Okada, John 1923-1971

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OKADA, John 1923-1971

PERSONAL: Born 1923, in Seattle, WA; died of a heart attack, 1971, in Los Angeles, CA. Education: University of Washington, B.A. (English), B.A. (library science); Columbia University, M.A.

CAREER: Worked as a librarian in Seattle, WA and Detroit, MI, and as a technical writer in Detroit and Los Angeles, CA. Military service: Served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II; became sergeant.


No-No Boy, Charles E. Tuttle (Rutherford, VT), 1957, reprinted, University of Washington Press (Seattle, WA), 1981.

SIDELIGHTS: John Okada wrote one book, his novel No-No Boy, which is recognized as a significant contribution to American literature. It is also a book that has inspired Asian-American writers and writers who address the issues of ethnic discrimination in the United States. When the book was first published in 1957, many in the Japanese-American community were upset that Okada was raising issues they preferred to forget. When Okada died an unknown, he had no idea of the future impact of his novel, beginning with its revival in 1977 by the Combined Asian-American Resources Project in Seattle.

In a Mosaic article Apollo O. Amoko wrote that "the novel unfolds as a conventional realist narrative, a tale of progress along serial calendrical time. But it is a novel set squarely in the charged racial margins of the American nation-space: it develops almost exclusively within the confines of the Japanese American culture."

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which provided for the removal from their homes of 110,000 Japanese Americans, most whom lived on the West Coast, and their relocation to internment camps in remote areas, without being charged or tried of any crime. Lawson Fusao Inada wrote in Three American Literatures: Essays in Chicano, Native American, and Asian-American Literature for Teachers of American Literature that these people "were called on to confront, define, and justify their own existence, to themselves and to their government, and the camps fragmented into factions of 'wrong' and 'right' with more 'ifs' than answers, for no matter what the people did—and most adjusted remarkably well to the rigors of camp life, a testament to spirit developed before the war—they were still behind barbed wire in the country that used to be home."

In 1943 the War Department began to recruit Nisei—second-generation, American-born Japanese—to serve in the 442nd combat unit, which ultimately became the most-decorated fighting unit of World War II. All Japanese men seventeen years of age and older were required to fill out a form that included questions such as "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States, on combat duty wherever ordered?" and "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 foreign government, power, or organization?" In No-No Boy, Ichiro Yamada answers "no" to both questions and is jailed for being disloyal. In fact, only a few young men answered "no" to these questions; the actual number has been estimated to be approximately one in 1,000.

The story begins in 1945, with Ichiro's return to his community after two years of incarceration. He is met with taunts and jeers from war veterans, and his own brother, Taro, joins his attackers. He finds his father an alcoholic, broken man and his mother on the verge of insanity. The two protest figures are Mike, an American who was mistakenly interned as a Japanese, and Ichiro's mother, who refuses to believe that Japan has lost the war, and whose pride and resistance becomes a destructive force. Ichiro too, experiences shame, demonstrated by his wish to trade places with the dying veteran Kenji, whose missing leg and mortal injuries are slowing draining him of life. Ichiro loves the country of his birth, and now he feels that he belongs to neither side.

Stan Yogi wrote in MELUS that the novel "depicts Ichiro's attempt to claim an identity as an American as he analyzes why he answered 'no' to the questions. In the process, he must confront an antagonistic and fragmented Nikkei community. Just as Japanese-Americans were forced to answer either 'Yes' or 'No' to the loyalty questions during the war, the post-war community faced similar binary choices. Through Ichiro's journey to reestablish himself as an American, Okada explores the gray area between the oppositions that develop around polarized definitions of 'Japanese' and 'American,' individuality and community, assimilation and cultural maintenance."

"Only through Ichiro's physical and philosophical journey where he encounters other outcasts does he begin to break through this reasoning," wrote Suzanne K. Arakawa in the Encyclopedia of American Literature. "As a result, he moves away from an inclusionist versus exclusionist rationalizing and alters his role as the community's scapegoat; that is, Ichiro realizes the constructive nature of identity and the warranted role he needs to play in its construction."

Inada concluded by saying that No-No Boy "is a testament to the strength of a people, not a tribute to oppression. Ichiro emerges as a loving person and in so doing determines the direction of his life. Even his internal difficulties are a sign of health, for he does not allow the power of blame to be usurped by anyone else, even the most deserving; rather, he keeps it for himself . . . and in this way the gift of self-determination is his own. Thus, in spite of the camps and prison, the death and destruction he experiences, Ichiro emerges as a positive person saying yes to life."

Jinqi Ling noted in American Literature that Okada "wrote and published the novel in an era when Cold War ideological drives toward U.S. nationalism and legitimation of material abundance promoted tendencies to embrace a common national character and a 'seamless' American culture. Implicated in this political climate was an unwillingness on the part of the dominant culture to acknowledge class division in American society and to address grievances about economic or racial injustice, especially those suffered by Japanese Americans during and after the war." Ling wrote that the Japanese-American and Chinese-American cultures "were deemed praiseworthy for their supposedly patient, docile, and law-abiding traditions, despite wartime rationales for incarcerating thousands of Japanese Americans in internment camps and despite the distinctions made between 'the Japanese' and 'the Chinese' in the American popular imagination."

During the 1950s America was attempting to disprove charges made by the Communist bloc of class oppression and racial discrimination by forging a new postwar alliance with Japan and confronting the beginnings of the civil rights era. These conditions taken together created a climate in which only writers who reflected the positive gains of Asian Americans were given the opportunity to publish. Asian-American writers had no voice in the literary discourse on race, which was at that time dominated by black writers such as Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man, 1952) and Richard Wright (The Outsider, 1953).

Okada had been an internee with his family in Idaho and had also served during World War II. "His status as a veteran gave him an implicit license to deal with the no-no boy issue," said Ling, "while the era's conditional receptivity to Asian American literary writings suggested to him that an autobiographical—hence documentary—account of Japanese Americans' wartime sufferings would be either too shocking for postwar readers or too vulnerable to ideological censorship. By writing a novel with a fictional hero, Okada could not only speak the ideologically unspeakable but also keep his narrative position usefully ambiguous." Kliatt reviewer Janet Julian called Okada's No-No Boy "a haunting, evocative, beautifully written book that stays in the heart."



Asian American Literature, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Baker, Houston A., Jr., editor, Three AmericanLiteratures: Essays in Chicano, Native American,and Asian-American Literature for Teachers of American Literature, Modern Language Association of America, 1982, pp. 254-266.

Elliott, Emory, and others, editors, Columbia History of the United States, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1988.

Elliott, Emory, and others, editors, The Columbia History of the American Novel, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1991.

Encyclopedia of American Literature, Continuum (New York, NY), 1999, pp. 844-845.

Geoklin Lim, Shirley, and Amy Ling, editors, Reading the Literatures of Asian America, Temple University Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1992.

Lauter, Paul, and others, editors, The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume 2, D. C. Heath and Company, (Lexington, MA), 1990.


American Literature, June, 1995, Jinqi Ling, "Race, Power, and Cultural Politics in John Okada's No-No Boy," pp. 359-381.

Kliatt, fall, 1978, Janet Julian, review of No-No Boy,
p. 13.

MELUS, summer, 1996, Stan Yogi, "'You had to be one or the other': Oppositions and Reconciliation in John Okada's No-No Boy," pp. 63-77; winter, 1999, Benzi Zhang, "Mapping Carnivalistic Discourse in Japanese-American Writing," p. 19.

Mosaic (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), September, 2000, Apollo O. Amoko, "Resilient ImagiNations: No-No Boy, Obasan, and the Limits of Minority Disclosure," p. 35.*

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