John Okada’s No-No Boy Is a Test of American Character

The re-release of a classic novel about Japanese Americans’ incarceration during World War II is an opportunity to reflect on the nation’s persistent internal conflicts.

No-No Boy is a daring book and, I would say, a test of and testament to character. There is no other novel like it about Japanese Americans in the postwar period. In the book, which is being released in a new edition this month, John Okada wrote of the reentry into civil society of young second-generation, or nisei, men who had served in the U.S. military during World War II. More particularly, through the character of Ichiro Yamada, he wrote of draft resisters who spent the war in prison. In so doing, he probed the intense center of the Japanese American community’s internal conflicts—confusions of loyalty and rights of citizenship, racial self-hatred and shame, the immigrant’s agony of failure and loss of a future, proscriptions of silence and resistance.

Okada was courageous in writing No-No Boy at a time when stigma and hostilities within the community were still raw on the surface. When the novel was first published, in 1957, the Japanese American community turned away from it because what the novel had to say hurt. But in 1971, a few weeks after Okada’s death, four young writers—Jeffery Paul Chan, Frank Chin, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong—rummaging around in used bookstores found an old copy of No‑No Boy. This was the literary legacy they had hoped to uncover. They eventually published an anthology of Asian American short fiction, Aiiieeeee! (1974), featuring an excerpt from the novel, and in 1976 republished the entire novel. “Discovering” No-No Boy—the novel, its nisei author, and its subject matter—defined a literary moment of political protest and cultural recuperation.

The novel takes its title from the registration forms, labeled “loyalty questionnaires,” that Japanese Americans in American concentration camps were required to fill out in 1943, to determine their eligibility for military service. Question 27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered? Question 28: 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, or any other foreign government, power, or organization? Japanese Americans, considering their status as “non-​alien citizens” denied due process or, if born in Japan, “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” hotly debated whether to answer yes or no; those who answered in the negative were branded as “no-no”s. In his novel, Okada re-created the complicated, violently embittered, and painful divisions that openly seethed during the war and postwar periods and, I would argue, continue to haunt our communities.

In the character of Ichiro Yamada, Okada conflated the position of draft resisters with those who renounced American citizenship. Nisei draft resisters argued that, considering the illegality of their imprisonment, they would, as American citizens, comply with the draft if given freedom; denied freedom, they spent the war in prisons. They might have answered “yes-yes” to the loyalty questions, but only on the condition of freedom for themselves and their families. Although there were those with Japanese nationalist sentiments, such as Ichiro’s mother, who responded “no-no,” many others who responded “no-no” may have done so in anger and protest, or in a panic to keep their families together. These “no-no” respondents were removed to Tule Lake, a designated segregation prison, and under the duress of incarceration, they signed declarations to renounce their American citizenship and to face possible deportation to Japan. In No-No Boy, Ichiro is a draft resister, and while he hasn’t renounced his American citizenship (technically his position is “no-yes”), through the nationalist eyes of his mother, he has. In this way, Ichiro embodies the conflict of identity between filial duty and loyalty to nation.

While draft resisters felt strongly that their protest was legally justified, Okada’s representation of their unwelcome homecoming in 1945 was probably true: The community named them all “no-no” despite their complicated reasons for answering the loyalty questions in the ways they did. It was not until 1968 that the last of the more than 5,000 “renunciants” were legally able to restore their American citizenship. Considering the precarious status of these members of the community, I can understand the quiet reception of No-No Boy upon its publication in 1957. Critics have suggested that Okada’s narrative is unreliable, but his third-person narration moves from character to character, within a constellation of the communal, reflecting the psychic interior of a conflicted and divided community, and gifting, through this storytelling, I believe, a communal reconciliation.

No-No Boy is about nisei men: Ichiro; his high-​school-​age brother, Taro; his draft resister buddies, rebellious Freddie and diffident Gary; and nisei veterans such as Eto, Bull, the wounded Kenji, and the absent Ralph. Though there is a single female nisei character, Emi, this is, well, a “guy’s book.” It’s not just that a bunch of guys claimed the “discovery” of the novel or that it’s about men returning from war and incarceration to reclaim their masculinity; its very texture of realist noir, its perceptions and frustrations, read masculine, carving spaces of worth out of secondary citizenship and the misogyny toward a symbolic motherland. The anger in this novel, with its raw encounters of race—aggressively violent or ironically masked—and the intense narrative interiority of a racialized self, makes it, I believe, a close literary kin to Richard Wright’s Native Son. The demeaning designation of boy in the title is significant. While rooted in a particular historical moment, No-No Boy is also a story of young men who make choices in wartime and who, upon returning, whether as conscientious objectors or wounded soldiers, discover that home is not the same home that it was before.

In the aftermath of war, veterans of color returned home to resume another war: the domestic one of race and Jim Crow. No-No Boy captures not only the uneasy homecoming of Japanese Americans—hardened by confinement, harboring hostilities, suspicious of others—but also the many complications within the community and on the margins, among Chinese Americans, African Americans, and whites. Despite the dark representation of the raw antagonism of the times, the novel makes a declaration, I believe, of Okada’s democratic idealism, participating in a longer history of movements for social justice and civil rights.

In June 2018, the Supreme Court finally overturned its decision on Korematsu v. United States that had justified the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans, while, in the same opinion, upholding the Muslim travel ban, another executive order, issued by President Donald Trump, that called for, in his words, “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Other executive edicts have called for a zero-tolerance policy toward those who enter the United States illegally, justifying the separation of families and the detention of children, even those seeking asylum at our borders. Throughout the nation, there are currently more than 200 immigrant detention centers, detaining, as of 2017, a daily average of 39,000 individuals. No-No Boy is a cautionary tale. Rereading it, reliving the history of the incarceration of immigrant families based on racial prejudice, executive privilege, and the false assertion of military necessity, fills me with deep sadness. The stories of Okada and his contemporaries, including those of my parents and their siblings, are ones of injustice, of pain and loss, and of physical and emotional violence, with consequences that outlive that generation—a cruel history that, we should have learned by now, should never be repeated.

No-No Boy may be read as a test of character, questioning the rigid binary of loyalty—yes or no—and teaching us that what makes us human and complex, what constitutes character, are all the questions and cares that exist between yes and no: ethical and political choices, our best intentions, our social and cultural being, beliefs, courage, fears, failures, and compassion. More than half a century later, Okada’s novel challenges us once again with the question of character, asking us, as individuals and as a society, what we are made of.

This article has been adapted from Karen Tei Yamashita’s introduction to No-No Boy, by John Okada.