Category Archives: Media issues

When was the term “No-No Boy” first used?

Thanks to theSuyama Project panelists 60 who joined us on March 12 at the Suyama Project panel to hear about the life of John Okada and how he wove his experiences into his landmark novel NO-NO BOY.

At the panel, historian Roger Daniels asked a provocative question: “When does the term ‘no-no boy’ first appear in print?” No one in the room could say.  Continue reading When was the term “No-No Boy” first used?

When was the term “No-No Boy” first used?

Thanks to theSuyama Project panelists 60 who joined us on March 12 at the Suyama Project panel to hear about the life of John Okada and how he wove his experiences into his landmark novel NO-NO BOY.

At the panel, historian Roger Daniels asked a provocative question: “When does the term ‘no-no boy’ first appear in print?” No one in the room could say.  Continue reading When was the term “No-No Boy” first used?

Upcoming program on no-no boys and “NO-NO BOY,” the novel

Suyama panel flyerPreparing my remarks now for a discussion in Seattle on March 12 with noted historians Roger Daniels and Barbara Takei on a topic that still opens wounds today. Register for free here.  

As we’ve written before, the goal of  the Eji Suyama, 100th Battalion/442nd RCT Draftees, No-Nos, Draft Resisters and Renunciants Archival Collection Endowment at UCLA is to preserve the history of the entire range of dissidence and resistance to the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans.

The project is coming to Seattle for Roger and Barbara to preview their much-anticipated new book on Tule Lake and the notorious Segregation Center, while I will talk about the life of novelist John Okada, author of the foundational novel, No-No Boy, and how he drew upon the story of the draft resisters and set it against the places he grew up in here in postwar Seattle. Read more in the Suyama Project news release. I’ll share new research and insights into the life of Okada, and some of the inspirations that went into his work.

Continue reading Upcoming program on no-no boys and “NO-NO BOY,” the novel

ALLEGIANCE uplifts by doctoring Japanese American history

Thanks for finding this post via links from Wikipedia, the New York Times and other reviews. See the real story of the Heart Mountain resisters as told in our PBS film, Conscience and the Constitution. Order here.

SPOILER ALERT: This theater preview reveals an absurd central plot point.Curtain call on Oct. 6

The implied pact the musical Allegiance makes with its audience is that you will see an honest retelling of the Japanese American incarceration, and come away feeling comfortably uplifted. The show does entertain, through derivative songs and animated production. It achieves its effect, however, by sacrificing truth for theatricality, revising history, and offering a ludicrous portrayal of the Heart Mountain resisters.

As producer/director of the 2000 PBS film, Conscience and the Constitution – which first framed the conflict between the organized resistance led by Frank Emi, and suppression of that resistance by the Japanese American Citizens League, led by Mike Masaoka – I’ve been asked how the musical performs as history.

After seeing the first public preview October 6 at New York’s Longacre Theater, it is apparent the makers of Allegiance found the fact of civilian administration of America’s concentration camps so ordinary and banal – which it was – that they needed to heighten the obstacles to their themes of love and hope by conflating Heart Mountain with the worst of the segregation center at Tule Lake, near the California-Oregon border. They invent military rule at Heart Mountain. 

Allegiance is billed as a fiction “inspired by the true-life experience of its star George Takei,” who was imprisoned as a child at Rohwer and Tule Lake. But the only events validated by his personal experience are those of every camp story – fictional family at home, Pearl Harbor, selling the farm cheap, dust and dances in camp, yes-yes/no-no, and war’s end. Once that family, here called the Kimura’s, is evicted from home and reaches the War Relocation Authority center in Wyoming, the makers of Allegiance selectively and progressively alter the reality governing Heart Mountain to more closely suggest that of a German POW camp.

In Act I for example, upon their arrival at faux Heart Mountain, a campwide PA system broadcasts directives to evacuees, while Military Police order “women to the right, men to the left.” Hannah, a white nurse, asks the women to “please remove your clothes down to your underwear” for medical exams. When an Issei woman protests, a young man explodes, “It’s not right!” and is forcibly shoved to the ground by an MP. The PA announces a curfew at sundown. When the Kimura patriarch later angrily answers no-no on his loyalty questionnaire, MP’s march to his barrack to clap him into handcuffs and haul him away: “No touching,” they bark to his family.

