Category Archives: John Okada

Evoking the Postwar Seattle Chinatown of John Okada

two buildings
A slide from the presentation of Dr. Marie Rose Wong

THERE ARE STORES on King Street, which is one block to the south of Jackson Street. Over the stores are hotels housed in ugly structures of brick more black than red with age and neglect. The stores are cafes and open-faced groceries and taverns and dry goods shops, and then there are the stores with plate glass windows painted green or covered with sun faded drapes. Some bear names of exporting firms, others of laundries with a few bundles on dusty shelves. A few come closer to the truth by calling themselves society or club headquarters.

Emily Lawsin and Frank Abe.
Emily Lawsin and Frank Abe. Photo by Emily Lawsin

The opening paragraph of Chapter Four from No-No Boy as read by moderator Emily Porcincula Lawson set the tone for the third and final panel November 19 of the Seattle Public Library’s celebration of the John Okada Centennial. It was a reminder of how the sense of place in the novel is so strong that it becomes like another character.

man with microphone
Shokichi Tokita, aka Shox. Photo by Emily Lawsin.

Our panelists brought both a warm personal connection to these places along with a scholarly one. Shox Tokita shared stories of growing up at the New Lucky Hotel owned and operated by his mother on South Weller Street, just a few doors down from the Pacific Hotel at 6th and Weller, which was managed by John Okada’s family upon their return to Seattle from confinement in Minidoka. Shox recalled he was most acquainted with John’s younger sister, Arlene. After helping mop the floors and learning light electrical and plumbing for maintenance, he would join friends heading to the Main Pool Hall on the ground floor of 507 South Main Street, the likely inspiration for the pool hall scene near the end of No-No Boy.

woman with microphone
Dolores Sibonga. Photo by Emily Lawin.

Former Seattle City Councilmember Dolores Sibonga — introduced by Emily as Madame Mayor — delivered a lyrical portrait of her teenage years among the Filipino community on King Street, with barber shops, meat markets, and taxi dance clubs, near where her family owned the Estigoy Cafe on Maynard and King. 

woman at podium
Dr. Marie Rose Wong. Photo by Emily Lawsin.

Dr. Marie Rose Wong provided a container for the personal stories with her study of the history of single-occupancy residential hotels in Seattle and Chinatown. Pick up her book from Chin Music Press, Building Tradition: Pan-Asian Seattle and Life in the Residential Hotels to get the full story on why so many Chinatown hotels were left to decay in the 1970s (hint: it was due to a city ordinance). 

Connie Okada and Shox Tokita
Connie Okada with Shox Tokita.

We were honored at the panel to have the presence of John Okada’s youngest sister, Connie Okada, who was born in 1943 inside Minidoka when her brother had already relocated out of camp to Scottsbluff Junior College in Nebraska. Connie was a child at the Pacific Hotel near the Tokita family and grew up to become the art librarian at the University of Washington Suzzallo Library.  

A question from the audience. Photo by Emily Lawsin.

This had to be the most warmly received and best-attended of the three panels in this series. I want to thank Stesha Brandon, the Literature & Humanities Program Manager of The Seattle Public Library, for the invitation to serve as guest curator this fall. It was a unique opportunity to bring John Okada and his story to the city that he so lovingly memorialized in fiction. Here is the Seattle Channel’s video of the entire program:

This program would not have been possible without the support of Stesha and The Seattle Public Library, The Seattle Public Library Foundation, and the Gary and Connie Kunis Foundation. Thanks to all who joined in honoring the legacy of one of Seattle’s great native sons.

four faces in circles

Full house for kickoff of the John Okada Centennial

John Okada never received the recognition he deserved in his lifetime. Since then, his work has earned him a place in world literature. I’d like to think Okada would have been pleased to see the turnout in his hometown on the occasion of his 100th birthday and the kickoff of the John Okada Centennial celebration.

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New adaptation of “NO-NO BOY” workshopped at Seattle Rep

binderOne-hundred years ago today, John Okada was born in Seattle. It’s also a day on which I can finally reveal that I’m developing the script for a new theater adaption of Okada’s landmark novel, No-No Boy.

Desdemona Chiang
Noted stage directgor Desdemona Chiang

For four days this week I’ve had the privilege of working with the Seattle Rep, our flagship regional theater, under the auspices of “The Other Season,” its New Plays series. The Rep hired the brilliant theater director Desdemona Chiang to work with me and a talented cast of professional Equity actors. Under union rules we were not allowed to advertise or talk about the workshop until it was over. Continue reading New adaptation of “NO-NO BOY” workshopped at Seattle Rep

The Seattle Public Library celebrates the John Okada Centennial

John Okada © Yoshito Okada familyNovelist John Okada would have been 100 years old had he lived to September 22, 2023. To celebrate his legacy and honor his work in writing the great Japanese American novel, The Seattle Public Library has engaged me to curate a series of programs around the John Okada Centennial.
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Putting John Okada on the Seattle Literary Map

mapThanks to Seattle City of Literature, we’ve put John Okada on the map — the Seattle Literary Map

It’s with good reason that Seattle is one of two U.S. cities to be designated as a UNESCO City of Literature. Besides our active literary scene, it was the birthplace or home to some of America’s most notable writers, including the author of No-No BoyContinue reading Putting John Okada on the Seattle Literary Map

Resisters, Redress and John Okada On Display at Wing Luke Museum

A belated post to catch up on the October 14 opening of the RESISTERS: A Legacy of Movement From the Japanese American Incarceration at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle. It’s certainly my kind of subject, so I’m grateful to Mikala Woodward and her team at the Wing for accepting some of my suggestions for display out of our discussions on the Citizens Advisory Committee. Some things pulled off my wall and bookshelf for this show, but keep reading to learn about one exceptional hidden gem in this exhibit.

National Day of Remembrance tops February events

As the month for the annual Day of Remembrance, February is always the busiest time of year for speaking requests. This year being the 80th anniversary of EO 9066, A friend counted 33 DOR events nationwide. I have nine on the books myself, a personal record, including four on February 19th.
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The North American Post interview

In Seattle, the North American Post is the successor to the prewar Hokubei Jiji newspaper that Fuyo Tanagi helped edit, before she wrote the letter protesting the drafting of Nisei boys from camp for the Mothers Society of Minidoka. So it is an honor to be interviewed by Elaine Ikoma Ko in this wide-ranging exchange on No-No Boy, John Okada and We Hereby Refuse for the cover of the current issue of the Post.

Read the interview in the North American Post here.
Continue reading The North American Post interview

John Okada in Detroit History Podcast

Okada at Chrysler Missile (photo: Yoshito Okada family)
Okada at his desk in 1957 at the Chrysler Missile Operations plant in Sterling Township, Michigan (photo: the Yoshito Okada family)

The story of how John Okada migrated to Detroit in 1953 — where he wrote the great American novel, No-No Boy — is told in a new interview for the Detroit History Podcast.

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The Alien Enemy Hearing Boards at Fort Missoula

drawing of FBI interrogation
from “We Hereby Refuse,” Chin Music Press, artwork by Ross Ishikawa

At this weekend’s education conference for the Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium, we’ll get a  virtual tour of the restored courtroom at Fort Missoula, and I’ll show how we used a transcript of a hearing inside that courtroom for a key scene in our graphic novel, We Hereby Refuse.

Continue reading The Alien Enemy Hearing Boards at Fort Missoula