IT WAS THE LATE ’60s, and a University of California, Berkeley, undergraduate named Shawn Wong wanted to write the next great American novel. He was born in Oakland, Calif., in 1949 to parents who emigrated from Tianjin, China, both of whom died by the time he was 15. Wong had fallen in love with literature, enchanted by James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and William Carlos Williams, and he, too, wanted to embark on a life as a writer.
At the time, Asian-Americans made up only 6 percent of U.C. Berkeley’s student population, and when Wong asked — professors, other English majors — what Asian-American literature he should read, what Asian-American writers he should know, no one could answer him. “I felt like the only Asian-American writer in the whole world,” he told me. After meeting three other writers, Frank Chin, Lawson Fusao Inada and Jeffery Paul Chan, the four began to search used bookstores in the Bay Area for works by Asian-Americans. They bought it all: Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu books, books with the word “Chinaman” in the title, restaurant guides, oil-stained cookbooks, books by people with Asian-sounding names who turned out not to be Asian. It didn’t matter. They were determined to find who came before.
Most of the books turned out to be useless — racist pulp and propaganda churned out at the height of Yellow Peril hysteria in the first half of the century or basking, decades later, in nostalgia for it. Then there was a book called “No-No Boy,” published in 1957 by an author named John Okada. Chan bought it for 50 cents. They put it aside, saving it to read later. There wasn’t any rush. After all, a decade had already passed. No one else they knew had bothered to read the book with the barbed wire on the cover.
“NO-NO BOY” was published by Charles E. Tuttle the year after Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room.” Like those books, it is a kind of generational reckoning with American bigotry. Unlike them, it gained little notice upon its release. It tells the story of Ichiro Yamada, a second-generation Japanese-American, or Nisei (a Japanese term for the generation born in the United States; those who immigrated from Japan are considered first-generation Americans, or Issei), who has just returned home to Seattle at the end of World War II. He is one of several hundred Japanese-Americans who refused to be drafted into service while incarcerated by the American government and were consequently sent to federal prison. The book’s title refers to the act of answering no to two questions in a mandatory survey issued by the government in February 1943, midway through the war, to all persons over the age of 17 in the camps: The first asked if men and women would be willing to serve in the armed forces if qualified. The second asked if they were willing to swear their allegiance to the United States and, in essence, renounce Japanese citizenship. It was a confusing, poorly conceived set of questions: The Issei could not become American citizens because of the discriminatory naturalization laws of the time, and would effectively be rendered stateless if they answered yes to the second. Meanwhile, most Nisei, who were already American citizens, objected to the suggestion that they had ever been loyal to the Japanese emperor. As a result of answering no or failing to respond to these questions, about 12,000 people were branded as disloyal and segregated in the harshest camp at Tule Lake, in California.
The Japanese-American concentration camps — more commonly called internment camps, though many Japanese-Americans today reject such euphemistic language — were effectively established in February 1942, when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The act authorized the military to set up zones “from which any or all persons may be excluded”; 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry (two-thirds of whom were United States citizens) living across the West Coast were stripped of their possessions, forcibly removed from their homes and imprisoned. But halfway through the war, as the fear of Japanese invasion subsided, the government began to question if the camps remained a good idea. They were costly, and morale was low. People in the camps felt abandoned by the American government, and small factions were becoming violent. Concerned that abruptly disbanding the camps would pose a risk, U.S. officials created the survey as a way to appease lingering paranoia throughout the country while allowing loyal Issei and Nisei to leave. According to Okada’s biographer, Frank Abe, the prevailing mentality at the time was a combination of resignation (, Japanese for “it can’t be helped”) and American patriotic fervor, epitomized by the Hawaiian pidgin expression “go for broke,” or “spilling one’s blood to prove one’s loyalty.” Therefore, the vast majority answered yes; saying no was not an option.