Camp was degrading. It was dehumanizing. But this heavy-handed treatment inflames emotion at the expense of fact:

Continue reading ALLEGIANCE uplifts by doctoring Japanese American history

REVIEW: A jarring addition to new edition of “No-No Boy”

No-No Boy cover illustrationWhen the University of Washington Press republished one of its most enduring titles with a new cover and introduction, editor Alan Lau of the International Examiner’s Pacific Reader section asked me to critique the new edition, to report on whether the book still stands the test of time after nearly 60 years, and what it says to us now. What I found was a jarring and misguided addition made by the Press to John Okada’s text, in its otherwise fine new paperback edition.

Still the Great Japanese American Tragedy

No-No Boy by John Okada
the new University of Washington Press edition

reviewed by Frank Abe
special to the International Examiner, July 15-August 4, 2015

The appearance of the first new edition of John Okada’s No-No Boy in nearly 40 years offers the chance for re-evaluation of his work. As someone with a long connection with the novel, I find there’s much to like about the new edition – and one thing profoundly wrong.

After more than 100,000 copies in 13 printings, the University of Washington Press has republished this foundational work along with five others in its “Classics of Asian American Literature” series, with new covers and introductions.

First, the good. The new cover illustration reflects a lot of thought. I’ll miss the menace of the 1976 design by Bob Onodera of San Francisco, with the flags of the U.S. and Imperial Japan peering from the eyes of draft resister Ichiro Yamada’s surly face, partly because Bob based it on a photograph of myself taken the year before at the Asian American Theater Workshop. He designed the title with Army stencil font against a brown background that suggests the texture of a paper grocery bag of the kind used at Yamada grocery …

So here’s the problem with this new edition: At the end of the Preface, someone added the name “John Okada,” as if he had signed it as a statement from the author.

This attribution never existed in the original Tuttle hardcover overseen by Okada, or the CARP paperback reprint. It was not authorized by the Okada family. It interrupts the dream woven by Okada’s fiction, and violates Okada’s artistic intent. Read more …

page from newspaper

How happy ending in staged “NO-NO BOY” bowdlerizes Okada’s novel

Successfully adapting any work to the stage presents a challenge. The fact that it isn’t easy doesn’t justify violating the author’s intent.

Pan Asian Rep posterIn response to our commentary about the slapping of a happy ending on the staged version of No-No Boy that is still being pitched for a national tour by the Pan Asian Repertory Theater of New York, dramatist Ken Narasaki acknowledges in a recent Discover Nikkei blog that he couldn’t find a way to make the original ending work onstage. He also says we cannot criticize his ending without having seen the script.

John Okada’s No-No Boy is the great Japanese American tragedy. Much of its power stems from its open-ended conclusion that sends draft resister Ichiro Yamada into the darkness of postwar Japanese America, searching for answers not just for himself but for all those in his world.

The last scene of this stage adaptation reduces Okada’s epic vision to sentiment and schmaltz, so as to leave the audience with a comfortable feeling of tidy resolution, complete with callbacks to isolated lines from earlier in the novel to support an outcome never intended by Okada.

As Mr. Narasaki permits scrutiny of his adaptation only by those who have seen or read it, here then is the last scene. It is as we described it:

Lights shift:

Ichiro and Emi dance, slowly, close together.
Ichiro laughs.

EMI:  What’s so funny?

ICHIRO:  I don’t know. I was … enjoying this, you know? And then, a funny thought came into my head.

EMI:  What?

ICHIRO:  Nobody’s looking twice at us.

EMI:  They’re busy.

ICHIRO:  Yeah. I know. They’re livin’.

EMI:  You know, there’s something about this place.

ICHIRO:  There’s something here, huh? What is it?

EMI:   I don’t know.

Ma and Pa enter:

PA:  Maybe it is done. Maybe…

MA:  …you can hold your head high. Maybe…

Freddie enters.

FREDDIE :  …you can be proud of what you done. Maybe…

Taro enters.

TARO:  …because we were born here, we’re gonna have kids here.  Maybe…

Kumasaka-san enters.

KUMASAKA-SAN:  …you can finally understand. Maybe…

Kenji enters.

KENJI:  (to Ichiro)  …we’re just people. Maybe…

Mrs. Kanno enters.

MRS. KANNO:  …it doesn’t figure but that’s how it is:

Jun enters.

