Author Articles

No-No Boy

Writing a book is hard. People warned that the publication process is harder. They were right. Strangely, blogging in my mind seems the hardest. What is ‘blogging’? What am I signing up for? Where will this lead? Books are at least bound, their narrative arcs nestled reassuringly between a front and a back cover. Blogs offer no such reassurances. The very word ‘blog’ suggests some dark concoction of ‘blot’ and ‘smog,’ something spreading towards the future horizon, like Los Angeles.

Perhaps you can see now why I’ve contemplated blogging for years, without writing a single word.

no no boyWhy now? Because of No-No Boy, by John Okada (1976).

I’m not exactly certain when my journey with this book began. Did it begin when its enigmatic cover drew me to its opening pages, only to reveal a story that felt unmistakably like the depiction of my own Japanese roots?

Or did it begin on March 17, when the book arrived as part of a shipment from my aging father, in which he bequeathed to me fifteen years worth of research and efforts to get his mother’s second novel, the unfinished Palanquin, finally published?

Or did it begin during a car drive at eight, when I innocently asked about my father’s Japanese ancestry and got met with a snarl, as if to say, “Don’t go there don’t you ever dare go there stay away”, a snarl that would propel me into psychology, wondering why there were caves where one couldn’t go, wondering if it were really true that one couldn’t enter.

Or, as I describe in Safe Passage, did it begin in kindergarten, as I looked around at the other new pupils and wondered why nobody was helping me with the question that was really on my mind, namely why their skin was white, and mine wasn’t?

Or did it begin on December 7, 1941, after the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor that Sunday morning, when – in a blink – thousands of Japanese-American citizens went from being seen as loyal Americans to being seen as denizens of the enemy?

Okada’s book has arrived in my life like a newly discovered diary from distant kin. Never mind that the book is fiction, written by somebody (as far as I know) unrelated. The book feels like family. It tells the story of a nisei (second generation) son named Ichirio who is, along with thousands of Japanese-Americans, first divested of all rights by being interned in an American concentration camp, and then faced with a horrible choice: will you be drafted into the American army to fight the Japanese?

If you don’t twinge at that question, then put yourself for a moment in Ichiro’s shoes so you can feel the diverging loyalties. On the one hand he was born, raised, and educated in the United States, and considered himself every bit as American as his Italian-American or Chinese-American classmates. On the other hand his parents had never really left Japan emotionally; they spoke little English, they fully intended to return to Japan someday, and they expected unflinching loyalty and respect from their children. Ichiro’s choice was an impossible one. By remaining loyal to his parents, he betrayed his country, and he (and many like him) ended up in prison for several years for treason. Society labeled him and his kind ‘no-no boys,’ to denote that they belonged neither to America, nor to the Japan of their parents. They belonged nowhere.

My father worked his way to the top of educational and corporate America, but he could never change the phenotypical expression of his genotype: however Harvard educated he might be, he couldn’t change the fact that the face staring him back in the mirror was Japanese. Whatever corporate or board presidencies he might have established for himself in the white, affluent neighborhoods of Connecticut, Southern California, or Massachusetts, he couldn’t change how others, with all their prejudices, might – consciously or unconsciously – perceive him.

How did those loyal citizens of Japanese descent feel about the society that had put them on the wrong side of the barbed wire, as they shivered in forsaken places like Manzanar? When one professes loyalty to a society that never fully accepts one in return, what kind of a no-no boy might that turn one into? Was my father a no-no boy of sorts too?

In my struggle for belonging, be it in the color of my skin or in my life as an adult TCK with American and Dutch passports, am I a no-no boy as well?

Psychologists ask tough questions. Honest ones pose these same questions to themselves. This blog will likely be a forum for exploring themes of home and belonging, themes that life has etched on my soul.

These themes weren’t mine for the choosing. They date easily as far back as Pearl Harbor, and easily as far back as July 1, 1896, when my great-grandfather purchased his freedom from the sugar plantations where he’d arrived, a poor contract laborer shipped from Japan. Little did my great-grandfather know that his oldest great grandson, my firstborn, would be born exactly one hundred years – to the day – of his purchasing his freedom.

As I read No-No Boy, I began to dimly perceive patterns in the broader fabric from which my family’s stories were cut. It would seem the stories of the Otas are interwoven with the tales of other Japanese, like the Okadas. On the back of No-No Boy, it says Okada’s novel states that “Okada died in obscurity, believing that Asian America had rejected his work.”

My writing this – and your reading it – would seem to be an act of reconsidering that statement.

Or, better said, restorying it.

Douglas W. Ota

Safe Passage

Doug Ota grew up between cultures. A Japanese father, an English mother, and their divisive divorce started Ota on a career wondering where he – and others – belong.

He studied philosophy at Princeton University, USA, and psychology at the University of Leiden, Netherlands. For many years, he was a counselor in international education. He now works in private practice with children and adolescents, individuals, couples, and families.

Doug consults with international organizations on how to build programs to address the challenges and opportunities of mobility ( He is the author of Safe Passage: What Mobility Does to People and What International Schools Should Do About It.

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