Born Joy Nozomi Nakayama in Vancouver, British Columbia, she was sent to the internment camp at Slocan during World War II and then after the war resettled with her family in Coaldale, Alberta.
Although the majority of her writing is poetry, her best-known work is Obasan (1981), a semi-autobiographical novel. A sequel, Itsuka (1992), was rewritten and retitled Emily Kato (2005). Obasan has been named as one of the most important books in Canadian history by the Literary Review of Canada and was also listed by The Toronto Star in a "Best of Canada" feature. Obasan was later adapted into a children's book, Naomi's Road (1986), which, in turn, Vancouver Opera adapted into an 45 minute opera that toured elementary schools throughout British Columbia. The opera was also performed before the general public in the Greater Vancouver area, Red Deer and Lethbridge, Alberta, Seattle, Washington, and Ottawa, Ontario at the National War Museum.
Although the novel describes Asian Canadian experiences, it is also routinely taught in Asian American Literature courses in the USA, due to its successful "integration of politically understanding and literary artistry" and "its authentication of a pan-Asian sensibility".
The Save Kogawa House committee initiated a campaign to save Kogawa's childhood home in the Marpole neighborhood of Vancouver from demolition. They developed national support from writers and writing organizations across Canada demonstrating that the house at 1450 West 64th Avenue was regarded by many as having historical value and literary significance, similar to Berton House, Emily Carr House and the Haig-Brown Institute. The Save Kogawa House committee made a successful presentation to the City of Vancouver councilors to create an unprecedented 120 day delay of the processing of a demolition permit for the house on November 3, 2005, two days after the City of Vancouver had pronounced Obasan Cherry Tree Day and planted a graft of the cherry tree at Vancouver City Hall from the original cherry tree at Kogawa House.
The Land Conservancy of British Columbia, became involved in the saving of Kogawa House on December 2, 2005 TLC The Land Conservancy :: News. Working with the Save Kogawa House Committee, TLC took over the fund-raising efforts and media attention. TLC became the owners of the house on May 31, 2006 TLC The Land Conservancy :: News . They now are currently attempting to raise funds to renovate the house and establish a writers-in-residence program.
Kogawa currently divides her time between Vancouver and Toronto, Ontario. In 1986, she was made a Member of the Order of Canada, and in 2006, she was made a Member of the Order of British Columbia.