JUN: Ping!

ICHIRO:  …and I’m alive.

He kisses Emi.  She kisses him.

Slow fade to black.

The sight of Ichiro and Emi dancing occurs four-fifths of the way into the novel. Through the character of Emi, Okada suggests the chance for Ichiro of love and salvation. Emi is lonely and frustrated in her marriage, and takes Ichiro as a lover. Okada then frees up her marital status by having her absent husband ask for a divorce. Emi expresses a wish for Ichiro to take her dancing, and he impulsively takes her to a roadhouse south of Seattle. That’s the scene above. But here’s the rub: Okada places this second romantic interlude 40 pages and two chapters from the end of Ichiro’s journey.

Through his brilliant organization of the material, Okada states clearly his artistic intent. He refuses the idea of a happy ending for Ichiro. Emi and Ichiro go dancing, but it’s not enough to redeem the young resister. Newly released from “two years in camp and two years in prison,” Ichiro is far from ready to pursue his American dream. He needs time to sort out who he is and where he stands in the rearranged and distorted new landscape for Japanese America through which he has just passed. Love itself cannot cure all. As Ichiro might say, “the problem is bigger,” and with his ending Okada makes it clear it is something that Itchy will have to fight through for years to come.

Bringing Ma back from the dead to encourage Ichiro to “hold your head high” twists her words from their original meaning and changes her character. The line is from an early scene in which she recites from memory a letter from a fellow fanatic who relays news that Japan won the war, exhorting followers to “hold their heads high” in this delusion. Repeating it at the end as Ichiro and Emi cling to each other makes Ma appear approving or forgiving. She was neither; she killed herself because she was incapable of approval or forgiveness.

It is not a question of staging the original ending as written on the page; it’s a question of what you do to create “an entirely new solution” for ending the play on stage. The problem here is not the artistic difficulty of adaptation; it’s a problem of the artistic integrity of the result.

The hopeful, happy ending of the stage adaptation cheapens the work. It’s now mush. The power of Ichiro’s emotional journey is that he is unable or unwilling to settle for the easy answer; in this adaptation, he settles. In a 2009 essay, Mr. Narasaki acknowledges he changed Ichiro’s journey and the author’s intent, in order to coddle his audience:

“… audiences usually desire, if not require, some sense of resolution.  In this case, knowing what we know now, I think it’s possible to end this play on a note of hope, rather than despair…  How much change is sacrilege?  How much change constitutes a desecration?

“I suspect people will let us know.”

Sacrilege? Desecration? Reject this adaptation for what it is: a bowdlerizing of the work of John Okada.

REVIEW: Frank Chin’s Great Chinese American Novel

Confessions coverThis 1970s-era novel by Frank Chin, published for the first time today by the University of Hawaii Press, predates his work with the Heart Mountain resisters who are the subject of this blog. But as a Friend of the Fair Play Committee, the surprise recovery and restoration of Frank’s unpublished first novel is a story as notable as his recovery of the buried history of the resisters.

For the occasion, I wrote a review of the book for International Examiner arts editor Alan Lau:

A first look at Frank Chin’s Great Chinese American Novel

The Confessions of a Number One Son by Frank Chin
edited with an introduction by Calvin McMillin

reviewed by Frank Abe
special to the International Examiner, April 1-April 14, 2015

newspaper coverThe emergence 40 years later of a tightly edited, slimmed-down version of a long-lost novel from the writer who first defined Asian American literature is an unexpected gift.

That’s because to read The Confessions of a Number One Son in 2015 is to peel back the decades and discover the creative foundation of the plays and later fiction of Frank Chin, in the moment before he became consumed with the polemics of separating the real from the fakery in the work of others.

In an early 1970s America where the postwar generation was just coming of age—where the world still celebrated the model minority, the Chinese Christian autobiographies of Betty Lee Sung and Pardee Lowe, and the movie stereotype of Charlie Chan—Frank Chin was putting a self-proclaimed Chinaman voice at the center of his stories. It was an act of self-invention he was perfecting in tandem with his better-known stage plays, The Chickencoop Chinaman and Year of the Dragon.  Read more …

Chin review

Stage adaptation of “NO-NO BOY” violates John Okada’s novel

A headline first written by Frank Chin in 2010, “Don’t F**k With No-No Boy,” captures the insistence with which audiences should reject the recent stage adaptation of John Okada’s landmark novel No-No Boy.

