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.