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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

John Okada

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.

When 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.

Since 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 citizens.)

Yet 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.

One 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.

Kenji 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.

The 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.

King-Kok Cheung
University of California, Los Angeles

In the Heath Anthology
from No-No Boy
      Chapter Six (1957)

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John Okada
A cover scan and review of No-No Boy.
Rediscovering a Forgotten Pioneer: The John Okada Story
A substantive biographical essay, bibliography, and timeline.

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