OKADA, A NISEI, was born in 1923 in Seattle and was forced to abandon pursuit of his pre-law degree at the University of Washington to be incarcerated at Minidoka, in Hunt, Idaho, in 1942. He was only there for three weeks before leaving for Scottsbluff Junior College in Nebraska, through a dispensation that allowed Nisei students to apply to schools outside the West Coast exclusion zone. After a year, he left to serve in the war in a secret mission, where more linguistically gifted Nisei studied Japanese so they could work as military translators. (To the surprise of the American government, most Nisei did not speak Japanese well enough to understand the enemy.) Okada spent his years in the war flying over the Pacific, intercepting messages from the Japanese forces while in the belly of a B-24. Upon his return to America, he completed his education, married and took up work as a librarian. Because his wartime service remained classified, Okada turned to the experiences of his friend from home, Hajime “Jim” Akutsu, who had been a draft resister, to write his book.
“No-No Boy” explores the deep sense of alienation Japanese-Americans experienced after the war: the displacement; the confusing, unsatisfying homecoming; the unspoken humiliation of having been “evacuated”; the anger and frustration of being treated as an enemy. Okada circles again and again around the idea of resistance: the importance of saying no because you still had a brother in Japan, or because your mother was sent to a different camp from your father and leaving her alone just wasn’t possible — but most of all because saying yes just wasn’t right. On Ichiro’s first day back from prison, he slouches along Seattle’s Jackson Street, past the pool halls and movie houses and taverns, the gambling and prostitution dens run by the Chinese. His mother, who is Issei, is a Japanese nationalist. She believes the false reports from Brazil claiming Japan has won the war and is proud that her son refused to enlist. That evening, she brings Ichiro to visit their friends, the Kumasakas, who have lost their son Bobbie to the war. Ichiro realizes his mother is trying to show him off to the grieving parents. Furious, he walks home alone and contemplates his decision not to be a soldier like Bobbie Kumasaka.
Ichiro feels like a traitor. He is ostracized within his own community. Having resisted offers no glory: He cannot reclaim what his family has lost. The idea of returning to school feels unfathomable. He cannot find it in himself to feel absolved, to see his refusal as an act of protest, because he cannot shake the sense that he has committed some kind of betrayal — though what that is and against whom is unclear: “Why is it then that I am unable to convince myself that I am no different from any other American? Why is it that, in my freedom, I feel more imprisoned in the wrongness of myself and the thing I did than when I was in prison?”
Though Okada hardly mentions the camps in the novel, their presence is everywhere as Ichiro watches his community try to return to life as it once was. As with most great injustices, there is no recourse for those wronged. No one will be held accountable for Ichiro’s shame but himself.
INCARCERATION LASTED FOUR years. Though Japanese-Americans were as shocked as everyone else about the attack on Pearl Harbor, most proceeded with life as usual: They pounded rice for mochi, they made Christmas roasts, they exchanged presents. But already there were signs of growing intolerance. Within hours of the attack, all Issei within the United States and its territories, including Hawaii, had been marked as “alien enemies” by President Roosevelt. More than 1,200 Japanese community leaders (mostly men) were quickly arrested out of fear of espionage and imprisoned with little or no evidence. In the months after the exclusion order was issued, posters went up across the West Coast, giving people of Japanese ancestry one week to dismantle their lives — they were allowed to bring only what they could carry. There was no indication of where, exactly, they were going to live, or for how long. Carpetbaggers arrived, offering to buy what was left, automobiles or appliances. Properties and leases were signed over to non-Japanese-Americans — friends, neighbors, business partners — with the vague promise that they would be returned once the ordeal was over.
The initial 16 temporary detention centers were barely inhabitable. Many, set up in vacated racetracks and fairgrounds, reeked of manure. There was no privacy. Partitions between the converted stalls were thin and incomplete — the more intimate moments of life, sex and fights, could be heard by all. Once the 10 more permanent camps were built, families packed up again, loaded into trains and were carried off into the night. The sick and elderly were hoisted by planks through the windows. “Journey to Topaz,” a young-adult novel published by Yoshiko Uchida in 1971, is about an 11-year-old girl from Berkeley named Yuki who, after her father is arrested and detained at a separate camp, is sent to live in Utah with her older brother and mother. The camp is described as barren, a cardboard city in the middle of nowhere. Dust storms pelt stones against her calves. An elderly man named Mr. Kurihara is shot by a guard for wandering too close to the perimeter of the camp. He was searching for arrowheads.
