There are books that may come across in life that you realize you must read at least once; not only for the story, but also for the valuable context. Some are given to you through your school’s curriculum, such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Anne Frank: The Diary of Young Girl.” At the same time, there are those that likely never make it to your required reading list, and therefore you find yourself in a position where you get to decide whether its worth your time reading or not. In the case of John Okada’s one and only novel, “No-No Boy,” I knew that this was a worthy read.
During the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, a loyalty questionnaire was passed around to internees. Of the questions that were listed on there, these two were the most prevalent:
- Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?
- Will you swear your 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?
If one or both of the questions were answered “no,” the individual would be sent to the Tule Lake Segregation Center. 300 young men wound up being imprisoned there, and the novel’s protagonist Ichiro Yamada was one of them.
The events of “No-No Boy” take place following the end of World War II, when the internees have finally been released and Ichiro struggles to return to “normal life” in Seattle. But it proves to be anything but smooth sailing with the occasional ostracism in the community, the difficulty with his parents (in particular his mother), and the inner turmoil on the events that have played out and the reasoning behind his decision.
Originally published in 1957- 12 years after World War II ended- “No-No Boy,” it wasn’t immediately widely read at the time. Those who were interned wanted to forget that ever happened and the government had yet to take responsibility for their actions. It was a book ahead of its time, which is why it took nearly two decades before it really started to be read in depth.
There’s an honest tone to the novel that was perhaps too honest for its time. Anger grips at Ichiro’s nerves and words not only for what had happened, but also for what’s happening. He sees his mother becoming a woman he cannot bear to recognize, as she lives in an extreme state of denial over Japan having lost the war, as she anxiously waits for the boats to take her back to her homeland. It’s an anger that can be felt in the soul.
He also deals with his friend Kenji, who lost his leg while serving in the army, and how the consequences are slowly taking a toll on his lifespan. It’s enough to have the ultimate of conflicted feeling invade the membrane.
Of course there’s also the decision that he made- to answer no on questions 27 and 28- that led to him serving two years in federal prison for his “disloyalty” to the nation. While his mother praises him for exercising loyalty to Japan, Ichiro finds himself on uneasy ground otherwise, not only from the occasional naysayer who call him out on what he did “wrong” but also in the eyes of his teenage brother who wants to serve in the army.
There was a lot of propaganda that went out and about at the time that told the American people that what they were doing by interning the Japanese Americans was the right thing to do. It was Okada who was really the first to call out the government on how what they did was wrong. Despite it being too early of a time, I commend the author for his bravery, for if he hadn’t written the book, who knows how long it would have been before someone did.
I have to say though it was also a rather flawed novel. There are several times where Ichiro goes on thought rants for a good massive paragraph or two. While its effective in showing all that he’s internalizing, structurally I just found it kind of off. I just think that maybe there was another, more efficient way to get these thoughts out. I also didn’t think his brother was as well developed of a character as he could have been, for all he really does is give him the evil eye when making eye contact at all.
I also think Okada could have expressed more instances of what it’s like to live as a “no-no boy.” While we get the full sense of it at home and the occasional judgments out in public, I feel that the story doesn’t dig too deep on why people looked down on “no-no boys” as they did. I was waiting for the outburst, the moment of truth where Ichiro would spew to the nearest naysayer why he did what he did and have the last word on it all, and was a little disappointed when that never happened.
Aside from its flaws, as I said before, “No-No Boy” is definitely one of those books where you need to read at least once. It brings about the true essence of what it was like to fall victim to that dark time in American history.