Pan Asian titleA New York theater company is now pitching a national tour. with stops in the Midwest and West Coast, of an adaptation of No-No Boy that violates the art of John Okada by tacking on an artificially happy ending to his story.

After more than 100,000 copies sold in 17 printings over nearly 60 years, it is well-established that much of No-No Boy‘s power and authenticity lies in its furiously violent and tragic ending. Okada cuts to the bone. He holds nothing back, and most importantly he tries to please no one.

After “two years in camp and two years in prison,” draft resister Ichiro Yamada returns to find his Seattle hometown shattered and its people divided. Parents mourn sons lost in battle; veterans return maimed and succumb to their wounds; resisters are blamed and ostracized; a woman abandoned by her soldier husband finds comfort in Ichiro’s arms; his mother goes mad when forced to admit Japan lost the war and drowns herself. Having fun yet?

At the Club Oriental (a stand-in for  the Wah Mee Club in Seattle), Ichiro and fellow resister Freddie Akimoto raise their glasses in a toast to fallen friends when the angriest of the Nisei vets, a man called Bull, yanks Freddie off his stool and shoves him out to Maynard Alley. Ichiro tries to break it up and wrestles Bull to the ground, but driven by fear he slams his fist into Bull’s face and draws blood. Freddie kicks Bull in the gut, but the enraged man lurches up. Freddie jumps into his car to flee, but Bull pulls open the door. Freddie clubs him with a wrench and hits the gas, shooting onto a cross street where his car is instantly struck by another and flips into the air, throwing him halfway out the open door and nearly severing him in half upon crashing. Numb with shock, Bull asks Ichiro for a drink. Ichiro brings a bottle of whiskey and Bull grabs it and drinks:

“Agggggggghh,” he screamed and, with the brute strength that could only smash, hurled the whiskey bottle across the alley. Then he started to cry, not like a man in grief or a soldier in pain, but like a baby in loud, gasping, beseeching howls.

Ichiro walks slowly away from the scene, desperately searching in his mind for some kind of redemption for white racism, Pearl Harbor, and the war; the mass eviction and incarceration based solely on race; and the conscience that led to his own resistance, prison, and social ostracism.

In the stage adaptation now being shopped, this vicious climax is muted and the unsettled ending is omitted.

SPOILER ALERT: Instead, after a brief knife fight, Freddie escapes. Ichiro goes out dancing — a scene from earlier in the book, with Emi the abandoned wife and Ichiro alone on the dance floor, finding momentary acceptance in the indifference of the whites around them.  And as they hold each other close on the floor, all the characters from the play, including the ghosts of those departed, REENTER the stage to offer final words, of blessing and hope for the future. Ichiro and Emi kiss. They are going to live happily ever after, doggone it.

It’s a theatrical moment. It’s probably very moving in performance. It’s also schmaltz. And it’s very wrong.

Suggesting that Ichiro is capable of romance this early in his re-entry to this world is contrary to the internal evidence we have of Okada’s intent. A close reading of the text by Floyd Cheung and Bill E. Peterson of Smith College in the journal Centennial Review establishes that the social context of late 1940s America simply did not allow for a happy ending for Ichiro. Okada shows him walking away from the crowd around Freddie’s death. If we can divine anything about Okada’s intent, it is that “He remains an outsider,” and the ideological setting surrounding Japanese American men at this time “is not yet fertile enough for Ichiro to ground his identity within it.”

The problem with reading the end of No-No Boy with a strong sense of optimism, though, lies in the fact that … the ideological setting of postwar America provides impoverished imagoes from which to choose for Japanese American men. Neither the no-no boys nor the yes-yes boys are happy…  The social context of postwar Seattle influences whether individual stories of identity will have the tone and content of a comedy, tragedy, irony, romance, or some other story form.

To convey his vision of Japanese America after Pearl Harbor, the camps, combat, prison, and resettlement, Okada carefully constructs Ichiro’s social context to end with tragedy. To substitute romance at the end violates Okada’s story form.

