Acclaimed Canadian author, Joy Kogawa, 83, is making headlines with an innovative way to tell a dark era of Canadian history to the millennial generation.
Kogawa wrote East of the Rockies, an augmented reality (AR) story, which was produced by the Toronto-based design and experience agency Jam3 and the National Film Board of Canada.
It has recently been released in Apple’s App Store and will be available to download for free until March 15th.
East of the Rockies is an app based on true events about life in one of Canada’s Japanese internment camps and follows 17-year-old Yuki as her family adjusts to life in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. The story takes inspiration from Kogawa’s novels Obasan and Itsuka, which chronicle the persecution of Japanese citizens in Canada during the war.
“I’m grateful that this little story in Canada is not going to be lost,” explains Joy Kogawa. “There are so many stories that are lost, that ought not to be, so it’s a wonderful thing to see it happening here in this way. I think it’s very exciting to be at the beginning of this kind of thing, how lucky is that?”
According to the National Film Board of Canada, users of the app can interact with the story after activating the AR mode and they can learn about key elements inside the Slocan Internment Camp. Each of the elements activates a narrative spoken by Yuki (as pictured on Page 2), who talks about different aspects of the camp. Kogawa’s granddaughter, Anne Canute, provides the voice of Yuki.
“At 83 years old, Joy has teamed up with artists and producers to leverage an exciting new technology and craft an important historical story for a new generation of Canadians,” says NFB Executive Producer Rob McLaughlin. “It’s an intergenerational story of love, loss, injustice and healing, and we hope it will lead to a greater understanding of Canada’s past at a time when issues of identity and race remain at the heart of so many contemporary debates.”
Kogawa wrote three chapters for the interactive app. In the first chapter, Yuki and her family adjust to their new reality inside the camp in Slocan, B.C. and struggle to make life as normal as possible.
In the second part of the book, the war is over and Yuki and her husband are relocated to a farm in Alberta that is literally east of the Rockies.
In the last chapter of the story, Anne, a millennial living in today's Toronto, reflects on the life of her grandmother, Yuki.
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“By using immersive storytelling in East of the Rockies, we can educate a brand-new audience with a learn-through-gameplay experience leveraging the power of AR on iPhone and iPad,” adds Dirk van Ginkel, Creative Director at Jam3. “In working with Joy, we’ve been able to show what life was like when the Canadian government exiled the Japanese community. Sometimes to move forward as a society, we must look back and acknowledge past injustices – we hope that this is a platform for reflection.”
The town in the app is inspired by Kogawa’s own experiences living in Coaldale near Lethbridge. When Kogawa was six years old, she and her family were among the thousands of Japanese Canadians forcibly removed from their homes and scattered across the country in internment camps during World War II. Slocan, which is where the novel opens, was their first location, and they were later moved to Alberta.
“It was Canada's government who wanted to make sure that we didn't become a community again,” Kogawa said. “A lot of us were sent to Southern Alberta because there was a need for people to work in the sugar beet farms. In the story, Yuki and her husband go close to Raymond.”
Kogawa says that the East of the Rockies app shows you what life was like in Slocum and in southern Alberta.
Even after the camps were abolished, Kogawa says, the Canadian government would not allow the Japanese Canadians to go back to their homes. The government had sold the homes of Japanese Canadians during the war and used the proceeds from the sales to put the people in the camps.
“You can use this story like a game and that you don't have to be afraid of people because they look different or come from a country you’re at war with,” Kogawa. “People are people and so it's good to help people not to be afraid of other people.”
Besides East of the Rockies, Kogawa has also written Woman in the Woods, Obasan, Itsuka, The Rain Ascends, Naomi’s Road, Emily Kato, Naomi’s Tree, and Gently to Nagasaki.
Kogawa firmly believes that she was born a writer due to her love for stories.
“I always wanted to write,” Kogawa said. “ When I got older, got married, and had children, I didn't have anything else to do except take care of children, so I decided to really work at writing. I was always trying to figure out why the world was the way it was.”
Kogawa’s empathy for the stories surrounding experience also extends to Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old college student who visited North Korea with a tour group and was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after being accused of attempting to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel. Warmbier was eventually released in June 2017 in a vegetative state and died in Ohio shortly after returning home.
“I was thinking about how horrible that is and how his parents must have suffered so much,” Kogawa said. “He suffered so much, and it got me thinking about this world, which is full of such horrible things. It also made me think of how horrible it is that we can still be human beings who don't feel for other people. I think we have to do all we can to help each other feel compassion for one another.”
Kogawa believes that even though the world has advanced so much technology-wise humanity is still not that good at having love for one another. Kogawa believes that humanity needs to use new technologies to help us love one another.
One of those technologies is writing and that is Kogawa’s purpose behind her books; to decrease indifference, to decrease fear, and to increase love among peoples.
“I think if everybody wrote their stories, we’d have more rich history to appreciate,” Kogawa said. “Preserving rich history seems to be a problem because there are still many ways to look at the things we go through and everybody's experience is a little bit different. I think the more writers there are, the more stories that are told.”