Yuki’s family never resists what is happening to them. Her older brother eventually enlists. Uchida is not interested in telling a story of outrage. Instead, she uses Yuki’s innocence as a foil — Yuki is the one to peek out of the windows of the train when it is forbidden. She struggles to accept what is happening to her; she finds her mother’s explanations weak.
She reminds me of a photograph by Dorothea Lange, taken in 1942, of a group of schoolchildren in San Francisco, holding their hands over their hearts, pledging allegiance to the flag. Two girls stand in the front row: Hideno Nakamoto and Yoko Itashiki. Like Yuki, both were later incarcerated in Topaz. Itashiki would ultimately be separated from her mother, who died in the camps. In the picture, their winter coats are buttoned up. Nakamoto looks skeptical. Itashiki, who is still missing a tooth or two, has raised her eyebrows with an innocence only a child can possess. Yet there is an urgency to the picture: is who you call the enemy?
WEREN’T THE CAMPS a mistake we already learned from, a lesson in ignorance that would never again be ignored? Last November, a photograph by Kim Kyung-Hoon for Reuters drew wide notice; it showed a Honduran mother named Maria Lidia Meza Castro running away from the border in Tijuana, Mexico, with her 5-year-old twins as tear gas is thrown at them. And so we ask the same question — — again as a new crisis continues: one where families are being separated, and the young, the weak and the elderly are suffering.
There are few works of literature from incarceration, and only a handful are read widely, or given the weight they deserve. But together they tell a powerful story in relief. They tell us to find dignity in the face of injustice, to see tragedy for what it is. They question the ideas of equality and freedom that this country purportedly believes in. They also represent a point of no return — an event that forever scarred generations of Americans. They are a document not just of what happened but of something worse: the aftermath and all its emptiness. Yuki lost her childhood; Ichiro lost his future. No one really cares, at least not the people who had the power to take those things away. And now there is a new set of camps, a new schism — and we don’t yet know how devastating they will be.
It’s incorrect to say that “No-No Boy” is a forgotten masterwork (this year, the novel was reissued by Penguin Classics, though a dispute about the book’s copyright has led Penguin to stop selling it in the U.S.), but it isn’t often acknowledged for articulating what had never been said before. The novel was a turning point in the consciousness of Japanese-Americans, and of Asian-Americans more generally — it marked the moment when identity shifted away from the homeland, away from Japan, because Japan was a country that Nisei, like Okada, never really quite knew. It was a novel that struggled to understand the entitlement that came so easily to other Americans — to explain why so few Japanese-Americans protested what had been done to them, that explored the shame of an immigrant who doesn’t feel he has a place in the world. Most of all, the novel conveys the weight of Ichiro’s resignation. Other people try to help him — he’s offered a well-paying engineering job, but he doesn’t feel he deserves it; he is told by a lover that he needs to stop being so hard on himself but is unable to believe her. He cannot shake the feeling that it is all — the camps, the war, the isolation he now feels — his fault. Something about him is simply not American enough.
BY 1945, JAPAN was vanquished. Six months later, the camps had all been shut down. Though the Roosevelt administration had entreated Americans to treat the returning Japanese-Americans as their fellow citizens (“if you find one or two Japanese-American families settled in your neighborhood … try to regard them as individuals,” wrote the first lady in Collier’s in 1943), they were barred from resettling on the West Coast until January 1945.
Most returned to nothing at all. It wasn’t just their property they had lost — it was their dream of America itself, and their right to belong to it. For many Issei, particularly the elderly, only the simplest pleasures offered a respite from their suffering. The writer Hisaye Yamamoto, who was incarcerated in Poston, Ariz., and published her only book of stories, “Seventeen Syllables,” in 1988, written across 40 years, understood this well. Her short story “Las Vegas Charley” is about an old man called Charley, a widower who works as a dishwasher after the camps and spends all his money gambling. His mother, who is still alive in Japan, sends letters begging him to come see her. But he hasn’t saved any money.
A penniless protagonist with no hope — this is, on one level, a classic American story. It’s a scene told in better-known works by writers like Theodore Dreiser and Grace Paley, writers who depict characters reluctant to adapt to the necessary changes of a modern society, who fail to recognize the changing tide. But though something horrible has been to Charley, it is Charley’s job to find a place in the world anyway, despite all that was taken from him.
