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Art, Literature, and the Japanese American Internment

On John Okada’s "No-No Boy"


Thomas Girst

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.
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1. Artistic Expression and Internment


Can one evaluate the arts created under the repressive circumstances of Nazi concentration camps from an aesthetic and art-historical point of view? Or are the coordinates in which they came into being so unique that any artistic expression can solely be appreciated through its own specific set of criteria? The approaches are not mutually exclusive, and while the historiography in this context must always be factored in, a critical discourse is called for to reflect upon the intrinsic value and merit these artistic expressions may contain. To solely determine their worth as documentation would diminish their status and lead to yet another, albeit milder form of ghettoization that these artists and their art surely do not deserve.44

We nevertheless must bear in mind that the singular circumstances pertaining to cultural expressions within concentration camps must be viewed in relation to what was promulgated outside of the camps. Here, an attack on modern and abstract arts was running rampant. Exhibitions like the infamous and highly popular Entartete Kunst show of 1937 in Munich saw the arts in a dangerous ← 27 | 28 → state of “cultural decay.”45 Degenerate art, mostly considered of Jewish or bolshevist roots, was perceived as a threat to healthy German art of the Third Reich, and needed to be quashed by all means. In over a dozen major speeches on the subject of art and culture held between 1933 and 1939, Adolf Hitler, himself a failed minor artist, made it clear time and again that “he...

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