On May 25, we are opening At First Light: The Dawning of Asian Pacific America,a multimedia exhibition that explores and celebrates the emergence of a politically defined Asian Pacific American consciousness and identity. A co-production of Visual Communications (VC) and JANM, At First Light chronicles the transformation of the un-American categorization of “Oriental” to the political identity of “Asian Pacific American” that rejected racist stereotypes, stood up for human rights, recovered lost histories, and created new cultural expressions. The exhibition draws from the collection of VC, the first Asian Pacific American media organization in the country, which formed in Los Angeles in 1970 to capture and cultivate the newfound unity that was Asian Pacific America.
Scholar, author, producer, and JANM Chief
Curator Karen Ishizuka, part
of the curatorial team who helped put At
First Light together, says that selecting from thousands of photographs,
hundreds of films, and a vast array of educational materials produced during
the first 20 years of VC’s existence was the most challenging part of creating
this exhibition. Ultimately, there are 30 short videos telling the
stories of places, like Historic Manilatown, and events, such as the first
Asian American march against the Vietnam War.
The largest artifact in the exhibition is a
free-standing cube sculpture created by VC Founding Director Robert A. Nakamura
in 1970. Featuring then
never-before-seen photographs of America’s World War II concentrations camps, the
sculpture was conceived to promote awareness for the repeal of the Emergency
Detention Act of 1950, which granted the government the power to preventatively
detain people during an emergency. Wanting to start an Asian Pacific American
media organization, Nakamura called it a production of Visual Communications.
Ishizuka also says that she is most looking forward to displaying a new video installation entitled FSN 1972, which repurposes early VC productions. Onto the windows and doorways of a 1972 graphic of East First Street in Little Tokyo, filmmaker Tadashi Nakamura inserted motion picture footage from VC films to invoke the current issue of preserving Little Tokyo and the Save First Street North campaign.
The resiliency and resistance embodied in At First Light serve as a reminder—as
well as a call to action—of what can be accomplished when people unite as a
community with commitment. Ishizuka says she hopes visitors learn about how VC has used media as a tool for
self-empowerment and community building and that there has been a long history
of community activism that must be continued.
To commemorate the opening day of the exhibition on May 25 at 2:00 p.m. JANM will host VC co-founders and exhibition curators Duane Kubo, Robert Nakamura, and Eddie Wong in a panel discussion about the history of VC and the creation of this show. They will be joined by Karen Ishizuka, who will moderate the discussion, helping to place VC’s history as the first Asian Pacific American media organization in the country within the context of today’s changing world. RSVP here.
On May 9, join us for a special free screening
at JANM of Masters of Modern Design: The
Art of the Japanese American Experience. This documentary, a co-production
between JANM’s Watase Media Arts Center and KCET for the series ARTBOUND,
explores how the World War II American concentration camp experience impacted
the lives of five Japanese American artists and designers and ultimately sent
them on trajectories that led to their changing the face of American culture
with their immense talents.
From the hand-drawn typeface on the cover of The Godfather to Herman Miller’s
biomorphic coffee table, the work of Japanese American designers including Ruth
Asawa, George Nakashima, Isamu Noguchi, S. Neil Fujita, and Gyo Obata permeated
postwar culture. While these second-generation Japanese American artists have
been celebrated, less-discussed is how their WW II incarceration—a period of great
hardship and discrimination—had a powerful effect on their lives and art.
We talked to Akira Boch, Director of the
Watase Media Arts Center, about the process of making this documentary.
JANM: Did you learn anything surprising or new
about the featured artists that you didn’t know before?
Akira Boch: I only had a basic knowledge of each of these artists before jumping into this project. I knew the highlights—that Fujita created The Godfather logo and legendary jazz album covers, Noguchi made the Akari lanterns and lots of public sculptures, Asawa made her iconic hanging wire sculptures, Obata was the architect behind America’s most celebrated sports stadiums (and JANM of course), and Nakashima was famous for his live-edge wood furniture. Delving deeply into their lives made me realize that each of them lived boldly, and had lives of great adventure. They lived with curiosity and without fear—which made each of them a great artist whose work we’re still celebrating today. I hope that we were able to capture some of that and do justice to their lives in our film.
