Thursday, December 27, 2007


A few days ago I finally read John Okada’s groundbreaking 1957 novel No-No Boy (reprinted in 1979 by the University of Washington Press). I’d seen used copies around for years, then read about it in Elaine Kim’s Asian American Literature and realized it was something I should read. It was rediscovered in the 1970s by young Asian American writers looking for forebears, which led to its republication. The author, a Japanese American World War II veteran, died at the age of 47 in 1971 of a heart attack, without having published another book, which on the evidence of this one is indeed tragic.

No-No Boy is about Ichiro Yamada, who returns to Seattle after two years in prison for refusing to serve in the US army during WWII. He finds that his mother, along with some other older Japanese Americans, refuses to believe that Japan was defeated. Letters circulate like samizdat, promising the imminence of the Rapture; those who remained faithful will be rewarded, those who betrayed – by cooperating with the US during the war -- will be punished, if only by being Left Behind:

“To you who are a loyal and honorable Japanese, it is with humble and heartfelt joy that I relay this momentous message. Word has been brought to us that the victorious Japanese government is presently making preparations to send ships will return to Japan those residents in foreign countries who have steadfastly maintained their faith and loyalty to our Emperor. The Japanese government regrets that the responsibilities arising from the victory compels them to delay in the sending of the vessels. To be among the few who remain to receive this honor is a gratifying tribute. Heed not the propaganda of the radio and newspapers which endeavor to convince the people with lies about the allied victory. Especially, heed not the lies of your traitorous countrymen who have turned their backs on the country of their birth and who will suffer for their treasonous acts. The day of glory is close at hand. The rewards will be beyond our greatest expectations. What we have done, we have done only as Japanese, but the government is grateful. Hold your heads high and make ready for the journey, for the ships are coming.”

Ichiro’s family is torn nearly to pieces by his mother’s faith in Japan’s victory. (Ichiro blames his refusal to serve the US military on his mother’s fanaticism, but I can’t see his refusal as totally unreasonable: he had been drafted from the concentration [or “relocation”, if you want to be PC about it] camp in which his family, like so many other Japanese Americans, spent the war.) When she receives letters from relatives in Japan begging for help, she dismisses them as American fabrications, or coerced from her family by torture. Okada shows similar rifts elsewhere among Seattle’s Japanese American community, as unbelievers in the Emperor are shunned by their families, while the young Japanese Americans who served in the war shun those who refused.

This apocalyptic belief frames Ichiro’s struggle to figure out what to do with the rest of his life, as he moves among young Nisei veterans devastated by their war experiences, some of them former friends, and it undercuts somewhat the naturalist tone of the novel, adding an eerie sense of unreality at times: who really won? what really happened? how could it happen? It seems to me that Japanese Americans who’d been interned would feel just such a sense of dislocation and uncertainty.

As it happens, just a week earlier I had reread Philip K. Dick’s award-winning science fiction novel The Man in the High Castle (1962), which is set in a parallel universe where Japan and Germany won World War II. Japan occupied the West Coast and Germany the East, and the Rocky Mountain States maintain a fragile balance of quasi-independence between them. But a man called Hawthorne Abendsen has written a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, set in another universe where Japan and Germany were defeated. (Abendsen’s creation is still not our universe, though, in which FDR served four terms and led the US through most of the war.)

The Man in the High Castle also has a feeling of unreality about it, as the characters, some Japanese and some white, use the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, to guide them through their lives, to see through the confusion of their present. The popularity of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which everyone is reading (except in the Nazi-controlled East, where it’s banned), is a reminder of the fragility of history; the multiplication of universes undermines the priority of the one in which the reader of High Castle lives. (Of course the white American characters don’t want to believe that they were defeated; anyone who’s lived through the period since the US failure utterly to subjugate Vietnam, let alone since September 11, 2001, will recognize their punch-drunk reaction.) Some of the characters keep getting the response “Inner Truth” from the I Ching, hinting to them that the reality they know is not the ultimate reality. What really happened? Who really won the war? Further, to my inner ear the book’s style resembles Okada’s, which one reviewer praised for the “authenticity of the idioms Okada’s characters use.” Did Philip Dick perhaps know some Japanese Americans and use their voices for his novel?

The echoing resemblances I detect between No-No Boy and The Man in the High Castle are pure coincidence, of course, but reading them almost together, as I did, enriched both of them.