Aggressive Regionalism: Commentary
15. John Okada, No-No Boy
John Okada’s No-No Boy and Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter have some key ingredients in common. Both were written by Nisei authors who wanted to explore the forces pulling second-generation Japanese immigrants in different directions, often setting them at odds with their parents. Both appeared during the 1950s when most Nikkei remained very reluctant to discuss what had happened to them during World War II. Both were set in and around Seattle.
In other ways, however, the two books diverged sharply. Sone focused more on the years before Pearl Harbor, while Okada emphasized the aftermath of the war. Sone in the end seems to be making her peace with America, whereas the lead character in Okada’s novel, Ichiro, finds himself much more estranged, not only from America in general but also from people of Japanese descent. Okada also wrote fiction, not memoir. This obvious point is important because people wonder whether he was himself a “No-No Boy,” that is, an interned Nisei who answered very awkwardly phrased questions (about his loyalty to the U.S. and his willingness to serve in the U.S. armed forces) in ways that were deemed criminal. In fact, Okada enlisted in the service and fought in World War Two, so he was not himself the basis for Ichiro. But he wrote the novel in part from what he had seen and experienced; readers feel that his portrayal of events in Seattle during the later 1940s stem from what he observed at the time. Finally, in contrast to Nisei Daughter, which was originally issued by the major American publisher Little, Brown, No-No Boy was first released by a very small company, Charles E. Tuttle, with offices in Rutherford, Vermont, and Tokyo, Japan. The novel was mostly neglected until the 1970s, when the burgeoning Asian American Studies movement embraced it as one of its seminal works of fiction, the “only” Japanese American novel of its time. Shortly before No-No Boy was finally discovered and reissued, John Okada had died of a heart attack in 1971. His second novel, focused on the Issei experience, remained incomplete at the time of his death, and his widow burned the only drafts.
The section of No-No Boy included here comes from the very first pages in which Ichiro returns to Seattle from prison. His encounters with African Americans, whose numbers had increased dramatically during the war; other Nisei, who criticize him for avoiding military service; and his suffering mother and father, who are trying to eke out a living in a crowded grocery store, capture something of what Seattle must have been like for returning Nikkei in the later 1940s.
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