Art, Literature, and the Japanese American Internment

On John Okada’s «No-No Boy»

by Thomas Girst (Author)
©2015 Thesis 261 Pages
Series: American Culture, Volume 12


How can art, how can prose and poetry originate in spite of the restraints of manipulation, propaganda, and censorship? This study explores such issues by focusing on the cultural trajectory of Japanese American internment, both during and after World War II. Previously unknown documents as well as interviews with friends and family reveal new aspects of John Okada’s (1923–1971) life and writing, providing a comprehensive biographical outline of the author. The book refutes the assumption that Okada’s novel No-No Boy was all but shunned when first published in 1957. A close reading as well as a comparative study involving Italo Calvino’s (1923–1985) Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1985) position Okada’s only book as world literature.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: Japanese American Internment and the Holocaust
  • 1. Artistic Expression and Internment
  • 1.1. Isamu Noguchi
  • 1.2. Miné Okubo
  • 1.3. Camp Photography
  • 1.4. Prose and Poetry
  • 2. No-No Boys, Draft Resisters, and the Origins of Asian American Studies
  • 3. John Okada, Writer and World War II Veteran
  • 4. Reading No-No Boy as World Literature
  • 5. Publication History, Reception, and Teaching of John Okada’s No-No Boy
  • Images
  • Bibliography

← 8 | 9 → Introduction: Japanese American Internment and the Holocaust

When a few months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in early 1942, he cleared the way for the forced removal and internment of over 110,000 ethnic Japanese living on the West Coast. Most of them remained behind barbed wire for nearly three years, imprisoned in the tar-paper covered barracks of ten huge camps especially set up for the purpose. Located in deserted areas of Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming, internment quickly proved to be an excruciating experience for the wrongfully displaced, including many artists.

For Japanese American artists […] the incarceration affected their capacity to make and show art; their trajectories as artists were cut short, sidetracked, or derailed. We need to recognize the impact of incarceration and its aftermath, but even more, we need to admire the determination, and perhaps envy the passion, with which these artists have carried on.1

Scholarship on cultural activities within the camps is still comparatively scarce. Only the past two decades have witnessed a growing interest in the arts produced in the camps – as well as in literature and art inspired or informed by the camp experience. As recently as 2004, Russell Leong, editor-in-chief of UCLA’s Amerasia Journal could still wonder why especially the non-literary arts received such scant attention in Asian American scholarship.

Is it because Asian American Studies has a distaste for or disavows the power of tactile artistic endeavor? Or does it have to do with technical publishing matters, such as the ability and cost of printing color images, for example, musical scores, librettos, or theatrical scripts? Or is it an editorial bias toward literature, be it prose or poetry? The answer is: all of the above.2

The impetus behind this study was to gain further insight into both the art and literature from and about the camps by researching, consulting and evaluating as much source material as possible. Besides my retrieval at UCLA’s Japanese American Studies Center of early articles, books, and official government records, ← 9 | 10 → unpublished original documents include numerous quotations from letters and postcards, archived at the Hirasaki National Resource Center, Japanese American National Museum (JANM), Los Angeles. Written by prisoners during internment, they were accessed to highlight the role of the arts within the camps. Heretofore unpublished material and valuable records relating to the Japanese American writer John Okada and his family’s internment – such as the War Relocation Authority Form 26 Evacuation Summary Data or the Final Accountability Roster (FAR) for Minidoka – were referenced here for the first time. All issues of Minidoka’s camp newspaper, the Minidoka Irrigator, were evaluated in regard to the Okada family imprisonment, overall camp set-up as well as general prison conditions. Thus, a comprehensive biographical study of Okada is contained within these pages, providing new insights pertaining to the life and work of the person considered to be the first Japanese American novelist. I interviewed many members of John Okada’s family, including his widow, children and siblings over a period of many years. In addition, at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Okada’s unpublished records were retrieved and researched.

