No-No Boy by John Okada

No-No Boy by John Okada

I picked up John Okada’s No-No Boy in the Alcatraz Island gift shop when I was visiting San Francisco. It was part of a display about the time period that Alcatraz prison existed in, and when I found out that Okada’s novel is considered the first Asian-American novel I knew it was going to be my choice vacation read.

No-No Boy follows Ichiro Yamada, a first generation Japanese-American who refused the draft in World War II and the repercussions of his decision on his life and his family. He was imprisoned after answering no to two questions on a questionnaire developed by the War Relocation Authority which was supposed to measure the allegiance of interned, draft-age Japanese men. Confusingly worded and equally confused about his place in America, Ichiro answered no to these pivotal questions and so spent two years in jail following his two years in an internment camp, joining the ranks of so-called “no-no boys.” The questionnaire is real, and Okada captures the experiences of many young Japanese men who were forced to make a precarious decision: do I forsake being Japanese and go to fight against Japan or do I keep my heritage, which is now a crime?

Ichiro’s problem is one that hasn’t gone away, and despite many differences between his experiences and my own, I found comfort in how I related to what he was facing. Race, ethnicity, and culture are three things that conflate regularly in Canada and the US alike, putting immigrants and their second-generation children in the cross-hairs of microaggressions, internal conflict, and racism. At the same time, there is love, real love of the country that they call home and the complexities of this pain are captured wonderfully in Okada’s prose:

And, as his heart mercifully stacked the blocks of hope into the pattern of an America which would someday hold an unquestioned place for him, his mind said no, it is not to be, and the castle tumbled and was swallowed up by the darkness of his soul, for time might cloud the memories of others but the trouble was inside of him and time would not soften that.

What I most loved about No-No Boy is the way Okada captures the intricacies of the immigrant family, most importantly, that there are different experiences within this category. Ichiro’s parents run a humble grocery store and came to America with the intention of making money to move back to Japan. His mother is insistent that Japan won the war and disavows all the Japanese families who turned their back on Japan by having sons who served. Ichiro’s brother is sickened by him and tormented for having a criminal for a brother, and his father tries to placate everyone, delving deeper and deeper into the bottom of a bottle as he does. Then there is the picturesque American family of Ichiro’s friend Kenji, a decorated war vet. Kenji’s father buys a large roasting chicken at the Safeway, his daughter makes a salad, his other son brings a lemon meringue, and they settle around a TV to watch baseball as the rest of the siblings with their spouses and children join them. The chat about salmon fishing and buying new cars. How much more American can they become? The lesson is as poignant today. To be American is not how you look but the freedom to be as you are.

But Okada could not leave it as simple as that. A young Japanese man tries to enter the Oriental Club with two black friends and the owner bars them entry. “Them ignorant cotton pickers make me sick,” says one Chinese patron to mass approval. Gary, another no-no boy, is chased out of a job at the foundry by the other workers. Not scared off by their racist comments they loosen the lugs in the car of his only friend, Birdie, a black man, who almost dies after it flips. Hatred is a messy, messy thing. No-No Boy captures how one can be hated and denounced and fight for their right to equality while turning around and hating and denouncing others. Whether it was the Japanese and Chinese to the black community (something which is dishearteningly alive and well) or Islamaphobia in countries made of majority immigrant populations. The intricacies of power and skin have been pulling and pushing groups apart for seemingly forever.

None of this is light or easy to capture but Okada portrays it all in this heart wrenchingly sad tale of Asian-American experience. No one really gets a happy ending. Not even Okada did. His book was originally published in 1957 by Charles E. Tuttle, who was based out of Tokyo, so it was no surprise it flopped in the American publishing market and didn’t receive the attention it deserved. It was left unnoticed until 1969 when Jeff Chan discovered a copy in a Japantown bookstore in San Francisco. It resonated so much, he passed it along to all of his friends and they set out to find Okada. By the time they found his wife Dorothy Okada, the author had died of a heart attack a few months prior at the age of forty-seven. He never lived to see his book become the beloved classic of Asian-American literature it is today. The copy I picked up is the 2014 reissue, its second print run, with an introduction from Ruth Ozeki, and I’m thankful for Jeff Chan, Frank Chin, and the Combined Asian-American Resources Project for making it possible for me to find it on a terrible, rainy day at Alcatraz.

You would hardly know it’s a reprint. The book is so modern at times—or its problems are so persistent—that I forgot what time it was set in until someone would use a payphone or say “Sears Roebuck,” but its distinct place in history packs a punch. I knew about Japanese internment but not about no-no boys. This is the kind of historical experience which is often not taught in classrooms, which is why it is even more important. Make this read an addition to your kit for understanding race and place in North America. Read it and grapple with it, and maybe, understand.