No-No Boy

No-No Boy Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on John Okada's No-No Boy. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of John Okada

John Okada was born in Seattle in the early 1920s to first-generation Japanese immigrant parents. He went to college in Seattle, at the University of Washington, but the Second World War interrupted his education. Okada and his family were interned by the United States Government, first at the Puyallup Assembly Center in Washington, and then at an internment camp in Minidoka, Idaho. A year and a half after the U.S. Government began interning its Japanese citizens, it reinstated the draft for them. Okada did not wait to be drafted, instead enlisting as soon as he was allowed. He served as an interpreter, and eventually rose to the rank of sergeant. After the war, Okada completed his first Bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington in English Literature, earned a MA at the Columbia University Teacher’s College, and then earned a second Bachelors in Library Science, again from UW.  Okada then moved to Detroit with his wife and two children. There, he wrote No-No Boy, his first and only novel, which received no attention from the Japanese community or the greater literary community at the time. Although he continued to write for the rest of his life, Okada died at 47 without ever seeing the enormous positive critical and cultural response to No-No Boy, which began in the 1970s with the beginning of the Asian American literary movement.
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Historical Context of No-No Boy

No-No Boy takes place in a Japanese-American community in the immediate aftermath of World War II. To fully understand the novel, one must understand the role of Japan in WWII, and the American government’s treatment of its Japanese-American citizens. Japanese immigration to the United States began in the late 1860s, during the first years of the Japanese Meiji period, which marked a turn from feudal isolation to increased Westernization. Japanese immigration to the States remained steady for two decades, spiking after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 radically restricted Chinese immigration, and then stopping almost entirely after the Immigration Act of 1924, which was created with the specific intent of preventing non-white people from entering the United States. Although many new Japanese immigrants were now barred from entering the country, first generation immigrants living in the U.S., known as Issei, began to settle down and have families. The Issei’s second-generation children, known as Nisei, were often as American as they were Japanese, which created stark generational divides. World War II began in 1939, but the United States’ involvement truly began in 1941, when Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was bombed by the Japanese military. Although other U.S. enemies included Germany and Italy, and hundreds of thousands of citizens of German and Italian descent lived in America and potentially retained fondness for, or loyalty to, their countries of origin, the United States government moved to intern approximately 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry, ostensibly to contain any security risk Japanese men and women still loyal to Japan might pose to their adopted home. Although the United States imprisoned its own citizens and stripped them of their constitutional rights, it nonetheless held them accountable to the draft, forcing young Japanese American men to answer a loyalty questionnaire, including questions 27 and 28, which asked “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?" Those who answered yes to both questions were allowed to serve in the military, but those who answered no to both were branded “no-no boys,” and imprisoned for the duration of the war.

Other Books Related to No-No Boy

No-No Boy is often cited as the very first work of Asian American Literature. Although this is not literally true, and other books had been written by first- or second-generation Asian authors living in America—books like Yung Wing’s 1909 autobiography My Life in China and America or Etsuko Sugimoto’s 1925 autobiography A Daughter of the Samurai predated Okada’s novel by decades—No-No Boy was directly responsible for the birth of the Asian American Literary movement. Discovered in a used bookstore by a group of young Asian American men, No-No Boy helped inspire Frank Chin, Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong to publish Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers, the first anthology of its kind. This anthology, and No-No Boy’s rediscovery, marked the birth of a movement that included works by Asian American authors and their specific cultural experiences in America. Other works similar to No-No Boy include Monica Sone’s memoir Nisei Daughter (1953), which tells about her experience as a Japanese-American woman and her time in internment camps during WWII, Hisaye Yamamoto’s Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories (1988), also about her experience as a Japanese-American woman and about the differences between first- and second-generation immigrants, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s memoir (co-written with husband James D. Houston) Farewell to Manzanar (1973) about her time in an internment camp, and Julie Otsaka's When the Emperor was Divine, which also deals with the internment camps and racism toward Japanese Americans during and after World War Two.
Key Facts about No-No Boy
  • Full Title: No-No Boy
  • When Written: 1950s
  • Where Written: Detroit, Michigan
  • When Published: 1957
  • Literary Period: Asian American Literature, Post-War Fiction
  • Genre: Realistic Fiction
  • Setting: 1940s Washington
  • Climax: Kenji and Mrs. Yamada’s deaths
  • Antagonist: The U.S. Government, Racism and Prejudice
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for No-No Boy

A Second Chance. John Okada spent the last years of his life working on a second novel, and after his death his widow, Dorothy, attempted to get publishers interested in his unfinished book. Greeted with general apathy, Dorothy burned her husband’s notes and writing.

Day Job.  Okada never made significant money from his fiction. Instead he worked at a public library and then as a technical writer.