Of No-No Boy and No-No Boys: At the Seattle 2013 JANM Conference

Photo from the National Parks Service (nps.gov/tule/index.htm)
Photo from the National Parks Service (nps.gov/tule/index.htm)

“How do you as a storyteller account for traces of the erased, the denied or that flat out vanished?”–Junot Díaz

From Twitter:
July 15, 2013, 12:35PM: @Tulelakenps: Today, 70 years ago in 1943, Tule Lake was declared a Segregation Center, incarcerating all Japanese Americans deemed “disloyal”.


“Your name?”

I’m picking up my registration packet for the Japanese American National Museum conference, held in Seattle a few weeks ago. “Nimura, N-I-M…” I begin, and start to spell out my last name for the volunteer automatically, but then I stop. She’s already flipping through the packets and tote bags. She hands me my name tag. “Are you affiliated with any camp?”

I look at the brightly colored strips of ribbon on the registration table, preprinted in gold lettering with the names of the camps and detention centers. Crystal City. Heart Mountain. Jerome. Gila River. Manzanar. I run my hand down the right-hand column of tags. There it is, an emerald green strip of ribbon. I pick it up and attach it to the back of my own name tag. I’m staring at the tag: there’s my name, and under it, the emerald green strip with Tule Lake, where my father and his family were incarcerated for almost four years during World War II.

While I’m putting on the name tag, I feel conflicted. It’s not because I’m ashamed of my family’s history. Although “Tule Lake” became equated with “disloyal” and “unpatriotic” in some circles, my suburban childhood in a mostly White/Latino community sheltered me from much of the stigma within the Japanese American community. I guess it just feels strange to be choosing a tag, especially when I think about the numbered tags that the WRA assigned to Japanese Americans during World War II. I know that wearing a numbered tag for your government-mandated incarceration and wearing a tag for a conference are light-years apart. It’s one thing to be labeled as an object, it’s another thing to claim a label in the name of self-definition and community. I’m not trying to equate the two, but my body feels the discomfort.

I have been to Days of Remembrance, Bon Odoris, and Buddhist memorial services. I have been to the Wing Luke Asian Museum several times at its past and current locations. I taught Asian American literature and Japanese American history for years to college students. Once, I even spoke on behalf of a college granting honorary degrees to former Nikkei students. But to be (half) Japanese American in Seattle at this conference is something else. It’s a conference of Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians (as well as interested allies) from all over the world, gathered to commemorate the signing of the 1988 Civil Liberties Act granting Japanese Americans redress. To be here is to feel the collective weight of a particular history. Almost everywhere I look, the faces look like my family’s. In some cases, the faces are my family: my cousin, my auntie and uncle. They are here for the conference.

Hours after I register, my Nisei auntie arrives at the conference, and sees my name tag. She’s registered already, too. “Hey, how did you get a Tule Lake tag?” she jokes. “They ran out by the time we got there!” I start to rip mine off—“Here, you take mine. You’ve earned the right to wear it, much more than I have. ” I marvel: somehow, we’re able to joke about this. She waves her hand from side to side, dismissing it. “No, no, you wear it.” The unspoken but understood subtext between us: she’s worn it all her life.

I am feeling something close to vertigo, if that’s what you call this feeling of history spiraling back towards me.

On the first day of the conference, I go to a writers’ panel featuring Naomi Hirahara, Juliet Kono, and Joy Kogawa, chaired by my UW grad school professor Steve Sumida. I have read works by all of these authors. It is a wonderful thing to be there. I have been in silent conversation with these women for years now. After the panel, I introduce myself to Naomi Hirahara. “I’ve been wanting to hear more from the younger generations,” she tells me and activist Sean Miura. “There’s a growing number of emerging Korean American voices, and I’d like to hear more young Japanese American voices too.” Sean and I agree. Sean phrases it best, though: “The Issei have immigration, and the Issei and Nisei have camp—I think we’re still figuring out what our story is.”

Google the term “No-No Boy,” and what comes up first is John Okada’s novel, set in Seattle. (In Seattle today, the name “Ichiro” will probably bring more wistful sighs today about the former Mariner baseball player than about Okada’s protagonist, Ichiro Yamada.) I believe that Okada wrote his book with some of the best social justice intentions: to tell the story of the marginalized in America, and to tell the story of the ostracized even within Japanese America. And then I think about the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie’s “danger of a single story.” In her wonderful TED talk, she speaks about the danger of master narratives: “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. Okada’s one story, his novel No-No Boy, has become synedoche for so many students of Japanese American history and literature: one part representing the whole. With a few exceptions, including my uncle’s memoir, there are still so very few representations of the No-No Boys. Ostracized for so many years, their first-person narratives are still slowly emerging, well over half a century later.

The cover for John Okada's novel
The cover for John Okada’s novel

I used to wonder what my uncle Hiroshi Kashiwagi, a “No-No Boy” himself, has thought about Okada’s novel. In the Asian American studies circles where I grew up, the novel is a canonical text, a crucible for “angry Asian man” anger, a touchstone. One day, I asked my uncle what he thought. Somewhat to my surprise, he confessed that he doesn’t really care for the book.