Based on many new findings, two things become obvious that until today were unrecognized in scholarship on the author. First, Okada was well aware of and certainly guided by Western literary traditions. Second, the original edition of his novel No-No Boy, published in May 1957, was not neglected but instead received numerous enthusiastic reviews prior to its “discovery” and republication in 1976.

Within this context, however, it should also be noted that this study does not negate the great contributions of early Japanese American scholarship. Two decades before reparations and official apologies, it was pre-eminent Asian American writers and scholars like Frank Chin, Lawson Fusao Inada, Paul Chan and Shawn Wong who started to draw attention to the internment camp experience within and outside their respective communities. From the late 1960’s onwards, the gradual establishment of departments for Asian American studies within the US was also an uphill political battle, where early novels like Okada’s had to be positioned by hailing its achievements as a mouthpiece for a neglected minority, a deus ex machina incomparable to and conceived independently of any literature that had come before.

Long-term exchanges with Frank Chin, as well as several meetings and email exchanges with Russell Leong, Professor Jinqi Ling and the documentary filmmaker Frank Abe helped to guide this publication in the right direction. Through Chin, many LA-based dialogues with draft-resisting freedom fighters Frank Emi (some of his unpublished papers and lectures are quoted here for the first time) and Yosh Kuromiya, as well as with the poet and former prisoner Paul Tsuneishi, ← 10 | 11 → contributed greatly to this study. Where the retrieval of direct oral history by the author was no longer possible, documents from the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution – such as an unpublished interview with Frank Okada – proved to be helpful sources.

By applying a methodology as outlined above, I meant to steer clear of theory-oriented discourse which is predominant in today’s academic papers. The research to obtain and the study of primary sources often proves more beneficial than scholarship based solely on secondary literature and theory which many times furthers misunderstandings and misconceptions. Only by avoiding the entrapment of the ivory tower’s self-referential superstructures, by keeping texts simple without taking any of the complexity away, may students and the general reader be tempted into falling in love with academic texts. To this author, the reconciliation of arts, scholarship and the people should be the foundation of all intellectual endeavors within the humanities.

The historian Joseph J. Ellis has argued elsewhere that “hindsight history, sometimes called counterfactual history, is usually no history at all, but most often a condescending game of one-upmanship in which the living play political tricks on the dead.”3 While this publication does not intend to be a revisionist account of the way Japanese American internment was viewed at the time within the US, early studies and articles of the 1940’s and 50’s documenting the colossal wrongfulness of the internment while speaking out against this injustice are neglected in most of the scholarship on the subject today. I was relieved to find that there were many throughout the decades, who saw and acted publicly against the imprisonment of ordinary citizens. Which in turn does not negate the fact that in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, public outcries of xenophobia, fear and hatred pertaining to ethnic Japanese living on the US West Coast far outnumbered those speaking out in their favor (see figure 1).

In that same vein, the most prominent organ and mouthpiece of Japanese Americans in the United States, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) has often been chastised for its early collaborationist support of the “military necessity” of removing those it represented. Resentment and suspicion towards JACL’s leaders was widespread among the imprisoned ethnic Japanese, especially at internment camps like Tule Lake. This was in part because the organization’s publicly voiced pro-American ideology seemed to comply all too readily with the Army’s and the War Relocation Authority’s evacuation efforts to purportedly ← 11 | 12 → insure the safety of the United States.4 At the same time, however, the JACL also issued lesser-known statements seldom quoted, remarking that

if, on the other hand, […] evacuation is primarily a measure whose surface urgency cloaks the desires of political or other pressure groups who want us to leave merely for motives of self-interest, we feel we have every right to protest and to demand equitable judgment on our merits as American citizens.5

Similarly, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been criticized for its silent compliance with regard to the forced removal of Japanese Americans. Yet when martial law was declared at the Tule Lake internment camp between November 4, 1943 and January 15, 1944, it was the ACLU who fought for the release of almost two dozen “US citizens of Japanese ancestry who had been imprisoned […] for more than eight months without charges or hearings, and without the privilege of receiving visits from their parents, wives, children and friends.”6 All the while, Executive Order 9066 was seen to be “unprecedented and founded on no specific evidence of need,” with the danger of “readily result[ing] in illegal action.”7 American citizens of Japanese ancestry, after all, had “the same rights and the same duties that other citizens have.”8

