sale in 2003. But today, few Canadians know it was once home to a once-thriving Japanese Canadian Community that had one of Canada’s largest fishing fleets moored on the Fraser River, near the south end of Granville St… long before there was an Oak Street Bridge, or Arthur Lange Bridge.

    Kogawa House Committee did initially look at purchasing only the house and moving it to another site – but City Hall Heritage Department and Vancouver Heritage Foundation all recommended that the house stay at it’s original site (and the owner did not want to sell only the house). Moving a house and building a new foundation could cost itself at least $250,000…. and then where do we put the house? Next to Hastings Mill store at Jericho? or beside Vancouver Museum in Kits Point?

    A writers retreat in Marpole celebrates Vancouver’s cultural diversity, in a historical neighborhood with its Japanese Canadian heritage, plus Marpole is also home to the Scottish Cultural Centre and the Taiwanese Canadian Cultural Society. It is more quiet then downtown Vancouver, yet still offers easy access to Vancouver ethnic neighborhoods such as the Jewish Community Centre. This could be a perfect setting for a writer of conscience exploring racial, cultural and human rights issues.

    The Vancouver Parks Board is dedicating a new Marpole park on Selkirk Street to the memory of the Japanese Canadian internment. There had been some talk about the possibility of moving the house to the park – but again, all Heritage advisors including the City Heritage Department recommended saving the house in its original location.

    3 – Thank you for bringing Momiji Gardens to my attention. But it still doesn’t address what the community was like before the internment or where they lived. Kogawa House would demonstrate that Japanese Canadians were integrated in the Marpole community, and were full of hope and promise just like other Canadians. The challenge with internment historical sites such as New Denver, is that they are out of the way and not easily accessible. Yes, the Nikkei Heritage Centre is in Burnaby and was part of the National Redress settlement, and addresses some of these issues… but nothing can show the loss like a restored home that was confiscated, or became a symbol in the award winning books. The house could be moved to Burnaby… but then it would be Vancouver’s loss.

    Redress in 1988 (46 long years after the actions of internment) is acknowledged to have paid only 10% of the percieved monetary loss of property, and not the long emotional, psychological and community loss and effects. The actions by Vancouver City Hall to use an unprecendented motion to delay demolition for 120 days, as well as plant a cherry tree at City Hall, and declare Nov. 1st 2005, as “Obasan Cherry Tree Day,” speaks to our community consciousness to do more, and to ensure that the wilful destruction of a Canadian community does not happen again. (For reference please see Dr. Roy Miki’s book Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice).

    No amount of money can redress the wrongs, the money was symbolic and not all Japanese Canadians claimed it. Even David Suzuki in 1984 acknowledged that it would be “the political will” that would see redress happen, and look how hard it has been to wrangle a simple “apology” for Chinese head tax / Exclusion Act redress. But symbolic redress is important, and will go far to ensuring the wonderful acceptance of cultural diversity that we take for granted in Vancouver…

  3. Lois Hashimoto

    I am sorry that it is only after the house has been bought, thanks to two anonymous donations of $500,000 abd $100,000, that I have discovered this site, one that actually questions the merits of preserving the Nakayama House (let us be factual, this is not the Kogawa House, it is the former Nakayama residence). AS a former internee, 7 years older than Joy, and one who spent four years in Slocan just as Joy did , I feel that I and the thousands of surviving ex- internees should have a voice in making a decision about what house should be saved as a kind of memorial for the homes seized from 21,000 Japanese Canadians. WE HAVE NOT BEEN GIVEN A VOICE IN THIS DECISION.
    My opinion is that there is no need for a memorial such as this, and even if there was, Joy Kogawa’s childhook home should never be chosen.

    The greatest injustice, the one that caused Joy Kogawa’s famous ‘Silence that cannot speak’ is the pedophile abuse she suffered throughout her childhood while living in the house in Marpole. She devotes an entire chapter to this abuse in “Obasan”. There is much in the novel that makes an insightful reader question the emotional and psycholigical health of the writer. There are bizarre passages about beheaded chickens, and dreams about nude Asian women lying on the ground making “seductive” gestures at the soldiers guarding them who shoot them, severing legs above the ankle. She describes how at the age of 5, she is the one who searches out the pedophile and c”climbs unbidden onto his lap because it is “frightening and pleasurable. This is their secret, one that together, they keep from her mother.

    This is indeed a tragic child, and deserves our compassion, but she, nor the house where this took place is not in anyway representative of the Japanese Canadians who experienced a temporary injustice , but have enjoyed all the rights and freedoms of full Canadian citizenship for the past 57 years old. Todd Wong says money cannot redress the wrong we suffered. How little this publicity -seeking little man knows about truth and honor and forgiveness and love. What about the million Canadians who fought the Nazis and the Japanese riskin their lives and limbs, and the 40,000 who made the ultimate sacrifice?

    Read Obasan again, and see what a manipulative, pathetic book it really is. I feel victimized in a way that I never did, when I was interned.
    To think that a house where an innocent little girl suffered pedophile abuse while living there hould be honored as representing mine and that of 21,000 others.