JANM: How long did it take to produce the
AB: The idea for the film came from an article written by Alexandra Lange for Curbed. I was first contacted about working on the project in September of last year. I immediately started researching and making contact with potential interviewees. We shot the film primarily in October and November of 2018. Editing started shortly after that.
JANM: What was the most challenging thing
about making the documentary?
AB: The most challenging thing was creating a
structure for the film that told the stories of five main characters and tying
them all together thematically. Ensemble stories are difficult to tell because
a limited amount of screen time needs to be shared equally. We wanted to be
sure that the audience got a good sense of each of the artists, their struggles
JANM: Was there a location you visited while
making the documentary that stands out in your mind?
AB: We shot this film primarily in San
Francisco, New York City, and New Hope, Pennsylvania. I think shooting in New
Hope was the highlight in terms of locations. There, we were able to see the
magnificent compound—utopia, if you will—that George Nakashima created in the
woods of Pennsylvania. He was the architect of all of the structures on the
property, which includes a couple of houses, a work studio, a showroom, a wood
storage barn, and a guest house. Because he had worked as an architect and
lived in Japan for several years, he embraced Japanese aesthetics. So, it was
amazing to see those Japanese architectural influences in the middle of an
American forest. And of course, the buildings were full of his gorgeous
JANM: What did you learn by making the
AB: All that I learned about the extraordinary
lives of the artists that we featured could not be included in the one-hour
time limitation of this film. That’s why the final piece is so packed with
fascinating material. For the audience, I hope this film is a jumping-off point
for further investigation because each of these artists led such rich, complex
lives. In terms of life lessons gleaned from these artists, I’d say that the
combination of persistence, hard work, curiosity, and courage can lead to a
This screening is free, but RSVPs are recommended using this link. A Q&A with the filmmakers and some of the people interviewed for the film and a light reception will follow the screening. If you’re not able to make the screening, starting May 15, the film will be broadcast in Southern California on KCET and available for streaming on kcet.org/artbound.
Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres welcomed guests
to the annual Gala Dinner and Silent Auction on April 13, kicking off a festive
evening for more than 1,000 people who came together in support of JANM and its
wide-ranging work. This year’s theme paid tribute to the museum’s Charter Members—the
first individuals and families to see and believe in the importance of the
museum and its enduring role in our democratic society. JANM’s Watase Media
Arts Center produced a video about some of these individuals; it featured poet
and educator Amy Uyematsu, scholar and author Barbara Kawakami, World War II
Military Intelligence Service veteran and author Edwin Nakasone, and
photographer Stan Honda–all JANM Charter Members.
Ann Curry, the Gala’s featured speaker, was
one of the highlights of the evening. A former NBC News anchor and international
correspondent, Curry has reported on conflicts and humanitarian disasters all
over the world. In October 2018, as a writer for National Geographic Magazine, Curry wrote about the mass
incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry during World War II and the racism
and prejudice that gave rise to it. Her speech at the Gala touched upon the
political divisiveness the world has seen in recent years as well as her
family’s own experiences with discrimination.
Earlier in the evening, a fast and furious
round of donations went to support JANM’s Bid for Education; over $200,000 was
raised. Those funds go to support bus transportation and museum admission for
primary and secondary school students from Title I schools and groups who have
demonstrated financial need. Bid for Education funds also supports K-12
educator workshops and many other educational initiatives.
On a more somber note, the night included an In
Memoriam segment, honoring remarkable individuals who played significant roles
in furthering JANM’s mission to promote appreciation of diversity by sharing
the Japanese American experience. Grateful Four, a group of music-loving
friends that try to connect to their Japanese American culture and give back to
their community through the power of song, accompanied the video presentation
of those who passed in the year since the last Gala.
As the night concluded, guests left with an
even deeper understanding of the vital work the museum does: presenting
engaging exhibitions, providing docent-led tours for school groups, speaking
out against injustice and discrimination, preserving our sizable permanent
collection of artifacts, and much more. To all of our generous supporters and
friends who made the Gala such a successful and meaningful evening, thank you
for joining us!
