The Impact of John Okada on American Literature

Despite passing away in 1971 at just 47 years old, John Okada’s brief life carries a lasting impact on American literature to this day. Acclaimed as a pioneering Japanese American novelist, Okada’s only novel, No-No Boy, gives an unflinching look into the cruel treatment and aftermath that individuals of Japanese descent in America experienced following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and during World War II. The first of its kind, Okada’s book broke the veil of silence that fell over most of those incarcerated during the war; this master work of fiction pushed back the shadow cast over Japanese Americans during and after WWII.

Born in 1923, Okada was a student at the University of Washington when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. His studies were put on hold when he and his family were incarcerated at the Minidoka concentration camp in 1942, along with thousands of other American citizens. After completing a loyalty questionnaire, Okada was released from camp to join the United States Air Force as a translator for intercepted Japanese communications.

In No-No Boy, Ichiro, the protagonist, is also faced with a loyalty questionnaire. For question 27, “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?,” and question 28, “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, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?,” Ichiro answers “no,” dooming himself to two years in an American concentration camp and two more years in federal prison.

The story follows Ichiro through his attempts to regain a somewhat normal life after his release. The reader meets other Japanese American characters who were impacted in various ways by the incarceration camps and vicious treatment endured during the war. Ichiro’s friend Freddie, coping with his unjust incarceration, turns to a life of partying. In contrast, a man Ichiro befriends named Kenji, who lost most of his leg while fighting in the war after passing the loyalty questionnaire, held no ill feelings towards the military, America, or those who chose not to serve. Others in the book express different feelings about the war and its outcome, including Ichiro’s own mother, who is in deep denial for most of the book. Things take a dramatic turn when she realizes that Japan lost the war and she can never return to her home country or be accepted in America. Despite these troubled characters, the story retains a message of hope with the idea that Ichiro does not have to succumb to his deep-rooted pain and instead can take life into his own hands and transcend the demons that haunt him.

John Okada created a window of understanding into a group of people that suffered due to the actions of others. His work lives on as a warning of what can come from blaming our own citizens for the actions of those we are in conflict with. that misplaced blame can harm generations and breed deep divisions in our country, damaging our social fabric from the inside out. The painfully truthful work that is No-No Boy lives on as both a beautifully written and tragic piece that gave a voice to a generation while also opening doors to similiar works.


Frank Abe and Greg Robinson

On Saturday, February 2, join us for the Los Angeles launch of the book John Okada: The Life and Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy. Frank Abe, a journalist and producer of the PBS documentary Conscience and the Constitution, and Greg Robinson, professor of history at Université du Québec a Montréal, who edited John Okada (with Floyd Cheung) will be on hand to discuss the first full-length examination of Okada’s development as a writer. Moderating the discussion will be Brian Niiya, Content Director of Densho.org, an organization whose mission is to preserve the testimonies of Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated during World War II. Book signing to follow.


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