The Uneasy Afterlife of John Okada

By Christopher LeeFebruary 10, 2020

The Uneasy Afterlife of John Okada

John Okada: The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of "No-No Boy" by Floyd Cheung, Greg Robinson, and Frank Abe

THE SPECTERS OF WARTIME INCARCERATION have returned with a vengeance in the era of Donald Trump. During the 2016 campaign, supporters of then-candidate Trump openly cited the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II as a precedent for his proposed Muslim ban. This embrace of a historical injustice, which even Ronald Reagan declared to be a “grave wrong […] based solely on race,” makes clear that the racism and xenophobia of the 1940s remain deeply embedded in American life. This would therefore seem to be the perfect time to return to the work of John Okada, who, in his 1957 novel No-No Boy, pointedly asked how such an injustice could occur in an ostensibly democratic nation.

But No-No Boy was itself a subject of controversy last year when a new edition of the novel was published in the prestigious Penguin Classics series. Just as the new edition began to generate interest, it emerged that neither the Okada family nor the activist-writers who rediscovered the novel in the early 1970s had been consulted — let alone compensated — by the publisher. At the time, Penguin argued that the novel’s copyright lies in the public domain, but others have contested this claim, including the University of Washington Press, which has published the novel continuously since 1979. Eventually, Penguin decided to cease distributing its edition in the United States.

The Penguin controversy raises important questions about the responsibility of publishers and readers to attend to the collective contexts that have shaped Asian American literary culture. Last June, the American Studies Association issued a statement that criticized Penguin for failing to “acknowled[ge] the publication history of the novel.” At the same time, it noted that the themes of No-No Boy,

including the inextricable links between the securing of U.S. sovereignty and racism under the banner of national security, and the conditions and characteristics giving rise to militaristic masculinity and that justify militarism, resonate strongly certainly in the current context, but also in our apprehension of the history of the U.S. nation as a whole.

Thanks to the recent publication of a collection of previously unknown writings by Okada (John Okada: The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy), readers are in a better position to understand how these themes were embedded in the author’s life. Revisiting No-No Boy alongside the recent collection offers a valuable opportunity to connect the legacies of wartime incarceration with current struggles against a state that seems intent on repeating the injustices of the past.


In recent decades, the incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II has been widely recognized as one of the most egregious violations of civil and human rights in US history. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the forcible removal of around 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast. Those targeted were taken, usually with only several days’ notice, to nearby “relocation centers” before being transferred to one of 10 prison camps spread across seven states. Those who were imprisoned were only allowed to take what they could carry and the rest of their property was liquidated. These measures marked the culmination of decades of virulent racism that had already led to the systematic exclusion of Japanese Americans from social, political, and economic life in the United States.

Executive Order 9066 was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, which — in the notorious Korematsu v. United States (1944) case — upheld the order in the name of national security. But in this same ruling, the Court also declared that Japanese American citizens who were deemed loyal could not be detained indefinitely. That order accelerated efforts by authorities to determine the loyalty of prisoners through questionnaires and other forms of interrogation. While most inmates affirmed their loyalty to the United States, others viewed such questions with suspicion, and more than 12,000 who were deemed disloyal were sent to a maximum-security prison camp in Tule Lake in Northern California. Executive Order 9066 was finally rescinded in January 1945, although the last camp did not close until 1946.

When the Supreme Court ruled on the Muslim ban in 2016, they began by declaring that the Korematsu ruling was, in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, “gravely wrong the day it was decided.” But the majority of Justices then went on to declare the Korematsu case irrelevant to the Muslim ban itself, which they upheld, ironically, on the basis of national security. In critical ways, the Trump administration’s attacks on immigrants and peoples of color has brought the lessons of wartime incarceration to public attention. This past summer, elderly survivors were arrested while protesting plans to detain migrant children at a military base in Fort Sill, Oklahoma — a site which had been used to imprison Japanese Americans almost 80 years earlier (in the 1890s, Fort Sill held Native prisoners of war such as Geronimo, a reminder of the deeply entwined histories of race and incarceration in the United States).

The recent protest at Fort Sill highlights the political potency of what historian Karen Inouye has called the long afterlife of wartime incarceration. For Inouye, this afterlife refers not only to the lasting effects of trauma on survivors and their descendants, but also to the many moments when “a lingering feeling crystallizes into both individual and collective action.” It is commonly said that the past haunts the present; for many who were affected by wartime incarceration, the past is now being reanimated “to avert complacency in the face of continuing injustice.” As one of the most widely read literary depictions of this history, No-No Boy has undoubtedly played a part in this transformation; nevertheless, its tortured exploration of the social and psychic effects of imprisonment offers other lessons for our current moment.