It’s almost your last chance to see the
exhibition Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit. Closing April 28, the
exhibition features contemporary photos taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning
photojournalist Paul Kitagaki Jr. displayed next to images shot 75 years ago by
War Relocation Authority (WRA) photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Clem
Albers during World War II. Each pairing in the exhibition features the same
individuals or their direct descendants as the subject matter. Paul spent years
tracking down the formerly unknown subjects in WRA-era photos. After countless
hours at the National Archives in Washington, DC, and through tips from family,
friends, and the public, he found more than 60 individuals or their descendants
to photograph. One such pair of photos in the exhibition features Yukiko
Yukiko Okinaga Hayakawa was two years old in
1942 when she was photographed waiting at Los Angeles’s Union Station, not far
from her home in Little Tokyo, for a train that would take her and her mother
to the Manzanar concentration camp. In the photo, she’s holding a partially
eaten apple in one hand and a tiny purse in the other. Peeking out from her corduroy
jacket is is the paper family identification tags worn by those forcibly
removed, serving as a reminder of their second class status during this time. Photographer
Clem Albers captured the far-off look in her eyes–a look of confusion and
uncertainty. This now-famous photo has become representative of innocence lost
during that time in history.
In 2005, Paul Kitagaki Jr. traveled with Yukiko
on her first visit to Manzanar since her incarceration. He took her photo in a
field near the camp’s Block 2, where she had once lived. Among the last of the incarcerees
released, she and her mother left Manzanar in October 1945 for Cleveland, Ohio,
where another Japanese American family sponsored them. Her mother went on to
work as a cleaning woman and later as a seamstress. Yukiko went to Lake Forest
College in Illinois and then graduate school at Tulane University in New
Today Yukiko Okinaga Llewellyn (née Hayakawa) is
a retired Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Registered Student
Organizations at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, where she worked
with Asian student groups and helped establish the university’s Asian Studies program.
She taught about the incarceration experience and was active in the redress
movement.In fact, in the fall of 1986, she wrote to her congressman,
Representative Terry Bruce, and spoke with his staff about the movement.
Through her persistence, the “little girl with the apple” helped win Rep.
Bruce’s support. To this day, Yukiko continues to educate others about what
happened to Japanese Americans in the 1940s in the hope that it doesn’t happen
again to someone else.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we want to
highlight the work of two pioneering Japanese American women.
Mitsuye Yamada is a poet, essayist, activist,
and former professor of English. In 1942, when Mitsuye was 17, she and her
family were sent to America’s concentration camps, where they were forced to
stay for the duration of World War II. After the war, she received a BA from
New York University, then an MA from the University of Chicago, and an honorary
doctorate from Simmons College.
traci kato-kiriyma, curator for Discover
Nikkei’s monthly poetry column, recently wrote about Mitsuye, who, at age 95,
has a new book, Full Circle, New and Selected Poems, being published in June 2019.
Here’s an excerpt of Mitsuye’s thoughts on her new book:
“Many of these poems seem to focus on my
relationships with my family. My parents had always taught my brothers and me
to move forward in life, no matter what obstacles are placed before us, I
continue to hear their admonitions and put them into writing. Each of us are
keepers of our unique family histories. Writing them down in whatever form you
choose is a way of keeping your family lore alive.
Also you might say I’m quite opinionated, and
can’t help responding to whatever that is going on around me and tend to
express these thoughts in poetry. At my present advanced age, I decided it is
about time I published another book.”
Wakako Yamauchi, who died in 2018 at the age
of 93, was a Nisei playwright. Her most celebrated work, And the Soul Shall Dance, is a staple of the Japanese American
theatrical repertoire. Ross Levine recently authored a multi-part exploration
about her life. Here’s a brief excerpt from Part 1:
“Yamauchi, who was a personal friend of mine,
achieved her greatest renown as a playwright, but when relating an incident or
articulating her thoughts, she always seemed to be speaking in prose, searching
for the mot juste as she gestured
broadly with upturned palms.
