A Daring Voice and a Profound Lesson—John Okada’s "No-No Boy"
Updated: Sep 28
The Japanese American writer John Okada possesses a bold and compelling voice. In his 1957 novel, No-No Boy, he skillfully explores the profound struggles faced by Japanese American individuals as they wrestle with questions of identity in the wake of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
After the surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy on Pearl Harbor, the United States swiftly declared war on Japan. In the spring of 1942, the government initiated the relocation of Japanese and Japanese American families to remote internment camps. As the war progressed, the demand for additional soldiers grew. In 1943, the War Department, in collaboration with the War Relocation Authority (WRA), made efforts to recruit soldiers from the internment camps. To assess the loyalty of Japanese Americans, a questionnaire was designed. Two of the questions were phrased as follows:
• "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 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?"
Some of the young internees responded with a "no" to one or both of these questions. Ichiro, the protagonist of the novel, replied with a firm "no" to both inquiries, earning him the label of a "no-no boy."
The narrative unfolds in 1946 when Ichiro, having spent two years in an American internment camp for Japanese Americans and an additional two years in federal prison for his resolute "no-no" response, finally returns to his home within a Japanese enclave in Seattle, Washington.
Okada's portrayal of the Japanese community is incredibly challenging to the readers who hold stereotypes of Japanese Americans in their mind. Among the characters in the novel are Ichiro's parents, the Yamadas, who are Japanese immigrants. Mrs. Yamada remains fiercely loyal to Japan, steadfastly refusing to accept that Japan lost World War II. When Ichiro returns home, she takes immense pride in him, even parading him through the neighborhood. Another character, a close friend of Mrs. Yamada's, shares in her belief that Japan emerged victorious in the war. Together, they eagerly anticipate the arrival of Japanese warships in Seattle.
However, it's important to note that the majority of American-born Japanese in the story demonstrate loyalty to the United States. Ichiro's friend Kenji, for instance, fought for the United States and sustained a severe leg injury in the process. Ichiro's own brother strongly disapproves of Ichiro's status as a "no-no boy" and voluntarily enlists in the army. Tragically, one of Ichiro's childhood friends lost his life as an American soldier in the European theater of the war. After his friend's death, his grieving parents ultimately decide to settle in America.
Okada's depiction of these multifaceted characters illuminates the varied perspectives and experiences within the Japanese community during this critical period in history. Regrettably, these differing viewpoints coalesce to isolate Ichiro from the Japanese American community. From my perspective, Ichiro emerges as a quintessential American, guided by his own conscience when making decisions. However, his destiny is inexorably tied to his Japanese American heritage, a connection he cannot escape, especially in the wake of the events following Pearl Harbor.
Okada delves into the Japanese-American community by examining the themes of identity, belonging, and the delicate equilibrium between two distinct cultures. Ichiro serves as not only a representative of the Japanese community in America but also as a symbol for any American with a cultural heritage from beyond the United States. The challenge of reconciling one's identity becomes even more pronounced when cultural ties can potentially translate into national loyalty, especially during times of conflict between two nations.
How to resolve this fundamental conflict? Ichiro’s friend Kenji expresses his yearning for a unified identity, the “recognition as a complete human being…a sense of unity and purpose which inspires one to hope and optimism” (Okada 121).
In the 1950s, when a minority yearned for a sense of unity, they protested the idea of American identity dominated by white Americans. However, American society has undergone fundamental changes in recent decades. One significant shift is the growing racial diversity in America. According to the 2020 census, nearly all racial and ethnic groups experienced population gains compared to the 2010 census, except for the white alone population, which declined (Jones). It is highly likely that in the near future, people of color will constitute the majority of the US population.
The “bigotry, meanness, smallness, and ugliness” of white supremacy (Okada 121) have faced consistent criticism over the past century. Meanwhile, mainstream media has embraced the celebration of diverse cultures. It is now imperative to move beyond white supremacy and confront the true threat to the nation: divisive ideologies that encourage citizens to focus on racial tension while overlooking the broader perspective.
Kenji envisions an ideal America, one that transcends race and allows him to declare, “I'm a citizen regardless of my race.” It's time for us to reflect on Kenji's aspiration. In this regard, I strongly recommend No-No Boy, a work that provides us with a historical mirror through which we can scrutinize our past, present, and the possibilities for our future.
Jones, Nicholas, et al. “Improved Race and Ethnicity Measures Reveal U.S. Population Is Much More Multiracial.” United States Census Bureau.
https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2021/08/improved-race-ethnicity-measures-reveal-united-states-population-much-more-multiracial.html, Accessed 12 Sep. 2023.
Okada, John. No-No Boy. University of Washington Press, 2014.