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No-No Boy is the only novel published by Japanese-American writer John Okada. Set in 1946 in Seattle, Washington 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 Japanese-American internment 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 despising his parents and suffering occasional ostracism from his own community. The ostracism is because he had refused 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 that were black, 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 1943 Leave Clearance Application Form administered to interned Japanese Americans. Some young male internees answered "no" to both 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 to the first question, they were signing up for the draft, while others, given the circumstances of their interaction with the question form—Americans of Japanese descent being interned—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, many of those who answered "no" were thrown into federal prison.
The basic plot is not autobiographical. Okada, a Seattlite, himself served in the U.S. military. The novel was published in 1957 and remained obscure. He died prematurely at 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 internment of the 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.