FAMOUS ASIAN AMERICAN PIGS
Finding Identity in Betrayal
ohn Okada's life as a pioneering but ignored and posthumously revived novelist embodies both the triumph and the tragedy of people who possess in great abundance the pig traits of strength of conviction, artistic integrity and blindness to the feelings of those outside the inner circle. Today Okada's No-No Boy is recognized as both the first Japanese American novel and one of the most intensely felt and authentic novels of the Asian American experience.
When it was first released in 1957 (Charles Tuttle) Okada's one and only published novel received virtually no attention from the Japanese American community. It was exactly the wrong story at the wrong time for people trying to put the troubling internment years behind them and fit into a socially rigid America. It wasn't until several years after Okada died, discouraged and unknown, of a heart attack in 1971 (another Pig year) that No-No Boy was discovered by Asian Americans.
In his July 29, 1976 introduction to a new edition of No-No Boy Lawson Fusao Inada writes of his meeting with John Okada's widow:
Dorothy is a truly wonderful person. It hurt to have her tell us that "you two are the first ones who ever came to see him about his work." It hurt to have her tell us that she recently burned his "other novel about the Issei, which we both researched and which was almost finished." It hurt to have her tell us that "the people I tried to contact about it never answered so when I moved I burned it, because I have him in my heart." You could say John was "ahead of his time", that he was "born too early and died too young".
Ironically, had John Okada modeled his protagonist Ichiro after himself, the novel might have enjoyed a better reception from a community eager to prove itself as a true-blue part of America that had done its part in the War and was embracing the American Dream.
John Okada was born in 1923 in Seattle. He served in the Air Force during World War II, attaining the rank of sergeant. After receiving B.A. degrees from the University of Washington in both English and library science, he earned a masters in English literature from Columbia University. Okada embodied the kind of mainstream credentials to which many in the Japanese American community aspired. By all appearances John Okada was a "Yes-Yes Boy".
Instead, he found himself drawn into the personal history of an acquaintence named Hajime "Jim" Akutsu who had been interned in Minidioka, Idaho. In 1943 Akutsu had answered "no" and "no" to the infamous Questions 27 and 28 of the loyalty questionnaire administered to male internees in 1943. Question 27 asked whether the respondent was willing to serve in the U.S. armed forces. Question 28 asked whether he was willing to "forswear allegiance" to the Japanese emperor. In response to these offensive questions Akutsu had obeyed his indignant heart and responded in the negative. That had made him a "No-No Boy", marked as disloyal to a nation that had betrayed him. A year later Akutsu was convicted as a draft resister and imprisoned for two years.
Okada spent days questioning Akutsu about his experiences. They must have resonated with the aspiring writer. Those sessions inspired Okada to write a novel whose intense consciousness of betrayal from both sides of his cultural heritage couldn't have been acquired entirely second hand.
No, he said to himself as he watched her part the curtains and start
into the store. There was a time when I was your son. There was a time
that I no longer remember when you used to smile a mother's smile and
tell me stories about gallant and fierce warriors who protected their lords
with blades of shining steel and about the old woman who found a peach
in the stream and took it, and when her husband split it in half, a husky
little boy tumbled out to fill their hearts with boundless joy. I was that lad
in the peach and you were the old woman and we were Japanese with
Japanese feelings and Japanese pride and Japanese thoughts because it was
all right then to be Japanese and feel and think all things that Japanese do
even if we lived in America. Then there came a time when I was only half
Japanese because one is not born in America and raised in America and
taught in America and one does not speak and swear and drink and smoke
and play and fight and see and hear in America among Americans in
American streets and houses without becoming American and loving it.
A character named Kenji embodies some of Okada's own experiences was a war veteran. Superficially Ichiro and Kenji lead widely divergent lives, but emotionally they suffer the same inner torment over their racial identities. Ultimately, No-No Boy looks beyond the Japanese American identity to trace the deep veins of racism that divide Asian from White, White from Black, Black from Asian.