An exhaustive and early two-volume study of the evacuation and its aftermath begun in 1942 by the University of California, Berkeley, spoke of the “repressive measures undertaken by government agencies” as early as 1946.9 It also chastised the “unprecedented and ambiguous status of citizens […] in the land of their own birth.”10 As for the Nisei, second-generation Japanese-Americans and US citizens by right of birth,

their parents had lost their hard-won foothold in the economic structure of America, whereas they, themselves, had been deprived of rights which indoctrination in American ← 12 | 13 → schools had led them to believe inviolable. They had been stigmatized as disloyal on grounds often far removed from any criterion of political allegiance. They had been at the mercy of administrative agencies working at cross-purposes […]. They had become terrified by reports of continuing hostility of the American public.11

In October 1944, when most Japanese Americans were still behind barbed wire, the young author, journalist, lawyer and public intellectual Carey McWilliams already vigorously condemned the “stupendous human drama”12 of internment in the first book-length study to appear on the subject. McWilliams’ book opens with John Stuart Mill’s often quoted epigram from his 1848 Principles of Political Economy: “Of all the vulgar modes of escaping from the consideration of the social and moral influences on the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences.” Stating that the “relocation program […] directly and indirectly involves the question of racial minorities in the United States,” McWilliams noted an increase – not a decrease – in “agitation against persons of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast” after the internment.13 Issues not resolved since the Civil War allowed for “provincial prejudices of a particular region” (i.e. the West Coast) to “dictate important aspects of our Far Eastern policy […]. Since the federal government had capitulated to the South on the Negro question, it found itself powerless to cope with race bigotry on the Pacific Coast.”14 At the time, McWilliams was chief of the division of immigration and housing at the California Department of Industrial Relations. From 1942 onward, with articles published in the New Republic and elsewhere, he made it clear that “race prejudice is capable of blinding us,” with “jingoists and racists” in the US playing into the hands of those Japanese exploiting the situation on the West Coast for their own propaganda purposes. McWilliams ends his book by quoting from a letter by a captain of the Army Air Force published in the April 10, 1944 issue of Time magazine:

To the last man our group is not in accord with what some people in the States are trying to do with some American citizens, namely the Jap citizens […]. Don’t touch one of them because he has Japanese blood. We are fighting for all American citizens, and when we die for them, we don’t stop to ask what kind of blood they have. We are fighting for the sacred rights of man; we don’t want them toyed with behind our backs.15

← 13 | 14 → Similarly, books that appeared just a few years later, such as Morton Grodzin’s authoritative study of 1949, Americans Betrayed: Politics and the Japanese Evacuation, say it all in their title. There, internment is denounced as “without precedent in the past and with disturbing implications for the future,” where “regional considerations, emotional half-truths, and racial prejudice colored the public discussion.”16The “weakness of government” and “lack of information” lead to “military control” where “the protection of civil liberties becomes virtually impossible.”17

Apart from an examination of the historical record and early, heretofore rarely acknowledged studies, the subject matter of this publication must also take into account an evaluation of the terminology used throughout: The specific term “Japanese American” is referred to, as is the broader term, “Asian American.” Their use is by no means interchangeable. The latter term is only applied when the particularities of the former need to be contextualized within a more general framework of ideas. As an example, the increasing visibility and study of Okada’s No-No Boy is unthinkable without the frame of reference created by the rise of Asian American studies as a whole, in the same way that Japanese Americans requesting an official apology and reparations from the federal government cannot be fully understood without reference to both the Civil Rights and the Asian American movements of the late 1960’s. Another debate about terminology involves the proper name for the Japanese American camps erected along the West Coast during World War II. Here, the decades-old question is whether to refer to them as internment camps or concentration camps. For this author and his particular ethnicity, this is a sensitive issue that the remainder of this introduction as well as the beginning of the first chapter attempts to both explore and solve when determining how scholarship on the arts and the Holocaust can be applied or be of use while examining artistic forms of expression revolving around the Japanese American internment camp experience.

