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.
When 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.
** UPDATE April 3, 2018: Through the magic of digital printing, the John Okada “signature” has now been removed from the Preface on new press runs of No-No Boy. Thanks to UW Press for its responsiveness to this issue.
“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.
Illustrator and cartoonist Jillian Tamaki of Toronto, whose own family was interned in Canada, gives the new cover the feel of one of her celebrated graphic novels and cartoons, a look that will draw in a new generation of readers. Seen in profile, the downcast distress in Ichiro’s expression updates the anguish of the unseen Ichiro clenching his fists to his face in the original 1957 Charles Tuttle hardback designed by M. Kuwata.
The type has been completely reset. Designer Thomas Eykemans arranged his cover title to create what he calls a “tense visual ‘X’ that pulls the eye to the center before expanding outward,” while also suggesting the colors in the U.S. and Japanese flags.
The new edition wisely retains the 1976 Introduction by Lawson Inada and the Afterword by Frank Chin, which continue to bookend the novel for readers unaccustomed to the facts of forced incarceration.
Inada’s piece captures the personal thrill of rediscovering the book and setting in historical context its republication by CARP, the Combined Asian American Resources Project. Chin’s biographical essay, “In Search of John Okada,” frames the mystery surrounding our Seattle author and first revealed the heartbreak surrounding the burning of his unfinished second novel. This Afterword has been cribbed endlessly by two generations of students and scholars, and to this date continues to document the few known facts about Okada’s life.
In her new introduction, novelist Ruth Ozeki echoes this theme of yearning to know more about the author. Addressed as a letter to Okada, she strives to connect across the divide of time with him and his recreation of the postwar Chinatown/International District: “It’s Japantown noir, a demimonde of broken dreams, fallen heroes and brawling drunks …”
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.
At a time in 1957 when America actively worked to forget the war and the still-recent memory of American concentration camps, the Preface spectacularly draws the uninitiated into Okada’s imaginary world through a montage of unvarnished scenes from the reality of postwar Japanese America. As Floyd Cheung of Smith College notes, part of Okada’s art throughout No-No Boy lies in modulating a variety of different voices – the drunk in the tavern who “never thought much about the sneaky Japs,” the hooker who got “two bucks a head” from the Japanese boys, the Jewish merchant who “cried without tears for the Japanese, who, in an instant … had taken their place beside the Jew.”
The final voice in the Preface is that of a Nisei translator flying in the belly of a B-24, whom we hear in a terse exchange with a “blonde giant from Nebraska.” When asked how, with his family in camp, he could volunteer for the Army, the Nisei replies, “I got reasons,” and his thoughts go to his friend Ichiro who refused the draft until his family was freed. This passage ends the Preface and leads directly to Chapter One and Ichiro’s arrival by bus at King Street Station, with the cognitive dissonance of a narrative shift to Ichiro’s voice.
Signing the Preface with Okada’s name, Cheung agrees, “brings it into the realm of autobiography. But it’s not. It’s part of the novel, a product of his imagination.” He adds, “The signature seals what Philippe Lejeune called the ‘autobiographical pact.’ I’m not sure that Okada would have wanted that.”
Generations of scholars have carelessly misread the Preface and believed that Okada was inserting himself into it. But he’s not. The bit with the Nisei translator is certainly based on Okada’s experience as a radio message interceptor, but he erases any doubt as to what’s fact or fiction by having the translator reveal that his family is imprisoned in Wyoming. The Okada family, like most from Seattle, was evicted to Minidoka, Idaho.
The Preface is part of the fiction. It’s not autobiography. Okada’s “signature” is a jarring and misguided addition that disrupts the narrative and should be removed from future editions.
This editorial problem aside, No-No Boy continues to hold up today, 60 years from its initial publication. As geography, it’s a Rosetta Stone through which we can decode and piece together the bits of WW2 Seattle that survive for us today, from the rescued Wonder Bread sign on Jackson Street to the parts of Maynard Alley that will remain after demolition of the Wah Mee Club.
The book is still the great Japanese American tragedy, whose power and authenticity derives from the unexpressed rage of his generation that Okada pours into his characters. He holds nothing back, and tries to please no one. After “two years in camp and two years in prison,” the resister Ichiro Yamada returns to find his Seattle community 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.
By novel’s end, Ichiro walks slowly away from a final violent confrontation that leaves one dead and another a drunken, sobbing mess, desperately searching in his mind for some kind of redemption from everything he’s seen – white racism, Pearl Harbor, and the war; mass eviction and incarceration based solely on race; and his own resistance that led him only to prison and social ostracism. Ichiro takes it all in, rendering him unable to pursue his American dream, and unwilling to settle for an easy answer.
It may say something about our current sensibility that recent attempts to adapt this novel to the stage or screen consistently veer toward the easy answer of a love-conquers-all scenario involving Ichiro and Emi, the abandoned wife. But Okada places their final romantic encounter 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. Love is not enough. As Ichiro might say, “the problem is bigger,” and Okada makes it clear it is something that Itchy will have to fight through for years to come.
At the time he wrote, Okada could not foresee how the Sansei would grow to take up the mantle of justice for the camps and redress, and make sense of the camp resistance. He could only hope something was coming. In the darkest part of the night for postwar Japanese America, even as Ichiro thinks and probes for answers not only for himself but for all those in his world, he can see “a glimmer of hope … a faint and elusive insinuation of promise.” And in that precise balance, and in the rigor of Ichiro’s arc, lies the greatness of this novel.
No-No Boy stands the test of time. It’s still the great Japanese American 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.
In 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:
Ichiro and Emi dance, slowly, close together.
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.
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 : …you can be proud of what you done. Maybe…
TARO: …because we were born here, we’re gonna have kids here. Maybe…
KUMASAKA-SAN: …you can finally understand. Maybe…
KENJI: (to Ichiro) …we’re just people. Maybe…
Mrs. Kanno enters.
MRS. KANNO: …it doesn’t figure but that’s how it is:
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. #NoNoBoy
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.
A 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.