Biography

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Although the accolade is based on only one novel, John Okada (oh-KAH-dah) is hailed as one of the most influential Asian American writers. The inclusions of No-No Boy in The Heath Anthology of American Literature (1990), Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988), and The Columbia History of the American Novel (1991) indicate the recognition of the novel’s importance among literary critics.

Okada also left a manuscript on the experience of the first generation of Japanese immigrants when he died of a heart attack at the age of forty-seven. His wife, Dorothy Okada, burned it after she could not find an interested publisher. When she moved from their old apartment, she also destroyed many of his papers and letters—part of the reason little is known of Okada’s life.

Okada grew up in Seattle and attended Seattle High School. He received two B.A. degrees (in English and library science) from the University of Washington and an M.A. degree in English from Columbia University. He served in the U.S. military in World War II, broadcasting messages from a plane to Japanese soldiers in their language. After being discharged a sergeant in 1946, Okada worked at the Seattle Public Library and then the Detroit Public Library. He supplemented his income by writing manuals for Chrysler Missile Operations.

When No-No Boy was first published in 1957, it received little attention. To Okada’s disappointment, his own community rejected the novel. The vivid portrayal of the agony of being Japanese American during and after World War II was perhaps too close to home for Japanese Americans, who preferred to forget rather than be made to feel again the intense pain of their dehumanizing treatment at the hands of the U.S. government. In 1970 a group of Asian American writers discovered a copy of the novel in a San Francisco bookstore; they collected money among themselves to have it reprinted in 1976.

No-No Boy begins with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the anti-Japanese American hysteria that followed. On February 19, 1942, under Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, more than 100,000 Japanese Americans—including the Okada family—were removed from the West Coast and interned in camps throughout the United States. All people of Japanese origin became “enemy aliens.”

One year later, however, the War Department decided to recruit American-born (second-generation) Japanese men into an all-Japanese combat unit for the U.S. military. Okada and other young men were asked to answer “yes” or “no” to two “loyalty questions.” The phrase “no-no boy” was used to designate those Japanese Americans who chose to answer “no” to both questions. Okada answered “yes” and walked out of the camp into the U.S. Army. The questions were: 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? The consequence of two negative answers was two years in federal prison. Thousands of young men became “no-no boys” because they refused to be blind to the contradictions in the “loyalty questions” and their internment.

The novel’s protagonist, Ichiro Yamamoto, enters the novel as a twenty-five-year-old “no-no boy” who has just been released from prison. He returns to a Japanese American community in Seattle, as Okada did after the war, only to find it bitterly divided and plagued with self-hatred. Japanese...

(This entire section contains 865 words.)

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Americans become organized by a binary division between the “Americans” and “Japs.” Many of those who had served in the military regard themselves as “Americans” and consider “no-no boys” as “Japs.” “No-no boys” become easy victims of verbal and physical violence.

As Okada undoubtedly was, Ichiro Yamamoto is deeply troubled by his experience; Ichiro finds no solace in either his family or his community. To him the whole world seems to be a malicious rock determined to crush him. Unable to place himself in either camp—those who desire to become Americans at all costs or those who remain loyal to Japan—Ichiro searches for an alternative identity to accommodate his American self and his race. In his friendships with Kenji, a veteran who is dying of his war wound, perhaps the character closest to Okada in the book; Emi, a beautiful and compassionate woman whose soldier husband chooses to be stationed in Germany after the war rather than return home; and Freddie, another “no-no boy,” Ichiro witnesses their suffering and achieves some release from his agonizing self-absorption.

As the story moves on, he meets other Americans who attempt to rectify in their small ways the big mistake their country made in its treatment of the Japanese Americans. By the end of the novel, Ichiro begins to see individuals rather than society as a single hostile force. This is as far as Ichiro gets in his spiritual journey: Okada was unable to grant his protagonist an alternative identity because he himself was still chasing the “faint and elusive insinuation of promise” in his own life.

Biography

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John Okada was a Nisei, or second-generation Japanese American. He grew up in the Pacific Northwest and witnessed the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Unlike the character Ichiro in No-No Boy, however, Okada was not a no-no boy (a person who answered no to two critical questions on the loyalty questionnaire—refusing to serve in the American armed forces and refusing to forswear allegiance to Japan and pledge loyalty to the United States). He volunteered for military service and was sent to Japanese held islands to exhort Japanese soldiers to surrender. The experience helped him shape his perspective on the war.