Yamauchi’s parents, Yasaku and Hama, were
Issei—that is, immigrants from a truly imperial land, Japan. They had left
their homeland lured by the promise of prosperity and the chance to escape the
stifling traditions that defined all aspects of life in the Shizuoka Prefecture
southeast of Tokyo. What awaited them in California was the Alien Land Law,
first enacted in 1913 and aimed expressly at the Japanese. It prohibited ’aliens
ineligible for citizenship‘ from owning agricultural land or leasing it
long-term, thus relegating the Nakamuras to the peripatetic life of itinerant
She was a thin, energetic woman with an oval
face, a wide smile and eyes that effortlessly toggled between a mischievous
delight and an expression of deep empathy. She was born Wakako Nakamura in the
small town of Westmoreland (now Westmorland), socked between Brawley and the
Salton Sea in California’s Imperial Valley. There was little ’imperial‘ about
life there, and the ’valley‘ was part of the vast Sonoran Desert, flat and
barren, its soil encrusted with white alkali, amenable to agriculture only
through relentless irrigation.
On February 16, the Japanese American National
Museum proudly hosted the 2019 Los Angeles Day of Remembrance, marking the 77th
anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066, which
led to the forced exclusion and incarceration of Japanese Americans during
World War II. With our many partners for the event, we honored and remembered
those who were confined in America’s concentration camps during the war.
The day centered on the theme Behind Barbed Wire: Keeping Children Safe
and Families Together. By exploring parallels of America during the 1940s
and those in our country today, the program drew comparisons between the
concentration camps that forcibly held Japanese Americans and the eerily
similar modern-day detention centers currently used to hold migrants, mostly
from Central America, who are seeking asylum in the United States to escape
poverty, violence, and gangs. The evolution of rhetoric surrounding immigration
in America was also probed.
The 2019 Los Angeles Day of Remembrance opened
with a solemn but vibrant musical performance by Ichiza Taiko, followed by a dramatic
reading (in two parts) of the Kondo family letters from camp by Edward Hong and
Kelvin Han Yee. The letters told a story of trauma, perseverance, and
ultimately survival that put a very personal face on those who lived during this
tragic chapter in the nation’s history. The Day of Remembrance closed with the
audience taking a poignant oath together, promising to be unafraid to use their
voice and to care for others who are voiceless.
JANM’s partners for the Day of Remembrance
were Go For Broke National Education Center, Japanese American Citizens
League–Pacific Southwest District, Japanese American Cultural & Community
Center, Kizuna, Manzanar Committee, Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress,
Nikkei Progressives, Organization of Chinese Americans–Greater Los Angeles, and
Progressive Asian Network for Action (PANA).
The Japanese American National Museum is
collaborating with The Nippon Foundation on a large-scale research project
trying to learn about how young people of Japanese ancestry (Nikkei) experience
and express their Japanese heritage. The first of its kind, this project seeks
to dig deep into Nikkei communities around the world and to explore their
differences and similarities.
Are you a Nikkei age 18 to 35? We want to hear
from you! Regardless of when your ancestors emigrated from Japan, their
destination country, or where you now reside, we want you to help develop a
picture of current Nikkei communities, needs or challenges they face now, and
those that may arise soon. There is currently no other research investigating
younger generation Nikkei communities on a global level.
The team leading this research includes Dr. Curtiss Takada Rooks, who is Assistant Professor, Department of Asian and Asian American Studies, and Senior Research Associate Psychology Applied Research Center and Program Coordinator, Asian Pacific American Studies at Loyola Marymount University; and Dr. Lindsey Sasaki Kogasaka, Assistant Director of Study Abroad at Pomona College. Rooks’ research focuses on ethnic and multiracial identity, ethnic community development, and cultural competency in community health and wellness. Kogasaka specializes in cross-cultural exchange and training, international migration, and the Asian diaspora in Latin America.
The Nippon Foundation, which initiated this
project and selected JANM as its partner, was established in 1962 as a
nonprofit philanthropic organization, active in Japan and around the world. Its
range of activities encompasses education, social welfare, public health, and
other fields—carried out in more than 100 countries to date. The Nippon
Foundation also reached out to Discover Nikkei, which has a global network, for
its help in conducting the research. The results of this study will be
published after the spring of 2020.
