A writer and librarian, John Okada was born in 1923 in Seattle, Washington, where he lived the first 19 years of his life. Such stability did not last long for Okada, however. In the middle of his sophomore year at the University of Washington, he and his family (along with most of Seattle's Japanese American community) were forcibly evicted and held in a nearby “assembly center” at the Puyallup Fairgrounds, before being put on a train to the Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho.
Okada saw his time in Minidoka as both a harrowing experience and a rude interruption of his studies, so he made sure to be among the first group of nisei to obtain clearance to leave the camp to attend college outside its barbed-wire fences. He enrolled for a year at Scottsbluff Junior College in Nebraska, after which he enlisted in the U.S. armed forces. At Minnesota's Camp Savage, Okada trained with the Military Intelligence Service to be a Japanese/English translator, and he then took basic training at Camp Blanding—near Jacksonville, Florida—before being assigned to the “Flying 8 Ball,” the nickname for the 8th Army Air Forces Radio Squadron Mobile, in Guam. Okada quickly earned the rank of sergeant, volunteering to fly dangerous missions in B-24 aircrafts and to translate radio messages that he intercepted from the Japanese militia who controlled the islands below. After the surrender of Japan, effectively ending World War II, on August 15, 1945, Okada completed his final five months of active military service in the position of interpreter for the U.S. Occupation Forces.
Okada returned to the University of Washington in 1946 to earn his bachelor's degree in English and to write and stage dramatic productions as part of a campus playhouse. He continued his studies at the postgraduate level, receiving his master's degree in English from Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City. It was in Manhattan that he met Dorothy Arakawa, whom he married on June 24, 1950, in Seattle. The couple soon had a daughter and a son, and Okada returned to the University of Washington yet again for a second BA, this time in library science. He held a brief stint as an assistant in the business reference section
of the Seattle Public Library, where he continued to read widely, before moving his family to Michigan and taking a similar but better-paying position at the Detroit Public Library. Stability still failed to kick in for Okada, who quickly changed jobs once more, serving as a technical writer for Chrysler Missile Operations in Sterling Township. Most importantly, though, Okada used his time in Detroit to compose the manuscript for No-No Boy, his only novel, published in Japan in 1957 by Charles E. Tuttle Company.
Okada got his idea for the book from a personal acquaintance named Hajime “Jim” Akutsu, who also had been interned in Minidoka during World War II. In 1943, Akutsu had answered “no” and “no” (thus, he was a “no-no boy,” like the novel's protagonist, Ichiro Yamada) to questions 27 and 28 of the infamous “loyalty questionnaire” administered to male internees at the concentration camps that year. The questions read:
27. Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?
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, to any other foreign government, power or organization?
Believing those questions to be offensive and blasphemous, if answered in the affirmative, Akutsu refused to say “yes” to either one and was convicted as a draft resister and imprisoned for two years as a result. Okada spent several days interviewing Akutsu to learn more about his life, and No-No Boy soon took shape. Not only does it look at crucial questions for Japanese Americans during and after World War II; it addresses issues of importance to all Americans, as it traces the lineage of many racist structures and practices that divide white from Asian, Asian from black, and black from white in U.S. society.
When the novel was first released, it was almost entirely ignored. Charles Tuttle, its publisher, claimed that even the Japanese American community rejected the book. Several scholars have suggested that the timing of No-No Boy was as bad as could be (it was too soon), since a number of Japanese Americans either wanted to strike the awful internment years from their memories or to keep these thoughts to themselves. Either way, a published novel retelling the experience of the camps was not something many people looked forward to reading in 1957.
In the 1970s, though, No-No Boy was rediscovered by a group of Asian American writers who found its theme of dueling identities (Japanese/American) particularly well explored. The book is widely considered the first Asian American novel, and dramatist Ken Narasaki adapted it into a stage play (keeping the original title) in 2009. The play had its world premiere on March 26, 2010, at the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica, California.
Unfortunately, the popularity of No-No Boy and the recognition of Okada as one of the greatest Asian American fiction writers came after his death, of a heart attack, in 1971. At the time, the virtually unknown Okada was living in southern
California, where he worked as a technical writer for Hughes Aircraft and as publications manager for Analog Technology (an aerospace contractor), both while in the process of composing another novel about the issei. After several unsuccessful attempts to get this second literary project recognized, Okada's wife burned the entirety of the near-complete manuscript, leaving no trace of the creative process behind it.
Okada's legacy lives on in various forms. No-No Boy is now on reading lists in hundreds of high schools and universities in the United States, literary scholars continue to demonstrate the importance of the writer and his work, and Stanford University constructed an undergraduate residence hall—“a focal point for students to explore the Asian American experience”—in Okada's name in 1979.
Abe, Frank. In Search of No-No Boy. Seattle: Washington Civil Liberties Public Education Program, 2007.
Cheung, King-Kok. “John Okada.” In The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Edited by Paul Lauter. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2009.
Okada, John. No-No Boy. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980.