GHOST OF HONOR: Who Killed Japanese America?

For the 2024 Left Coast Crime convention in Bellevue, WA, mystery writers and fans named John Okada as their “Ghost of Honor,” and asked for this short essay for the convention booklet.

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GHOST OF HONOR: Who Killed Japanese America?

At the heart of John Okada’s 1957 novel No-No Boy is a murder mystery: Who killed the hopes and dreams of a community in 1942?

essayMy friends in the Japanese American community may recoil at this characterization of their mass exclusion from the West Coast in World War II and the years of incarceration that followed. They will argue we are a resilient people who rebounded from the immense losses of freedom, property, essayeducation, and from madness. But something died there nevertheless, and that is the emotional terrain Okada explores.

His protagonist, Ichiro Yamada, is a young man who never harmed any person. Yet as the novel opens he is a criminal who served hard time at the McNeil Island federal penitentiary:

Two weeks after his twenty-fifth birthday, Ichiro got off a bus at Second and Main in Seattle. He had been gone four years, two in camp and two in prison.

Walking down the street that autumn morning with a small, black suitcase, he felt like an intruder in a world to which he had no claim. It was just enough that he should feel this way, for of his own free will, he had stood before the judge and said that he would not go in the army. At the time there was no other choice for him. That was when he was twenty-three, a man of twenty-three. Now, two years older, he was even more of a man.

Christ, he thought to himself, just a goddamn kid is all I was. Didn’t know enough to wipe my own nose. What the hell have I done? What am I doing back here? Best thing I can do would be to kill some son of a bitch and head back to prison.

Call it Seattle noir. Ichiro is both a perpetrator of the crime of refusing to be drafted from inside an American concentration camp, and a detective interrogating his own reasons for fighting the government to prove a point and why this so enrages the volunteers and draftees of his own age. It is a mystery Okada could not neatly resolve at the time of writing, but his novel frames the right questions as it examines the confused and divided community Japanese Americans rebuilt upon their return from camp to the Coast.

The author would die young in 1971 at the age of 47, never knowing how his mystery would be solved, but the answer to the question of who killed the Japanese American community is now known to us, having kick-started the popular campaign for redress and reparations here in Seattle in 1978. By 1988, the president of the United States formally apologized on behalf of the nation for its wartime racism and war hysteria. He also apologized on behalf of a predecessor in office for what a congressional fact-finding commission obliquely called “a failure of political leadership.”

The author himself was something of an enigma when rediscovered in 1971 by fellow panelist Shawn Wong, who would republish the novel as part of a campaign to recover and reclaim an authentic Asian American literature. It’s a story he will share at our panel celebrating Okada as your 2024 “Ghost of Honor.” Our panel chair, Lefty and Edgar Award-winning author Naomi Hirahara, was introduced to No-No Boy in college through the Okada House, a residence hall at Stanford University named after the writer in that period of literary self-discovery. She will share how impressed she was to learn Okada had served with the Military Intelligence Service in WWII yet chose to center a character who had made a very different choice – a challenge for any author who sets out to explore a personally unlived experience.

“This is a story which has never been told in fiction and only in fiction can the hopes and fears and joys and sorrows of people be adequately recorded,” Okada once wrote to his publisher. We thank LCC for recognizing the personal and imaginative world of Seattle native John Okada and look forward to seeing you at this conference.

Frank Abe is writer and co-editor of JOHN OKADA: The Life and Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy

The history and literature of Japanese American resistance to wartime incarceration