If other writers managed to capture the aftermath, then the short stories of Toshio Mori are a time capsule of what life was like for the Issei and Nisei before the start of the war. Mori, who was born in Oakland in 1910, worked most of his life at a plant nursery in Northern California. His dream, however, was to be a writer. During the 1930s and early ’40s, he had amassed a collection of stories titled “Yokohama, California.” With the exception of two stories Mori wrote during and after his own incarceration, the collection harks back to a time before everything changed. Mori’s stories reveal small acts of courage and compassion among the Japanese-American community of San Francisco’s East Bay as well as a winking sense of self-awareness, as in “Akira Yano,” a story about a young engineering student who wishes to be a writer. Yano struggles to be published, but his destiny never matches his ambitions.
In real life, Mori, faced a fate not unlike his own character. “Yokohama” had originally been slated to be published by the Caxton Printers in Idaho in 1942. But with the arrival of the war, Mori’s publisher likely decided that readers would be unsympathetic to such human portraits of Japanese-Americans. It wasn’t until 1949, seven years after the initial publication date, and four years after Mori left the camps, that his first story collection was finally published. The book went mostly ignored; Mori died in 1980.
AFTER TOO LONG, silence is complicit. We still don’t talk about the camps the way we should: We still call it “internment,” we still find it inconvenient to learn that people died without the help they needed, that families were separated, that a young man was expected to serve a country that chose to imprison him. We still use the term “evacuation,” even though the guns pointed into the camps, and it’s more than an evacuation when you’re being forced to sell the car, sell the farm, sell the house and pack up forever. The message was clear, and it’s a message many Americans are all too familiar with to this day:
When Wong, Chin, Inada and Chan — who all became writers themselves, and edited the seminal 1974 anthology of Asian-American literature, “Aiiieeeee!” — finally read the copy of “No-No Boy,” they were stunned. This was the great American novel they had been searching for. Their correspondence with Tuttle, the book’s publisher, revealed that Okada had been working on a second novel, this one about the experience of the Issei. A few of them arranged to visit Okada’s widow, Dorothy, who had moved into a small apartment in Pasadena, Calif. Okada had died just nine months earlier from a heart attack at the age of 47. The men asked her if she had a draft of her husband’s second book. She said she had written to U.C.L.A., asking if they were interested in her husband’s work about the Nisei. When no response arrived, she burned all his papers. Wong recalled: “We couldn’t believe it. One, we couldn’t believe we put off reading the book. And two, in a fit of grief, she had burned everything. I remember sitting there just looking at her like either I wanted to strangle her or tell her how sorry I was.”
Okada’s biographer, Abe, told me that there was a time when he had searched and then waited, hoping that other great works from the Nisei would emerge. Others have surfaced, but nothing to rival “No-No Boy.” Abe suspects it is the only complete novel to exist from its time. The work of these writers sits in the shadow of other great American literature — a truth underscored by the fact that the country was too intolerant, too apathetic to what happened to them. But it’s also true that Japanese-Americans of Okada’s generation were not interested in reading about themselves. The wounds were too deep, the loss too overwhelming. It’s telling that Okada’s widow burned his papers, that Okada, Yamamoto and Mori all wrote on the side, removed from a larger literary community. Had Okada lived just a decade longer, he might have begun to see the beginnings of his own revival, as Asian-American writers began to become more political, more vocal. Dorothy told Abe that Okada had spoken of creating a multigenerational trilogy, and I wonder if the third, about the Sansei — a generation born during the postwar baby boom — would have captured something different about the Asian-American experience. In Yamamoto’s 2001 preface to the four additional stories that she added to “Seventeen Syllables,” she wrote: “I came to realize that our internment was a trifle compared to the two hundred years or so of enslavement and prejudice that others in this country were heir to.” It is exactly what a Nisei writer would say. But Yamamoto wrote, I suspect, for another reason. Surely she dreamed of literary success, as all writers do. But she also wrote because she understood that if she didn’t, no one else would. We are always bound to repeat ourselves if we don’t try to remember.