No-No Boy


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OKADA, John. No-No Boy. Rutland, Vermont / Tokyo, Japan: Charles E. Tuttle, (1957). Octavo, original half gray cloth and light green paper boards, original dust jacket. Housed in a custom clamshell box.

First edition of Okada's only published novel—"there is no other novel like it about Japanese Americans… a close literary kin to Richard Wright's Native Son"—one of a very small number printed in English in postwar Japan in 1957, long forgotten until the 1971 first American edition issued after Okada's death, an especially rare copy in the original dust jacket.

"The incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent during WWII has been widely recognized as one of the most egregious violations of civil and human rights in U.S. history." The forcible removal and imprisonment of over 110,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast was initiated in February 1942 by FDR's Executive Order 9066. "Those targeted were taken, usually with only several days' notice, to nearby 'relocation centers' before being transferred to one of ten 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 U.S." At the time John Okada was a student at the University of Washington. His father was arrested soon after Order 9066 was signed, and Okada and his family would be held and "separated for almost six months, after which they were sent to a prison camp in Minidoka, Idaho" (Los Angeles Review of Books).

In the camps Okada and other Japanese American men of service age "were forced to complete a loyalty questionnaire implemented by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) that required them to declare allegiance to the U.S. or face imprisonment. It was in providing negative responses to the following two questions that a second-generation Japanese American, henceforth called a Nisei, earned the moniker of no-no boy. '27.) Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered? 28.) Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attacks by foreign or domestic forces, and foreswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?'" (Trespassing Journal).

Okada's No-No Boy takes its title from two negative answers to the WRA questionnaire. His only published novel, its story of a young Nisei man, Ichiro Yamada, remains "an urtext of contemporary American literature" (Robinson, in John Okada, 237). A cornerstone work, it portrays the largely "unexpressed rage of the Nisei at their unjust imprisonment" (Abe, Introduction, John Okada, 4). "There is no other novel like it about Japanese Americans… its raw encounters of race—aggressively violent or ironically masked—and the intense narrative interiority of a racialized self, makes it… a close literary kin to Richard Wright's Native Son" (Atlantic). While Okada never cites the WRA questionnaire in No-No Boy, he "clearly presents Ichiro's story as… one who says 'no' to many things—the draft, a federal judge, his country, his ancestry" (Abe, 7).

Okada, who was permitted to leave his camp in order to "join the Military Intelligence Service… flew 24 reconnaissance missions in a B-24 over the Japanese coastline" (Abe, 4). In his novel, written "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 the camps and afterward (Los Angeles Review of Books). After U.S. publishers rejected No-No Boy, he finally found publisher Charles Tuttle, who was based in both the U.S. and Japan. No-No Boy was printed in Tokyo, in a very small printing of "1,500 in hardcover, with 1,500 softcover copies for sale only in Japan… When Okada held an advance copy in his hands, he was struck by two things: the anguish of the character in the jacket art by M. Kuwata, and the dramatic typography designed by Weatherby… [the] cover for No-No Boy depicted red strands of barbed wire crossing in an X over a sketch of a mop-haired Ichiro pressing his clenched fists into his face… Okada was ecstatic with the book design." On publication it was largely ignored by reviewers, but Okada would prize "a favorable notice in the prestigious Saturday Review, whose Earl Miner owned up to the tragedy that befell the 'Americans of Japanese descent whom we herded into concentration camps' and who grasped Okada's goal of showing how America was 'truly both the hero and the villain of the piece'" (Abe et al, John Okada, 89-92).

Okada, who died in 1971 at the age of 47, "never saw his work find an audience. Worse yet, his distraught widow tossed or burned his work on his unfinished second novel." Yet No-No Boy now stands as "a foundational work in Asian American studies" (Abe, 8-9). While a "group of Asian American writers and scholars were able to publish a first American edition" shortly after his death, Okada died "believing his book was forgotten. Now No-No Boy is widely recognized as a classic of Asian American literature" (Seattle Times). "The first 'Day of Remembrance' for the camps would not be mounted in Seattle until 1978, and the campaign it sparked for congressional action would not work its way until law until 1988… It would not be until the new millennium that books and films… would expose the false constructions of loyalty and disloyalty created by the government… and frame the principled protests of draft resisters… as a classic example of civil disobedience in the American 20th century" (Abe, 7-8). First edition, first printing: with "First edition, May 1957" on copyright page. Dust jacket front flap with price of $3.00 colored-over in red ink. Issued same year on wrappers, no priority determined.

Book fine with only tiny stray mark to rear pastedown; small closed tear to lower edge of rear panel, lightest edge-wear to lightly toned spine of bright near-fine dust jacket. An exceptional copy.

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