This publication in part builds upon research conducted for my M.A. thesis in American Studies at Hamburg University, “John Okada’s No-No Boy: (National) Identity, Historical Context, and Western Tradition,” 2001. I was first made aware of the subject matter during a graduate class on Emergent Contemporary American Literatures at New York University in 1996, while on a DAAD scholarship. Furthermore, the teaching of original texts like Okada’s is examined within this study, as the first introduction to the plight of the Japanese Americans during and after World War II more often than not takes place in classrooms of high ← 14 | 15 → schools, colleges and universities worldwide. Parts of the chapter on the “Publication History, Reception and Teaching of Okada’s No-No Boy” were previously published in the Spring 2008 issue of UCLA’s Amerasia Journal, in a contribution titled “Of Eastern Thoughts and Western Minds: Teaching Asian American Literature to German Eurocentrics”.

In the summer of 1996 in a Greenwich Village café, while meeting a friend, the Jamaican poet Dwight Maxwell, two orthodox Jews picked up on my German accent.18 They quietly moved away from the neighboring table. My friend alerted me to their departure, assuring me I had just encountered racism. But that was not the case. The two men had left because they could not stand to listen to the language spoken by those who had executed their ancestors. I walked over, deeply moved and eager to let them know that – today at least – hundreds and thousands of Germans take to the streets in protest almost every time an act of xenophobic violence occurs in my country. So large looms the Holocaust that many of us cannot read Nietzsche, listen to Wagner or even read German poets from centuries ago without thinking of how the Nazis hijacked their works to use it toward their own ends. It hurts to remember that Hitler infiltrated my country’s history to such an extent that it is nearly impossible to delve into any age of Germany’s culture without bearing in mind the crimes he initiated, crimes actively or passively supported by our not-too-distant relatives.

The social psychologist Harald Welzer has pointed out that Germany’s second post-war generation is keen to maintain the moral integrity of our grandparents, while acknowledging Germany’s overall complicity with Hitler and his thugs.19 But certainly not all grandfathers and grandmothers could have been part of a virtually nonexistent resistance. As for me, I still love my late grandmother, though she watched in silence when Jewish children were taken away from the kindergarten where she was teaching. I love her dearly – even when she attempted to justify the deplorable war Germany had started, bitter from losing her husband somewhere in Ukraine. I disagreed when I addressed the Third Reich with her, trying to grasp the insanity of the war by the sheer distance of almost three thousand miles separating my grandfather’s unmarked grave at the Crimean Sea from his native village near Luxemburg.

← 15 | 16 → But who am I to judge my grandmother? It is preposterous to speculate whether I would have mustered the courage to speak out against the Nazis had I lived back then. Coming of age in the 1980’s in Western Germany, most of my generation has never experienced anything remotely close to Hitler’s democratically elected dictatorship.

One day in 1997, the years, months and days that had passed between the end of World War II and my birthday in 1971, equaled my age precisely. This realization brought Hitler’s atrocities disturbingly close again. Like a stone thrown into a pond, I saw my life as just the second ripple away from the epicenter of its impact. Only my parents’ generation separates me from those responsible for the darkest crimes in the 20th century. A personal realization, it seemed, yet by talking to my friends I realized that some of them had gone through the very same experience, grasping the Holocaust’s closeness in time by reflecting on their own age and the date of Nazi Germany’s surrender.