John Okada was an undergraduate at the University of Washington when his father was arrested just a few days after Executive Order 9066 was signed. The Okada family would be separated for almost six months, after which they were sent to a prison camp in Minidoka, Idaho. John Okada was soon allowed to leave in order resume his studies in Nebraska. In 1943, he joined the Military Intelligence Service and was sent to Guam. After the war, he volunteered to serve with US occupation forces in Japan. By 1946, Okada had left the military and returned to Seattle. Resuming his studies at the University of Washington, he took several creative writing courses and graduated in 1947. He continued to hone his craft in later years while working as a librarian and advertising copywriter. No-No Boy, his landmark novel about a Japanese American draft resister, was published in 1957 by the Charles E. Tuttle company, a publisher based in Tokyo. However, it received negative reviews and quickly fell into obscurity. Okada was working on a second novel when he died of a heart attack in 1971 at the age of 47. Unable to find a suitable place for his papers and needing to sell their house, his widow Dorothy burned all his papers, including the unfinished manuscript.

While postwar Japanese Americans faced tremendous pressure to assimilate by putting the past behind them, Okada chose to write a novel that exposed the undercurrents of racism and self-hatred that resulted from wartime experiences. No-No Boy tells the story of Ichiro Yamada, who was sent to a federal prison for resisting the draft while inside the camps (the title of the novel refers to those who answered “no” on two questions pertaining to national allegiance on what was known as the “Loyalty Questionnaire” administered in the camps, and there is still debate about whether Ichiro technically belongs to this group). Okada creates an intimate portrait of a man haunted by his past and unable to build a new life. As Ruth Ozeki writes in her foreword to the most recent University of Washington Press edition, “Obsessive, tormented, his voice is a threnody of guilt, rage, and blame, as he tries to negotiate his reentry into a shattered world.” When the novel opens, Ichiro has just returned to Seattle, where he is immediately bullied by fellow Japanese Americans angry at what they see as his disloyalty to the United States. Meanwhile, his family is falling apart and his employment prospects seem dim. Ichiro’s attempts to reconstruct a sense of self and community are always stymied and by the end of the novel, his fate remains unresolved.

While few of Okada’s initial readers embraced Ichiro’s story, its rediscovery more than a decade later was a pivotal moment in the emergence of contemporary Asian American literature. In 1970, a group of young writer-activists in the Bay Area that included Frank Chin, Lawson Inada, Shawn Wong, and Jeffery Paul Chan came across No-No Boy in a secondhand bookstore. Drawn to Okada’s searing novel, they embraced him as a forefather for their own efforts to create a distinctly Asian American literary culture. Sadly, by the time they were able to visit Dorothy Okada in person, John had already been dead for several months. When their landmark anthology Aiiieeeee was published the same year, it featured an excerpt from No-No Boy. The Aiiieeeee editors — as they would become known — next arranged to republish No-No Boy and eventually turned the task over to University of Washington Press. Ever since then, No-No Boy has been at the heart of the Asian American literary canon, where it is often treated as a quasi-miraculous artifact that prophesied a literary renaissance that would only come to fruition after the author’s death.

Or, at least, this is the story I have told in numerous classes on Asian American literature over the years, as if the meaning of the No-No Boy depends on its later reception. The recent publication of John Okada: The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy (University of Washington Press, 2018) provides a much more nuanced portrait of an enigmatic literary figure by returning to Okada’s historical contexts. By shying away from hagiography, editors Frank Abe, Greg Robinson, and Floyd Cheung convey the complexity of his life and career as well as the continuing relevance of his writings.


Abe, Robinson, and Cheung’s John Okada consists of three parts: the first is a meticulously researched biographical essay by Abe, a veteran journalist, that delves into Okada’s life and locates the sources that would inspire the contents of No-No Boy, including a high school acquaintance who would become the basis for Ichiro. The second part is a collection of previously unknown writings by Okada that mostly predate No-No Boy. The third section consists of critical essays that assess various aspects of his career and literary legacy.

For readers already familiar with No-No Boy, the most anticipated aspect of John Okada is likely Okada’s previously unknown writings. Rediscovered by historian Greg Robinson, they include poetry, drama, short fiction, and essays that satirize the defense industry in which he was later employed. Mostly written as class assignments or for a local newspaper, these texts show Okada trying his hand at various genres from comedy to Gothic to creative nonfiction. This is, to be sure, a relatively modest collection both in terms of size and craft, but it provides clues to Okada’s development as a writer and his choice of subject matter.

