A second-generation, or Nisei, Japanese American, John Okada was born and raised in Seattle, where he attended the University of Washington. Shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which required that all Japanese noncitizen immigrants and Japanese American citizens be relocated to internment camps, where they were forced to remain for the duration of the war. Despite being imprisoned in their own country, Japanese American men also were subject to the military draft. Thousands of young Japanese Americans enlisted or were drafted into the U.S. armed forces, and many gave their lives defending the country that had unjustly imprisoned their relatives and friends. Outraged by the great injustice perpetrated against them, some Japanese Americans refused to serve in the armed forces and to swear allegiance to the United States; they were labeled “no-no boys.”
First published in 1957, Okada’s first novel, No-No Boy, was virtually ignored. A second novel, about the Issei, or first-generation Japanese Americans, remained unfinished at his death in 1971. Because no one seemed interested in Okada’s fiction at the time, his wife burned the manuscript. However, there was indeed growing interest in Okada’s work. During the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Asian Americans, like members of other American racial and ethnic minority groups, became increasingly interested in their ethnic heritage and in the literary works that reflected and preserved that heritage. As a result of this increasing interest, No-No Boy was reissued by the University of Washington Press in 1976. Since then it has been widely read and is now generally regarded as a classic of Japanese American literature.
No-No Boy is based on fact, but it is not an autobiographical novel. Okada himself was not a no-no boy; he served in the Army in World War II as an interpreter in the Pacific theater. As Okada explains in the preface to the novel, Ichiro is modeled on a friend of Okada who refused to enter the Army unless the government would release his parents from an internment camp. Like the character Kenji, Okada understood and respected his no-no boy friend for making his hard decision, a decision that, as is emphasized throughout No-No Boy, could bring scorn and even violence from intolerant individuals both inside and outside the Japanese...
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