This is not an issue we are eager to take up. The adaptation is done by Southern California actor and dramaturg Ken Narasaki, a former comrade from the halcyon days of Garrett Hongo’s seminal Asian Exclusion Act in Seattle in 1977.  We’ve both been inspired and mentored by writer Frank Chin, who had this exchange with Narasaki in 2010 on the original Santa Monica production of this script:

Narasaki offers his reasons for rewriting Okada’s end to No-No Boy, that amount to, he’s dead. I can do what I want with the dead — “We intended to show that in the end, there was hope for Ichiro … that he would discover love and life. I’m sorry you disagreed with the ending, but I continue to believe that if John Okada were alive, he wouldn’t be quite as harsh a critic, but of course, we’ll never know.”

It’s because we’ll never know, that we should not fuck with the end as written. Okada isn’t the same rewritten, and Narasaki knows he’s violated the work he claims inspired him. If Shakespeare had lived longer he might have rewritten a happy end for Romeo and Juliet instead of one dying after the other. Then again he might not. — Frank Chin

Chin followed a further exchange with this rebuttal: “What makes his claim offensive is he is sure that had Okada lived he would have written an ending more like Narasaki’s.”

We agree. John Okada isn’t here to defend his work. This impulse to eschew the darkness that is the power of No-No Boy, and replace it with sentiment to leave the audience happy, is as old as Hollywood itself — a place where Mr. Narasaki has a background in writing coverage of screenplays for film producers.

We’ve seen this impulse in others who’ve held an option on Okada’s book. One such ill-conceived film treatment added a full page of patriotic praise for the 442 at the funeral of the Nisei veteran Kenji and then, after Ma’s funeral, we see Emi returning to the Yamada grocery in a sporty car and inviting Ichiro to go for a ride. Instead of staggering away from a Chinatown alleyway lost and alone, this movie version of Ichiro offered his final upbeat line as something like, “Say, this might be a good day after all.”

As a forthcoming study of John Okada will show, he was certainly capable of comedy, satire, and upbeat endings. If he wanted No-No Boy to end on a happy note, he would have written it that way. The evidence we have on the page extends to claimed representations of his work on the stage and the screen. Accept no substitutes.

UPDATE: This essay was reprinted April 29, 2015, on the Japanese American National Museum’s Discover Nikkei blog, where Mr. Narasaki also provides a response. Read our rebuttal, published here on June 26.

Two imaginative works relating to Japanese Americans in WW2

September sees the emergence of two works of popular fiction, by two masters of their respective genres, that each touch on the Japanese and Japanese American experience in World War II. Both will bear watching.

Perfidia book coverFirst, you are invited to join a Facebook book discussion group I will be helping to lead Oct. 2 on the power of fiction to address Japanese American history and either uphold or distort it. We’ll find out which upon publication Sept. 9 of the new novel from the master of noir, James Ellroy.

PERFIDIA, meaning betrayal, is believed to show how race hatred grew in the 21 days after Pearl Harbor. Ellroy knows this WW2 L.A. material cold, and he brings back the perfect crooked cop, Dudley Smith, from one of my favorites, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. I’ll be joined by Edgar Award-winning mystery writer Naomi Hirahara, author of MURDER ON BAMBOO LANE and the acclaimed Mas Arai series. This is an open group so join now and then check in on Facebook on Thursday, October 2, from 6 PM to 9 PM Pacific time.

map graphicLater this month a pilot begins filming in Seattle for a proposed TV series based on an alternate history novel by science-fiction pioneer Phillip K. Dick.  THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE imagines it is 1962 and Japan occupies the West Coast, years after a successful takeover in WW2.  Instead of Japanese Americans collaborating with the U.S. government in their own incarceration, in this story resistance fighters flee the  puppet “Pacific States of America” to a safe zone in the Midwest — a kind of Fair Play Committee in reverse — while Germany makes moves on the Japanese-held territory.

The pilot is a Ridley Scott production that has bounced from BBC One to SyFy and landed at Amazon Prime. The producers are casting about for local Japanese and Japanese Americans to serve as extras for 15 days of filming in and around Seattle in September and October.  Through happenstance I was able to meet with one of the producers, who expressed her sensitivity to the wartime images the show will present (see above).

One thing about alternate histories: in a world where President-elect Franklin Roosevelt is assassinated in 1933 before he can take office, where the isolationists who follow him fail to enter WW2, where the attack on Pearl Harbor was decisive, and where the U.S. surrenders to the Axis Powers in 1947, who’s to say there was anyone to put us in camp! Still, this is one we will have to keep an eye on over the coming months.