The survey takes just 10-15 minutes to complete. Although the target audience is Nikkei, including those with mixed ancestry, between the ages of 18–35, others are welcome to participate. Please share this opportunity with friends or family who may be interested. Hurry—the survey closes at midnight (PST) on February 28, 2019!
After Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment exploded. Along with general suspicion toward Japanese Americans, those who practiced Buddhism were often specifically targeted. Even before the smoke had cleared at Pearl Harbor, the American government was already rounding up Buddhist leaders for detention. With Buddhist communities under surveillance and anti-Japanese attitudes reaching a boiling point, some Japanese American Buddhists even contemplated converting to Christianity in hopes this would save them from being sent to American concentration camps.
Today, Buddhism is seen favorably by most Americans as a peaceful religion. However, this wasn’t the case in the early twentieth century. Americans in the early 1900s were warned by newspapers and individual leaders in the Christian community that Buddhism was cruel to animals, degrading toward women, and led by debaucherous priests. These unsavory sentiments led some Buddhists to consciously present their faith to be more compatible with Christian tastes by saying, like Christianity, they had a god.
In Duncan Ryuken Williams’ new book, American Sutra. A Story of Faith and Freedom
in the Second World War, he details this bigotry against Buddhists during
World War II. The book also explains how the Japanese American community,
though forcibly dispossessed of their property and imprisoned in concentration
camps, fought for their religious freedom, and how this gave rise to a new type
American Buddhism. Williams writes that born out of the struggle to gain
liberty from the concentration camps and the longing to practice religion
freely “the (US) constitution became a new scripture for Buddhists in America, one that would protect their
freedom to practice the Dharma in the land of liberty they called home.”
Williams, a Soto Zen Buddhist priest and
Director of the University of Southern California Shinso Ito Center for Japanese
Religions and Culture, uses internment camp newsletters, newly translated
letters and diaries, and interviews with camp survivors and Japanese American
WWII veterans to explain how, even in the face of suspicion and prejudice,
their faith strengthened and helped them persevere. Published by Belknap Press,
American Sutra also asks the question
that’s still as pertinent now in the US as it was in 1941: Is a non-Christian
person of color as American as a white Christian? Williams seeks answers by
examining the history of Buddhist migration to the US and the roots of Buddhism
being seen as a security threat to the US. The book concludes with a poignant
story of an incarcerated Buddhist priest conducting the ritual practice of
copying and burying a Buddhist sutra
(scripture) in hopes of bringing forth the salvation of future generations of
Japanese American Buddhists.
On Saturday, February 23, see Duncan Ryuken Williams speak about American Sutra while exploring questions of faith, identity, and resilience in the face of dislocation, loss, and uncertainty. His talk will be followed by comments and discussion with Brian Niiya (Content Director, Densho), Naomi Hirahara (award-winning author and historian), and Valerie Matsumoto (UCLA Aratani Chair on the Japanese American Incarceration, Redress, and Community). Reception and book signing will follow. This program is free, but RSVPs are recommended using this link.
Have you seen our exhibition Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit yet? It features large-format contemporary photos taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Paul Kitagaki Jr. displayed next to images shot 75 years ago by War Relocation Authority (WRA) photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Clem Albers during World War II. Each pairing in the exhibition features the same individuals or their direct descendants as the subject matter.
Paul has spent years tracking
down the formerly unknown subjects in WRA-era photos. After countless hours at
the National Archives in Washington, DC, and through tips from family, friends,
and the public he has found more than 60 individuals or their descendants to
photograph. We caught up with Paul via email to ask him a few questions about
this project, his process, and what he has learned by working with his
JANM: What are the
similarities and differences between your Gambatte
work versus your job as a photojournalist?
Kitagaki Jr: I’ve been a photojournalist for 40 years and have worked at seven
different newspapers on the West Coast. This project has been similar to an
investigative piece, taking a tremendous amount of research, looking for clues to
the identities of unidentified people from over 70 years ago. Once the subject
had been identified, I had to gain their trust to participate. It was very slow
for the first few years. It has taken over 13 years to build this body of work,
matching 61 historical photos with the same subjects today sharing their stories.
