No-No Boy, 1957
Although the accolade is based on only one novel, John Okada (oh-KAH-dah) is hailed as one of the most influential Asian American writers. The inclusions of No-No Boy in The Heath Anthology of American Literature (1990), Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988), and The Columbia History of the American Novel (1991) indicate the recognition of the novel’s importance among literary critics.
Okada also left a manuscript on the experience of the first generation of Japanese immigrants when he died of a heart attack at the age of forty-seven. His wife, Dorothy Okada, burned it after she could not find an interested publisher. When she moved from their old apartment, she also destroyed many of his papers and letters–part of the reason little is known of Okada’s life.
Okada grew up in Seattle and attended Seattle High School. He received two B.A. degrees (in English and library science) from the University of Washington and an M.A. degree in English from Columbia University. He served in the U.S. military in World War II, broadcasting messages from a plane to Japanese soldiers in their language. After being discharged a sergeant in 1946, Okada worked at the Seattle Public Library and then the Detroit Public Library. He supplemented his income by writing manuals for Chrysler Missile Operations.
When No-No Boy was first published in 1957, it received little attention. To Okada’s disappointment, his own community rejected the novel. The vivid portrayal of the agony of being Japanese American during and after World War II was perhaps too close to home for Japanese Americans, who preferred to forget rather than be made to feel again the intense pain of their dehumanizing treatment at the hands of the U.S. government. In 1970 a group of Asian American writers discovered a copy of the novel in a San Francisco bookstore; they collected money among themselves to have it reprinted in 1976.
No-No Boy begins with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the anti-Japanese American hysteria that followed. On February 19, 1942, under Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, more than 100,000 Japanese Americans–including the Okada family–were removed from the West Coast and interned in camps throughout the United States. All people of Japanese origin became “enemy aliens.”
One year later, however, the War Department decided to recruit American-born (second-generation) Japanese men into an all-Japanese combat unit for the U.S. military. Okada and other young men were asked to answer “yes” or “no” to two “loyalty questions.” The phrase “no-no boy” was used to designate those Japanese Americans who chose to answer “no” to both questions. Okada answered “yes” and walked out of the camp into the U.S. Army. The questions were: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered? Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power, or organization? The consequence of two negative answers was two years in federal prison. Thousands of young men became “no-no boys” because they refused to be blind to the contradictions in the “loyalty questions” and their internment.
The novel’s protagonist, Ichiro Yamamoto, enters the novel as a twenty-five-year-old “no-no boy” who has just been released from prison. He returns to a Japanese American community in Seattle, as Okada did after the war, only to find it bitterly divided and plagued with self-hatred. Japanese Americans become organized by a binary division between the “Americans” and “Japs.” Many of those who had served in the military regard themselves as “Americans” and consider “no-no boys” as “Japs.” “No-no boys” become easy victims of verbal and physical violence.
As Okada undoubtedly was, Ichiro Yamamoto is deeply troubled by his experience; Ichiro finds no solace in either his family or his community. To him the whole world seems to be a malicious rock determined to crush him. Unable to place himself in either camp–those who desire to become Americans at all costs or those who remain loyal to Japan–Ichiro searches for an alternative identity to accommodate his American self and his race. In his friendships with Kenji, a veteran who is dying of his war wound, perhaps the character closest to Okada in the book; Emi, a beautiful and compassionate woman whose soldier husband chooses to be stationed in Germany after the war rather than return home; and Freddie, another “no-no boy,” Ichiro witnesses their suffering and achieves some release from his agonizing self-absorption.
As the story moves on, he meets other Americans who attempt to rectify in their small ways the big mistake their country made in its treatment of the Japanese Americans. By the end of the novel, Ichiro begins to see individuals rather than society as a single hostile force. This is as far as Ichiro gets in his spiritual journey: Okada was unable to grant his protagonist an alternative identity because he himself was still chasing the “faint and elusive insinuation of promise” in his own life.