Ensuing discussions brought forth very different approaches among those of my generation to the crimes of our forefathers. Many of us seemed eager to put everything behind. After all, we were not actively involved in the Holocaust. Billions of dollars in reparations had been paid. We have learned so much about our country’s wrongs in school and on television, through books and our parents, that we simply can’t bear to be reminded of it again and again. Others awkwardly tried to laugh the whole thing off, a final proof that the matter has been dealt with sufficiently and is now rather an abstraction of a century past. Then there were those who detested Hitler so fervently as to be convinced they would have killed the Nazi leader had they only lived in his time. Yet another reaction in dealing with the Holocaust is to regard what happened between 1933 and 1945 as a huge and eternal burden. Overcome by an all-encompassing sense of guilt, some of us begged for that comforting pat on the back.

On June 2, 1967, student Benno Ohnesorg was shot and killed by the police in West Berlin in protests revolving around the visit of the Persian Shah to Germany. It was on this occasion that Gudrun Ensslin, future member of the Red Army Faction, accused the government of being fascist, called for the armament of the people and dismissed the authorities as follows: “This is the generation of Auschwitz. You can’t reason with them.”20 Our generation, however, cannot as easily place blame, as we are already twice removed from the generation of those involved. The generation before us at least thought they could reproach their parents for what had happened. We do not have that luxury, and are better off ← 16 | 17 → in refraining from self-righteous finger-pointing. In any case, in light of the terrorist acts that swept through Germany in the 1970’s, one is often left to wonder whether those who deemed themselves farthest removed from Nazism were not indeed those closest to their mindset in an otherwise budding democracy. How else to explain the RAF killings of innocents, its dictatorial structures and bullheaded idealism that would not allow for dissent?

Günther Grass – himself a member of the Waffen SS in his youth, something he publicly admitted to only in 2006 – has often remarked how communist extremists and Nazi fascists have much more in common than they would ever allow. At the same time, we are no longer in shock that the man who dined with his devoted wife and beloved children is the same man who had killed prisoners in Auschwitz only a few hours prior. We have an acute sense of the aggression that lies dormant in the spoiled citoyens of a democracy, by realizing just how mad we ourselves can get for no reason at all – as when somebody is walking slowly in front of us on a subway platform while we are eager to move ahead. And it is precisely this knowledge which should humble us in light of world affairs, as we don’t know what we would be capable of if our house were burnt down or our loved ones killed in front of our own eyes – which is why we have the obligation to make sure that this will never happen. Which is why we must ensure peace, freedom of speech and the dignified treatment of all humans – the pillars of any democratic society. It is painful to see that neo-Nazis, after using rather ludicrous slogans such as “I am proud to be a German,” have often ceded waving the black-white-red flag of the German Reich, and are now abusing the official black-red-gold flag of our Federal Republic instead.

Today, with the last Holocaust survivors dying, we share the responsibility to keep the memory alive without craving a comforting pat on the back for the turmoil we are thrown into when talking about Germany’s past. Our ancestors fought a war that cleared the way for the most horrible crime against humanity. They were not herded off to die in a concentration camp without leaving a trace. And let there be no mistake: No money in the world can ever right these wrongs or should make us feel as if we did not have to look back into our past in order to also look ahead. It is solely our own actions, today, for which we can be held accountable. At the turn of the century, Ignaz Bubis, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, spoke out with many against every form of racism and hostility toward foreigners, just as his successors Paul Spiegel, Charlotte Knobloch and Dieter Graumann did since. Although neo-Nazi violence will not succeed in even slightly shaking the democratic pillars of a reunited Germany already decades old, with xenophobic attacks on the rise, there remains plenty to be done to appropriately counter this aggression on every level of our society.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
Zweiter Weltkrieg Internierung Propaganda Holocaust
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 261 pp., 28 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Thomas Girst (Author)

Thomas Girst studied Humanities at Hamburg and New York University. He was founding editor of Die Aussenseite des Elementes (1991–2003), the NY-based cultural correspondent for the German daily Die Tageszeitung as well as research manager of the Art Science Research Laboratory. Since 2003, Girst has been Head of Cultural Engagement at the BMW Group. He lectures at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and the Munich Academy of Fine Arts. His most recent publications include The Duchamp Dictionary (2014) and BMW Art Cars (2014).


Title: Art, Literature, and the Japanese American Internment
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
264 pages