| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Born and raised in Seattle, Washington, John Okada
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 as a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. He died, of a
heart attack, in obscurity.
No-No Boy came out in 1957 it received little attention. According to its
publisher, Charles Tuttle, even the Japanese American community rejected the
book. Perhaps the community did not want to be reminded of the demeaning
internment experience with its lingering effects: uncertain identity,
fragmented family, split community, hostile society. The novel was rediscovered
by a group of Asian American writers in the 1970s.
the rediscovery Okada has been acclaimed as one of the greatest Asian American
writers, and No-No Boy as one of the first Japanese American novels. The book
reveals the many wrenching experiences Japanese Americans faced in the wake of
Pearl Harbor, after which they were confined in various relocation camps. In
1943 internees were administered a “loyalty questionnaire” containing two
unsettling questions: whether or not the internee would be willing to serve in
the American armed forces and whether or not the internee would forswear
allegiance to Japan. Ichiro, the protagonist of the novel, answered “No-No” and
refused the draft. His double negative was understandable and sensible given
the circumstances. He was not eager to serve a government that treated him as
an enemy by interning him—an American—in an American camp. He could not
forswear an allegiance that he had never felt. Other personal considerations
also made it difficult for Ichiro to answer affirmatively: his mother was
fanatically pro-Japan; his father was arrested for nationality alone. (At the
time Japanese immigrants were not allowed to become naturalized American
his sensible response was deemed treasonous. For his two “No’s,” Ichiro was
imprisoned for two years. When he is released after the war, he feels guilty,
ashamed, and hostile toward his parents. To exacerbate matters, his peers treat
him with great disdain: one former friend spits on him; his younger
brother—ashamed of Ichiro’s decision—arranges to have Ichiro beaten and quits
high school to join the army himself.
exception is Kenji, who remains Ichiro’s friend. Kenji himself has fought in
the war and won many medals—but lost a leg. The wound continues to fester so
that periodically more inches have to be amputated from the stump. He dies
after one of the operations. The excerpt (Chapter 6) is about Kenji’s last
visit to his family before the fatal operation. We feel at once the family’s
distress at Kenji’s physical condition and the acceptance that things could not
have been otherwise: the desire to be recognized as an American was so great
that no cost seemed too high.
acts as a foil to Ichiro throughout the novel. Ichiro is despised by his peers;
Kenji is idolized. The war breaks Ichiro’s family apart; Kenji’s is brought
closer together. Ichiro undergoes gnawing despair and persistent mental anguish
for not joining the war; Kenji receives what is to be a terminal wound and
continuous physical pain for having done so. Despite their opposite choices the
No-No Boy and the veteran alike suffer intensely.
novel is not just about these two characters, however. Nor is it confined to
the Japanese American predicament. As the excerpt (especially the Club Oriental
episode) illustrates, racism creeps into numerous segments of American society;
it is not just a matter of whites against Asians or whites against blacks. A
group that suffers discrimination from another may in turn inflict racist
treatment on a third: Asians discriminated against by whites may, for example,
look down on blacks. Discrimination occurs even within one racial group:
foreign-born and American-born Japanese may scorn one another. Ichiro’s inner
conflict reflects the conflict of the country at large. In the course of the
novel his individual guilt dissolves in the collective guilt of America.
University of California, Los Angeles
In the Heath Anthology
from No-No Boy
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A cover scan and review of No-No Boy.
Rediscovering a Forgotten Pioneer: The John Okada Story
A substantive biographical essay, bibliography, and timeline.