Of particular interest in this regard is “When in Japan: The Captain Wasn’t Too Sharp on Diplomacy,” a one-act comedy that Okada wrote for his first creative writing class in 1946. Captain Harrison is an arrogant officer whose job is to commission propaganda films in the service of the American occupation of Japan. He pompously lectures local filmmakers about the merits of democracy and modernization but is completely uninterested in the concerns of Japanese audiences (Harrison openly refers to Japanese as children “struggling to learn the meaning of democracy”). His efforts fail when the filmmakers, fed up with his intransigence, adopt a “democratic” practice and go on strike, leaving the captain to the mockery of his subordinates. Written by a firsthand witness of the American occupation, the play reveals how Okada, an otherwise exemplary soldier who enlisted even while members of his family were still imprisoned, turned to writing to convey the hypocrisy of US power at its height. A similar sensibility pervades his two last publications, both of which were published in defense industry trade journals. In a 1961 article, for example, he exposes how the Cold War military industrial complex had become a cesspool of incompetence and waste, with precious resources going into creating lavish bids for lucrative contracts. The following year, he published another essay lampooning defense employees who game the system for financial and personal gain.

By highlighting the transpacific contexts of Cold War military power, these texts enable us to recast No-No Boy as a meditation on the effects of US power from the perspective of one of its domestic victims. Okada’s acerbic voice persists in the cynicism that reverberates throughout the novel. In the first essay of the third section of John Okada, literary scholar Floyd Cheung examines Okada’s interest in the absurd and traces, in his other writings, a pervasive sense of disillusionment with social institutions, authority, and indeed human progress. This sensibility, which recalls the preoccupations of American liberalism during the early Cold War, provided a lens through which to process his own wartime experiences. Writing at a time when the triumph of American power seemed assured both at home and abroad, Okada tried to make sense of the violence that he witnessed and experienced. In order to do so, he assembled a literary language that drew on elements of satire, noir, and Gothic to depict pervasive structures of race.

At one point in his essay, Cheung remarks, “Okada, among other Japanese Americans, must have grappled specifically with a loss of faith in the American way.” In No-No Boy, this grappling involves a series of relationships, each of which seem to offer Ichiro the possibility of moving beyond his impasse. One of his most important relationships (and the only sexual one) is with Emi, a Japanese American woman who also suffers from the traumatic effects of war. In one of the most memorable scenes in the novel, Emi urges Ichiro to get over his bitter hopelessness and recognize that just as the nation has wronged him, he should also admit his mistakes and reconcile with “a big country with a big heart.” As the scene continues, however, Emi’s patriotism seems less assured and appears more like a desperate attempt to cope with her own circumstances. As he does throughout the novel, Ichiro takes steps toward healing, but stops short. This stilted narrative rhythm underlies No-No Boy’s halting attempts to work through a past that was hardly acknowledgeable for many survivors when it first appeared.

Ichiro — or is that Okada? — never manages to come to terms with his status as a racialized American, but he never gives up trying. In the final scene, Ichiro wanders the streets of Seattle “chas[ing] that faint and elusive insinuation of promise as it continued to take shape in mind and in heart.” This line captures, in essence, the absurdity of No-No Boy: Ichiro continues to cling to a “promise” even as the novel fails to imagine a future in which its fulfillment would be possible. In the decades after No-No Boy was written, Ichiro’s elusive promise would take on more shape and substance through individual and collective actions that transformed the meaning of wartime incarceration from a source of shame that had to be concealed to an injustice that demanded redress. These efforts resulted in the historic 1988 Civil Liberties Act, which recognized its racist underpinnings and provided monetary reparations to survivors. The continued visibility of its survivors in recent activism testifies to the staying power of this shift.

Because No-No Boy played a key role in this transformation, its recognition as a “classic” is long overdue. But as the recent Penguin controversy demonstrated, such recognition cannot be separated from the larger social histories in which the novel has been central. From the invaluable efforts of the Aiiieeeee editors to bring Okada’s writing to readers’ attention to the ongoing animation of this novel in classrooms and other sites of Asian American literary culture, the afterlife of No-No Boy is, in many ways, a testament to the emergence and maturation of Asian American culture and politics in the last 50 years. Revisiting this novel during a time of resurgent white supremacy and anti-immigrant backlash also offers an opportunity to grapple with its structural and thematic ambiguity, its refusal to resolve the past despite its ardent desire to do so. The afterlife of No-No Boy, in other words, resists easy resolution and reminds us that the legacies of wartime incarceration continue to erupt in our present-day struggles.


Christopher Lee teaches at the University of British Columbia and is the author of The Semblance of Identity: Aesthetic Mediation in Asian American Literature

LARB Contributor

Christopher Lee is associate professor of English at the University of British Columbia, where he directs the Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies Program. He is the author of The Semblance of Identity: Aesthetic Mediation in Asian American Literature and serves as associate editor of American Quarterly


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