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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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3. John Okada, Writer and World War II Veteran


John Okada was born on September 23, 1923, in an upstairs room of the Merchant’s Hotel in Seattle’s Pioneer Square to Yoshito (“Fred”) and Takayo Ota Okada.398 Fred had arrived in the United States from Hiroshima in 1913 in his late teens to work on the Montana railroads. With money saved he returned to Japan and married, only to come back to the US after WWI. John Okada and his family continued to live at the Merchant’s Hotel until 1931 while his father ran numerous low budget lodgings in the city,399 including the Yakima and Pacific Hotels, both of which the family stayed in as well. In Seattle, Okada went to Bailey Gatzert Elementary School as well as Broadway High School. Fred was very supportive and made sure that all of his children would attend college. At the University of ← 115 | 116 → Washington, Okada attended classes in narrative and dramatic writing, history and sociology and took an interest in British literature. During his sophomore year there, he and his family were first incarcerated at Puyallup Assembly Center (PuAC) located inside the Puyallup Fairgrounds about 35 miles south of Seattle. With 13 centers located in California, two in western Arizona and only one each in Oregon and all of Washington State, most internees from the Pacific Northwest were first interned there. The population soon peaked at over 7,000 evacuees. They endured chaotic living conditions, overcrowding and poor sanitation in makeshift army barracks under shed roofs. The first prisoners had...

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