No-No Boy: Ruth Ozeki Reflects on the Legacy of a Japanese American Classic

Originally published in 1957,  John Okada‘s No-No Boy tells the story of Ichiro Yamada, a fictional version of the real-life “no-no boys.” Yamada answered “no” twice in a compulsory government questionnaire as to whether he would serve in the armed forces and swear loyalty to the United States. Unwilling to pledge himself to the country that interned him and his family, Ichiro earns two years in prison and the hostility of his family and community when he returns home to Seattle.

As Ruth Ozeki writes in her foreword to the new edition of this classic book, Ichiro’s “obsessive, tormented” voice subverts Japanese postwar “model-minority” stereotypes, showing a fractured community and one man’s “threnody of guilt, rage, and blame as he tries to negotiate his reentry into a shattered world.” Here, we feature an excerpt from Ozeki’s  powerful new foreword, which she wrote as a personal letter to John Okada.

Dear John Okada,

I’m writing to you across time, as one writer to another, to congratulate you on the reissue of your groundbreaking novel, No-No Boy. The University of Washington Press has done me the honor of asking me to write a new foreword to your book, and to tell you the truth, I’m nervous. I wish I could consult with you, or visit you and ask you for your blessing, but I can’t.

You probably don’t even know that your novel was groundbreaking. When it was published, back in 1957, you probably thought it was a colossal failure. It’s hard enough to write a novel, and harder still to get one published, but then to have it so completely ignored—this must have been crushing. Your original publisher, Charles E. Tuttle, was based in Tokyo, which I’m sure didn’t help your chances for success in North America. The few critics here who bothered to review it pretty much panned it.They bitched about your “bad English” and said it wasn’t literature. Even Japanese Americans shunned it. It seems they were embarrassed by it, which sounds crazy now, but in retrospect I suppose I understand why. In No-No Boy you wrote unflinchingly about the scarring experience of being a Japanese American on the West Coast during World War II, but that war had only ended twelve years earlier, and twelve years is no time at all. When your book came out, Japanese Americans were busy keeping their heads down, assimilating, and working on becoming the model minority of 1950s America. It’s understandable. They had been rounded up and sent to prison camps in the desert. They had lost their homes and businesses and communities. They had suffered, and they wanted to move on. No-No Boy was radical, but it was ahead of its time. It was angry and raw. It touched nerves and opened wounds. It reminded them of a past they wanted to forget, and so they rejected it. Your book disappeared almost overnight.

Of course, you don’t need me to tell you all this. You probably spent those years after publication thinking about what had happened,turning it over in your mind, trying to understand why your book had failed to find readers. To some extent, it must have broken your heart, and I’m guessing this is so because you never wrote another.

But what you don’t know is this: twelve years after its initial publication, a guy named Jeff Chan found a copy of your book in a Japantown bookstore in San Francisco, and he started passing it around to his Chinese American and Japanese American literary buddies, and little by little, they grew passionate about it. They formed a group called CARP, the Combined Asian-American Resources Project, and finally, in 1976, they reissued your book. And this time, people paid attention.

Two decades had passed, and the world had changed. The civil rights movement had made huge gains. Americans were talking about racism and discrimination. Japanese Americans were starting to speak out against the internment and criticize the United States government for its unconstitutional policies during the war. There was even the beginning of a reparations movement for internees. By 1976, people were ready for your book, and they read it and loved it and were inspired by it. And this should have been a wonderful moment for you, seeing your book republished and appreciated, and your passion for writing vindicated at last, but sadly it was not as wonderful as it should have been because you were dead.

When you died in 1971 of a heart attack, at the age of forty seven, you still thought your novel was a failure, and I’m truly sorry about that, and I’m writing this now to tell you that it wasn’t. No-No Boy has the honor of being the first Japanese American novel, and among the first of what has become an entire literary canon of Asian American literature. You broke the ground for us, John Okada, and now, in 2014, we’re celebrating you again. I just wish you were alive to enjoy this moment.

–Ruth Ozeki, from her new foreword to No-No Boy

“Asian American readers will appreciate the sensitivity and integrity with which the late John Okada wrote about his own group. He heralded the beginning of an authentic Japanese American literature.”
-Gordon Hirabayashi, Pacific Affairs

“Nisei will recognize the authenticity of the idioms Okada’s characters use, as well as his descriptions of the familiar Issei and Nisei mannerisms that make them come alive.”
-Bill Hosokawa, Pacific Citizen


3 thoughts on “No-No Boy: Ruth Ozeki Reflects on the Legacy of a Japanese American Classic

  1. Beverly Harvey

    Wouldn’t it be refreshing if all people would say no to war, no matter what their countries. How sad that John Okada died without knowing his book had such an impact. I am angry when I hear the warmongers in our government wanting to send people off to war yet again. I’m grateful for the President’s efforts to keep us out of wars. Your book is wonderful, Ruth.

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