Saturday, March 1, 2014

"No-No Boy"

"It was not a time for clear thinking because the sense of loyalty had become dispersed and the shaken faith of an American interned in an American concentration camp was indeed a flimsy thing." 

I spent the past two days reading John Okada's novel, No-No Boy.  Written in 1957, No-No Boy is a fictional account of a lesser-known element of US history: the "no-no boys."

As I've mentioned in several previous posts on Asian American literature, beginning in April 1942, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) oversaw the removal and internment of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans from the West Coast of the United States.

These individuals, the majority of whom were American citizens (most Japanese residents in the US who were not American citizens were forced to return to Japan) were interned in various locations in Arizona, Utah, and elsewhere.

Beginning in December, 1943, the WRA implemented the "Application for Leave Clearance" form, also known as the "loyalty questionnaire."  The goal was to separate the "loyal" internees from the (potentially) "disloyal" ones, who were subsequently sent to Tule Lake, the largest of the 10 internment camps.

The term "no-no boys" refers to those who responded "no" to questions #27 & #28: "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?" and "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?"

Okada's novel tells the story of Ichiro Yamada, a "no-no boy" who was interned for two years and then imprisoned for two years, for answering "no" on the loyalty questionnaire and resisting the draft.  The novel begins with Ichiro's return to Seattle at the end of the war, and describes his attempt to start a new life for himself while simultaneously figuring out who he is and why he did what he did.

Throughout Okada's novel, there is an underlying emphasis on the fact that what Ichiro did was "very wrong."  At first, I found that a bit annoying, and couldn't help wondering whether, if Okada had written his novel a decade later, in the context of the conflict in Vietnam, he would have felt the need to insist on this point.

Because really, if the military police were to show up at your door one day, confiscate your property, and haul you off to a special "camp" because they suspect, on the basis of how you look and where your family comes from, that you might not be a "loyal" American--even though you were born in the US and never lived anywhere else--you'd probably be somewhat annoyed and reluctant to agree to much of anything that they want you to sign.

Nevertheless, only a very small minority of interned Japanese refused to sign, gave "qualified" answers or simply answered "no" on the loyalty questionnaire.  Most answered in the affirmative.

Seen in this light, Okada's decision to incorporate a strong, nationalist undercurrent throughout his novel makes sense.  And as the novel unfolded, it became apparent that Okada was using this backdrop to explore a wide range of complex issues and questions.

Why go to war for a country that refused to trust your loyalty?  Why refuse to go to war?  What does it mean to be American?  What does it mean to be Japanese American?  What is "treason"?  How are questions of "right" and "wrong" shaped by time, place and context?

Through the lens of Ichiro's anger, despair and bitterness, Okada explores the multifaceted responses to these--and other--questions, by incorporating a range of characters who represent the "American" reaction to the war and the internment in general and to Ichiro in particular.

Okada's novel is an interesting read.  Although at first glance it might seem a bit dated in its approach to war, identity and nationality, as the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that Okada was intrigued by the implications of what, on the surface, seems like a simple choice: "yes" or "no."

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