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No-No Boy is the only novel published by Japanese American writer John Okada. Set in Seattle, Washington in 1946 and written in the voice of an omniscient narrator who frequently blends into the voice of the protagonist, it is about one Japanese American in the aftermath of the incarceration during World War II.
Ichiro Yamada, a former undergraduate at the University of Washington, returns home after two years in internment camp and two years in federal prison to a Japanese American neighborhood of Seattle, where he wrestles with finding his place in society in the face of conflict with his parents and suffering occasional ostracism from his own community. The ostracism is a result of his refusal to join the United States armed forces. During the war, the government extended the offer to enlist to young male internees en masse. Few of them refused, and those who did were despised by many in the Japanese American community, who bestowed on them the name "no-no boys". Yamada experiences inner turmoil as he tries to identify why things happened the way they did, why people hate one another, and why he made the choice he made.
The epithet 'no-no boy' came from two questions on the Leave Clearance Application Form, also known as the "loyalty questionnaire," administered to interned Japanese Americans in 1943. Some young male internees answered "no" to one or both of these questions:
- "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 America 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?"
Both questions were confusing to many respondents. Regarding the first, some respondents thought that by answering yes, they were signing up for combat duty, while others, given their forced removal and incarceration, said no to resist the draft. Regarding the second, to many respondents, most of whom were American citizens, it implied that the respondent had already sworn allegiance to the Japanese emperor. They saw the second question as a trap, and rejected the premise by answering no. Afterwards, all who answered "no" to one or both questions, or who gave an affirmative answer but qualified it with statements like, "I'll serve in the military after my family is freed," were sent to the Tule Lake Segregation Center. Approximately 300 young men would serve time in federal prison for refusing to join the military from camp.
The basic plot is not autobiographical. Okada, a Seattlite like his protagonist, served in the U.S. military himself. The novel was published in 1957 and remained obscure until much later. He died prematurely at age 47 in 1971. A few years later, two young Asian American men heard of Okada and his novel, and resolved to revive interest in the novel. With the cooperation of Okada's widow, they had it republished in 1976, and there was a second printing in 1977. Since that time, it has become a staple of college assigned reading.
Content of the novel
Although a crucial part of the novel's setting is the injustice of the internment of Japanese Americans, the novel is not a polemic about that event. Ichiro's turmoil during the novel also has much to do with rejecting his mother, whose personality and worldviews he despises and resents. His dissatisfaction with her is personal, going beyond her stance on the war. In chapter 1, it is disclosed that his mother and at least one of her women friends are loyal to Japan, refuse to believe the news that Japan lost the war, and are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Japanese warships in Seattle. They even refuse to accept the evidence of photos they have seen of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombings. These attitudes antagonize Ichiro and other Japanese Americans.
2010 play adaptation
- Cherstin Lyon. "Loyalty questionnaire," Densho Encyclopedia 19 March 2013 (accessed 9 May 2014).
- Eric Muller. "Draft resistance," Densho Encyclopedia 10 June 2013 (accessed 9 May 2014)
- Annie Nakao. "A Unique Tale of WWII Resistance: Japanese American Internees Refused Draft," San Francisco Chronicle 26 Oct 2001 (accessed 9 May 2014)
- announced in Los Angeles Daily News online
- "Introduction to a conversation on John Okada’s No-No Boy"
- "Link to Amazon.com reference to No-No Boy"
- "Link to Official site of the play, "No-No Boy," adapted by Ken Narasaki"
- "No-no boys," Brian Niiya, Densho Encyclopedia.