After he was discharged from the military in 1946, Okada went to the University of Washington and Columbia University. He earned two B.A. degrees and an M.A. degree studying, in his own words, “narrative and dramatic writing, history, sociology.” He started working on No-No Boy while he was an assistant in the Business Reference Department of the Seattle Public Library and at the Detroit Public Library. After a stint as a technical writer for Chrysler Missile Operations of Sterling Township, Michigan, he and his wife Dorothy moved back to Seattle. No-No Boy was completed in 1957. Okada had a hard time trying to find publishers who were interested in his work. No-No Boy was first published by Charles Tuttle of Tokyo. After Okada died, his wife offered all of his manuscripts, including the one of his second novel, to the Japanese American Research Project at the University of California at Los Angeles. They were rejected. Dorothy burned them shortly after, when she was preparing to move.

Okada was proud to be a Japanese American. He examined the double consciousness of the Japanese American community. No-No Boy portrays the psychological confusion and distress experienced by many Japanese Americans, especially second generation Japanese Americans (U.S. citizens by birth, culturally Japanese) during and after World War II. No-No Boy portrays the struggle of those who are caught between two worlds at war.

Biography

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John Okada, a nisei (a person of Japanese descent born in America), was born in Seattle, Washington in 1923 to Japanese parents. He attended the University of Washington where he received two Bachelor of Arts degrees, then moved to Columbia University and earned a Masters of Art in English. Like many Japanese Americans who came of age during World War II, Okada was interned after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and called by the United States government to either join the U.S. Armed Forces and pledge loyalty to the United States or remain in prison. He chose to fight. He was released from his internment in Minidoka, Idaho, became a sergeant in the U.S. armed forces, and was discharged in 1946.

Okada's experience during the war years influenced him to write No-No Boy and shed light on the catch-22 situation and the subsequent identity crisis many Japanese Americans suffered after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. No-No Boy was published in 1957, and it hit home for all who had themselves either experienced the horrors of internment or the feelings of conflict that arose from fighting for a country that considered them second-class citizens at best. At the time of its publication in 1957, the novel was underappreciated, just as Japanese Americans were at that time. But it became a classic in the 1970s, regrettably, only after Okada's death in 1971. The fact that Okada's book received little recognition in 1957 was not surprising, because for a long time the plight of Japanese Americans who lived in the aftermath of World War II was a neglected part of American history. Unfortunately, Okada spent much of his life feeling disappointed because his own people disregarded his work. Not much is known about Okada's life other than what can be inferred from his novel. His wife destroyed much of his work after his death.

Biography

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John Okada was born in Seattle, Washington, in September 1923, of Japanese American parents. He attended Broadway High School, but his college education at the University of Washington was interrupted by World War II, during which Okada’s family was interned in Idaho because they were Japanese American. Okada volunteered for service in the U.S. Air Force. He served in army intelligence, translating Japanese radio transmissions and dropping propaganda leaflets over Japanese-held islands in the South Pacific. He was discharged in 1946 with the rank of sergeant.

Okada completed his education after the war, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Washington and a Master of Arts degree in sociology from Columbia University in 1949. After this he returned to Washington and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in library science. He worked in the business reference department of the Seattle Public Library and then moved to Detroit to take up a better paid position in the Detroit Public Library. He also worked as a technical writer for Chrysler Missile Operations in Michigan. During this time, Okada worked on writing fiction, resulting in the publication of his novel, No-No Boy, in 1957. The novel had no immediate impact. Okada then began work on a second novel, which focused on the experiences of the Issei, the first generation of Japanese to immigrate to the United States. He was never able to complete it. In the late 1960s, Okada served briefly as head of the circulation department at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Okada died of a heart attack on February 20, 1971, at the age of forty-seven. He was survived by his wife, Dorothy, whom he met at Columbia University in the late 1940s, as well as a son and a daughter. After his death, his wife offered all his papers to the Japanese American Research Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. But the project refused to take an interest, and Okada’s wife then burned the papers, which included the almost complete first draft of Okada’s second novel.

It was only after his death that Okada’s work began to be recognized. As of 2006, he was acknowledged as a powerful early voice in the recording and interpreting of Asian American experience.