  4. Todd Wong

    I am happy to share that In May 2006, the Land Conservancy of BC purchased Kogawa House outright to ensure that Vancouver has a literary landmark to share with all Canadians.

    As well, I can share that Joy Kogawa recently met Lois Hashimoto in Montreal at an event where Joy was the invited speaker. Joy treated Hashimoto with respect and kindness and even invited her to a reading group as a guest. Joy even told Hashimoto that she named the plant gift she received “Lois” in honour of both her and Joy’s mother, who was also named Lois.

    Joy Kogawa truly is indeed worthy of recieving the Order of Canada, Order of BC, and being named to the BC Alamanac’s Greatest British Columbians, as well her novel Obasan is named as one of Literary Review of Canada’s Greatest Canadian books, and Quill & Quire’s most important Canadian books.

    These are the reasons why historic Kogawa House was supported by national literary and historic organizations across Canada, including the National Association of Japanese Canadians, the Nikkei Heritage Museum, which definitely represent the interests of Japanese-Canadians across the country.

    Kogawa House was also supported by the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, The City of Vancouver, Federation of BC Writers, Writers Guild of Canada, and many other groups. The Land Conservancy of BC became the owner.

    All of Joy Kogawa’s novels are works of fiction, and have now been studied in Canadian universities and high schools as works of literature filled with metaphor, themes, and motifs including literary and creative license. It is not meant to be the exact experience of either Joy herself, nor for Hashimoto.

    Lois Hashimoto is free to write her own books of non-fiction and fiction, as well as literary critiques to join with the thousands that routinely praise Kogawa’s work, such as Obasan and Naomi’s road – which has been turned into both theatre play and opera. Vancouver Opera’s Naomi’s Road is currently performing at the National War Museum in Ottawa Nov 1-11.

    Thank you Lois for mentioning the the themes of truth, honour, forgiveness and love. Kogawa House will indeed explore these themes, as programs will embrace writers of conscience and human rights issues.

    I do understand how important 57 short years of Canadian citizenship can mean to somebody who was denied equality during internment. But it is also a citizenship that was denied for a previous 100+ years, also to Chinese Canadians who were denied the vote, and charged a head tax, and to First Nations People who were denied the vote in their own land of birth and had their potlatch and cultural traditions made illegal.

    Justice is finally being served. Prime Minister Harper made an apology for the racist Chinese Head Tax, and I personally witnessed the first symbolic “tax refunds” given to Charlie Quan and Thomas Soon last month. As a 5th generation Chinese Canadian of head tax payers, I give much of my time to issues of human rights and anti-racism.

    The future of Kogawa House will also be dedicated to human rights, anti-racism, and the fostering of Love and Forgiveness. Many non-Japanese-Canadians donated to Kogawa House to express their personal apologies for the internment and dispersal of the Japanese Canadian community, and to help raise awareness that this kind of racism must never happen again.

    Our September 17th inaugural open house event was filled joy, music, tears, good will and community sharing.

    We invite everybody to attend future events and open houses.

  5. Lois Hashimoto

    Having read Todd Wong’s defense of preserving Joy Kogawa’s childhood home as an important historical site, I have to question whether Mr. Wong has actually read “Obasan”, Mrs. Kogawa’s novel about the WWII Japanese Canadian internment.
    It is her authorship of Obasan that has won Mrs. Kogawa all the honors he mentions. Thus it is important that we examine this book.

    If he has read Obasan, he cannot possibly ignore the fact that the fictional author of this novel is a someone who has suffered pedophile abuse from earliest childhood.
    She is someone, who by the time she is five, has a terrible secret which she guiltily keeps from her mother. No child should be forced to keep such an unspeakable secret.One wonders what kind of mother is this who does not notice her only daughter’s unchildlike silence? Nomi’s hated enemy, Mrs. Sugimoto notices, but not her own mother. This child has two strikes against her before the internment. And who is old man Gower, the fictional next door neighbour/predator who turns up in Slocan, and then in Aberta? How can Mr. Wong possibly ignore the crime of robbing a child of her birthright to an innocent chilhood, and pontificate about a few year’s limited suspension of freedom of movement? Mrs. Kogawa never actually denied the vote, because by the time she was old enough, she had this right).

    I disagree with Mr. Wong that “Obasan” is piece of fictional work. It is more in the nature of a fictionalized memoir.

    Chapter 14, the longest chapter in the novel, is decidely not fiction. The letters written by the fictional Emily Kato to her fictional sister in Japan were actually written by real-life Nisei journalist Muriel Kitagawa to her real-life brother in Toronto. Since Mrs. Kitagawa died a few years before Joy Kogawa wrote Obasan, I don’t know how she would have felt about the use of her letters in this “fictionalized” manner. Mr. Wong can judge for himself by reading “This is My Own”, a collection of Muriel Kitagawa’s writings, easily available in bookstores.

