John Okada (1923-1971)
Contributing Editor: King Kok Cheung
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students need historical background concerning World War II and the internment of Japanese-Americans. Explain how people often internalize the attitudes of the dominant society even though the attitudes may seem unreasonable today.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Historical context is crucial to the understanding of No-No Boy, since the novel explores unflinchingly the issues of Japanese American identity. Is it half Japanese and half American, or is it neither? After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans in various coastal states--Washington, Oregon, California--were interned on account of their ethnicity alone. Camp authorities then administered a loyalty questionnaire that contained two disconcerting questions: "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States in combat duty wherever ordered?" and "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attacks of foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese Emperor, to any other foreign government, power, or organization?"
These questions divided the Japanese American community and aggravated generational conflict. In some cases the parents still felt attached to their country of origin, while their American-born children-- nisei --strived for an American identity. In other cases, the parents wanted to be loyal to America, but their children were too bitter against the American government to answer yes and yes.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Okada commands a style that is at once effusive and spontaneous, quiet and deep. He has a keen eye for subtle details and psychological nuances that enables him to capture the reserved yet affectionate interaction of Kenji's family.
Yet Okada seldom lingers on one key. He can change his note rapidly from subdued pathos to withering irony, as when he moves from depicting the silent grief in Kenji's household to exposing racism at the Club Oriental where Kenji feels totally comfortable because his being Japanese there does not call attention to itself. At that very moment, there is a commotion at the entrance: the Chinese owner reports that he has to prevent two "niggers" from entering the club with a Japanese. The one place where Kenji does not feel the sting of racial prejudice turns out to be just as racist as others.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Compare No-No Boy with Joy Kogawa's Obasan and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James Houston's Farewell to Manzanar. All three describe the adverse impact of the internment on Japanese American families.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. (a) Why does Ichiro feel alienated?
(b) Why is Ichiro rejected by the people in his own ethnic community? Who are the exceptions?
(c) How would you characterize the interaction in Kenji's family?
2. (a) Compare the dilemmas of Ichiro and Kenji.
(b) Who is responsible for Ichiro's suffering? Ichiro himself? His family? The Japanese American community? America at large?
Book-length literary works that dwell on the Japanese internment include the following:
Houston, Jeanne Wakatsuki and James O. Houston. Farewell to Manzanar. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973.
Inouye, Daniel and Lawrence Elliot. Journey to Washington. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1967.
Ling, Jinqi. "Race, Power, and Cultural Politics in John Okada's No-No Boy." American Literature 67.2 (1995): 359-81.
Murayama, Milton. All I Asking for Is My Body. San Francisco: Supra, 1975.
Ota, Shelley. Upon Their Shoulders. New York: Exposition, 1951.
Sone, Monica. Nisei Daughter. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953.
For a detailed study of the relation between historical circumstances and literature see the following:
Kim, Elaine. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.
A brief survey of Chinese American and Japanese American literature is:
Baker, Houston A. Jr., ed. Three American Literatures. New York: MLA, 1982.
See also the following:
McDonald, Dorothy Ritsuko. "After Imprisonment: Ichiro's Search for Redemption in No-No Boy." MELUS 6.3 (1979): 19-26.
Sato, Gayle K. Fujita. "Momotaro's Exile: John Okada's No-No Boy." In Reading the Literatures of Asian America, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling, 239-58. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.