I started with an idea of finding the identities of the subjects photographed
by Dorothea Lange, I never thought I would find the amount of subjects in the
exhibition and book. These are the images that have been burned in my memory when
I first learned of Executive Order 9066 as a teenager in 1970.
my first trip to the National Archives in 1984, I searched over 900 Dorothea
Lange photographs looking for my family. As I looked through the boxes of
images of the government historical record of the incarceration, the faces of
the unidentified Japanese Americans haunted me and I wanted to know what had
happened to them and if their experience was the same or different from my
family. Maybe I could learn more than what my parents hadn’t spoken of.
In your Gambatte portraits, are you
more spontaneous with your subjects or are you trying to capture an idea you
When I photograph a subject I have an open mind of how they will be
photographed. I look at the historical photograph of the subject and try to
find a feeling from the image that I might be able to incorporate in my
contemporary photograph. It might be the location of the historical image or
something from the subject’s life today that relates to being a Japanese
American. When I meet them at their home, I collaborate with the subject and
ask for something that might relate to their story. I might ask them if they have
anything personal they brought to camp with them. Many times they don’t have
anything from that time in their lives.
Since you’re dealing with serious, oftentimes painful memories, how do you make
your subjects feel at ease and comfortable?
The subject is very serious, often with painful memories that haven’t been
shared outside of the family and sometimes not even in the family. I explain to
them how important their stories are and that they are the only ones who can
create a lasting personal and historical record of Executive Order 9066. You have to remember that many Sansei, Yonsei, and
Gosei never heard the stories of the incarceration and the emotional and
financial toll it took on their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.
Many of the Issei and Nisei didn’t share their stories with their own families.
Are there any lasting lessons you’ve learned from the camp survivors you’ve photographed?
common theme the survivors voiced is that they don’t want this to happen again,
to anybody. There was nobody to speak out and defend them as they silently went
into the incarceration camps. They all have an inner strength. They wanted to move on and not burden their children
with the shame they endured so many years ago. We saw how their civil rights
had been violated, but they triumphed over adversity, they didn’t give up, they
keep trying to do their best in the most difficult situations while locked away
in the incarceration camps during WWII and that is the spirit of the word gambatte.
Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming book?
PK: The book will be out in April 2019 and is titled Behind Barbed Wire. The 152-page hardcover book with 137 photographs will have 61 stories of the Japanese Americans incarcerated in the camps. We look at the time before forced removal, the forced removal days, and life in the camps. The book is based on 13 years of research from the interviews and photographs from the national touring exhibition Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit that has been shown across the country. We are hoping to share the book and exhibition in more places across the US and abroad.
What would you like the legacy of this project to be?
I want the stories and photographs of Executive Order 9066 to be shared with a
diverse audience who might not know what had happened during WWII to Japanese
American citizens. Many of the subjects have said they don’t want this to
happen to anybody else and feel the importance of sharing this story.
am still looking for more subjects and hope to add a multimedia video component
to the project. Hearing the voices will be a powerful addition to the story
In many public and private schools across the nation, this chapter of American history is rarely being taught. This exhibit and book offers a visual opportunity to learn about this time in history and to educate a new generation of gatekeepers, as well as the older generations, about the tragedy of war and the importance of standing up for the constitutional rights of all people. Although the Japanese American incarceration occurred over 70 years ago, events such 9/11, the upheaval that followed, and the racial turmoil in the US reveal that the message of this exhibit is more relevant than ever. I hope that future generations will be inspired by these stories and images. Hopefully, we can get it to more educational institutions such as high schools and universities as part of the reading curriculum. Many school education materials have a few paragraphs, or nothing at all, on the factual information of the incarceration but not the human toll it took on the Issei, Nisei, and Sansei and how it changed their lives forever.
On Saturday, February 9, see Paul Kitagaki Jr. at JANM in conversation with subjects of his work to discuss his creative process, stories about the images, and the effects this project has had on those both behind and in front of the camera. An audience Q&A follows the discussion. On the same day, if you are a JANM member, join Paul Kitagaki Jr. for a members only meet-and-greet and/or a gallery tour of Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit (tour limited to 25 participants). RSVP here.
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.
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
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
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.
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.