    My arguments are based on research, and respect for truth. It is important to record the WWII injustice accurately, and in context of the millions of other WWII experiences.
    People like Mr. Wong spend far too much time on past injustices that no long exist. It is not apologies and redresses that ensure us our rights and freedoms. It was ensured by the soldiers who who risked their lives –over 40,000 never returned –in the same war. If Japan or Germany had won that war, would Mr. Wong have the same freedom to claim head tax?

    As Mr. Wong mentioned, I have met Mrs. Kogawa. WhatI feel as a result is a deep sadness and sorrow for the childhood she was denied, and an anger for the person who perpetrated this unspeakable crime. But I had already felt this before I met her. And I believe Joy Kogawa understands and respects this. In our private conversationt, the subject of the internment never once came up.

    Todd Wong Reply:

    “This is My Own” – the collection of Muriel Kitagawa letters was edited by Roy Miki. Roy Miki says: “Obasan, a novel that I believe is the most important literary work of the past 30 years for understanding Canadian history.”

    Roy Miki is SFU Professor Emeritus, 2003 Governor General’s Award Winner for Poetry, recipient of Order of BC, Order of Canada, one of the leaders of the Japanese Redress movement, and a consultant for Historic Joy Kogawa House Society. We greatly respect his judgement and achievements.

  6. tUCC

    Over the past year or so, I’ve been receiving updates (ie. spam) on the progress of the so-called heritage application on the Nakayama house (aka Kogawa house). These updates were from those in support and from those opposed. What was gleaned from all this pro and con documentation is that those “not in support” have a lot more relevant and credible material supporting their efforts. The other side only has “feel good” dribble.

    I’ve got to admit, it’s pretty damning material. If the media picks up on this (they already know)- it may become very uncomfortable for those involved.

    It’s all really too bad, because Joy Kogawa was also a victim of the Nakayama home, and she is liked by many of the people who are against the saving of her father’s home. It’s interesting to now learn of the current efforts of distancing by various organizations from this Nakayama home.

    I hope it all gets handle with tender care, because of the blind stupidity to have this home saved… it may give reasons to terminate a program that otherwise provides decent and worthwhile honour.

    It will be interesting to see how the City of Vancouver and others will back out of this one.

  7. Ross Perault

    why the hell does that todd wong guy dabble in everything? what a publicity seeking leech.

  8. Todd Wong

    Historic Joy Kogawa House is presently celebrating with its inaugural writer-in-residence Montreal poet John Asfour.

    The success of the Save Kogawa House campaign to turn the childhood home of important author Joy Kogawa into a literary centre and writer-in-residence program has been fully realized, thanks to the support of Canadians, and writing organizations all across the country.

    Kogawa House is now being cited as a shining example of how to save literary and historic landmarks in Canada, and is frequently cited in reference to the “Save Al Purdy A-Frame” campaign, to save the Al Purdy cabin in Ameliasburgh, Ontario.

    Here’s a short recap of the list of achievements and memorable events for Historic Kogawa House from

    Feb 2007
    Vancouver Heritage Award of Honour

    July 2007
    Ryukoku Summer Students Visit Kogawa House

    Oct 2007
    Joy Kogwa House a partner for ThinkCity’s Dream Vancouver Conference

    Nov 2007
    Authors Shaena Lambert and Ruth Ozeki read at Kogawa House

    Feb 2008
    Author Sharon Butala gives reading and workshop at Kogawa House

    March 2008
    Joy Kogawa featured as one of 150 “Builders of BC” in the Royal BC Museum’s display “The Party” to celebrate 150 years of BC history for the exhibit “Free Spirit”

    April 2008
    Joy Kogawa writes “Naomi’s Tree” about the cherry tree at Kogawa House, and launches the children’s book at Vancouver Kidsbooks.

    April 2008
    Musical evening with composer Leslie Uyeda, pianist Rachel Kiyo Iwassa, soprano Heather Pawsey. and flautist Karen Cernauskas. Uyeda composed songs based on Joy Kogawa’s poetry

    April 2008
    Joy was presented with the George Woodcock Literary Achievement Award from BC Bookworld Publisher Alan Twigg, Vancouver Public Library Community Programs Director Janice Douglas, and historian Jean Barman.

    April 2008
    press conference attended by former Lt. Gov. Iona Campagnolo, TLC executive director Bill Turner, MP Ujjal Dosanjh, city councilor Ellen Woodsworth to honour Sen. Nancy Ruth, donor of $500,000 to save Kogawa House.

    July 2008
    Obasan is chosen for Globe & Mail’s new literary canon. Only 5 works were chosen twice or more, including Obasan.

    Sept 2008
    Georgia Straight newspaper names Kogawa House “BEST NEW PLACE TO GET WRITING DONE ”

    March 2009
    Inaugural writer-in-residence program begins with Montreal poet John Asfour. John soon hosts his first reading with essayist Anne Diamond on April 6

    April 17 2009
    Judy Rebick reads at Kogawa House

    April 20 2009
    Al Purdy Party at Historic Kogawa House
    MC by Shelagh Rogers
    3 nominated poets for BC Book Awards include Daphne Marlatt, George Stanley and Nilofar Shidmehr. Jean Baird and George Bowering share stories of Al Purdy with Shelagh Rogers.

Comments are closed.