On the second day of the JANM conference I begin to see and feel what my uncle means. I’m sitting with my auntie at my uncle’s panel, “The Tule Lake Segregation Center: Its History and Significance.” As the “poet laureate” of Tule Lake, my uncle’s been asked to speak about his wartime experience on a panel about the Tule Lake confinement site. I’m there to hear my uncle: to support him, and to be with my auntie. The dull champagne beige hotel conference room, a combination of two smaller rooms, is packed; it’s standing room only. The lights are depressingly fluorescent and dim. There are no windows.

Barbara Takei, the coordinator for the biannual Tule Lake pilgrimages, opens the session. She welcomes the panelists, telling them that we are delighted to hear their experiences. She talks about one of the most damaging and lasting crimes the U.S. Government committed against Japanese Americans: the division that the loyalty questionnaire created, which did not just create a false division between “disloyal” and “loyal,” but between Japanese Americans and each other. Much of her passion lately, she says, lies in educating her own community about Tule Lake.

As Takei speaks, my aunt’s body language changes: slumped shoulders, hand to face, massaging temples, a form of self-soothing. “Do you have any tissue?” she asks me. I search my purse, but I don’t have anything. I offer to get up, but she tells me not to worry, she’ll be all right. I don’t know if she’s just tired—she’s just turned 80, after all, but I see something of the eight-year old child that was in camp. The eight-year-old who was the same age that my oldest daughter is now.

The panel description in the program says that it will cover the significance of the Tule Lake segregation center. However, it is a panel about No-No Boys and renunciants and their responses to the loyalty questionnaire. (This is a description, not a critique.)

The first panelist is Ben Nishimura. “I’m surrounded by educated gentlemen here,” he jokes, poking a little fun at himself. But it’s his ability to read and analyze that hits me hardest. As a former English professor. I’ve told my students that reading literature closely may not save their lives, but their ability to work with language and nuance will put some aspect of their lives to the test. As a case in point, the loyalty questionnaire: “I read that [questionnaire] several times,” Nishimura says, “and I tried to analyze what the government was trying to do.” The loyalty questionnaire was torturous: each answer meant keeping a family together or apart, being jailed separately or imprisoned, volunteering to serve in the armed forces for a country from behind barbed wire or not—and eventually being ostracized or included for decades in a tight-knit community.

“The government made me no-no, not me,” says Morgan Yamanaka, the second panelist. He’s referring to the designation of Tule Lake as a Segregation Center, branding all residents there “disloyal.” He goes on to talk about being imprisoned at the Tule Lake jail, about being interrogated. And then darkness, a bright light, and “after that, nothing,” he tells us. He has no memory of those crucial few hours. When he’s released to be with other prisoners, he tells us about reuniting with his brother “who was physically beaten so that there were no marks.” The absence of his brother’s scars and the absence of his memory speak volumes.

And then there’s my uncle, the third panelist. A 90-year old actor, poet and playwright, he’s got a resonant voice—and he knows exactly how to use it. “I want to relate some of my background before camp,” he begins, “as I feel it has some bearing on my responses to the loyalty questionnaire.” He tells us about growing up in the country, attending a school where racial segregation, not academic ability, determined the level of education the students received. On the annual test about the U.S. Constitution, he says, he and another Nikkei student received the top scores. He was familiar with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He tells us about the doll his mother made in camp. She sent the doll to the ranch where his family had sharecropped for a living, to the ranch owner’s wife. His mother received a scathing response from the owner’s wife about “having nothing better to do than make dolls, while the rest of the country was struggling to get by.” He tells us about his favorite teacher in high school, the one who coached him in public speaking. “I was her star student,” he says. He wrote to her from camp, asking for guidance with a camp theater group. He received no response, and later saw that she was part of an”anti-Jap” agitator group. The group was agitating against the return of Japanese to his hometown.“We were not only betrayed by the government,” he continues, “but by people we trusted and respected…. And in the end, the decision was my own.”

In the conference room, there are murmurs of sympathetic shock and dismay from the audience as the panelists speak. The panel’s lasted for over an hour, but as far as I can tell, no one’s getting up to leave. The silence in the room is tangible. It’s shaped by the men telling these stories. It’s a silence that receives and bears witnesses to the stories.

In the wake of that silence, I am thinking about Okada’s No-No Boy, Ichiro. Ichiro makes his decision partly to please the Japanese nationalism of his controlling mother, partly because he is understandably angry at his imprisonment, and partly because he is confused. In one of the novel’s most celebrated internal monologues, addressed to his mother, he muses that his two “halves” add up to nothing: “I wish with all my heart that I were Japanese or that I were American. I am neither and I blame you and I blame myself.” Ichiro’s reasons may not be inaccurate, I think. Surely there were so many among the thousands who were confused and bitter. But these panelists are telling the room a different story. They are telling the stories of careful readers, of thoughtful informed protest, of considered decisions by American citizens, of the multiple lenses that they brought to bear on writing two short simple responses.

For many, Okada’s novel is the single story of the No-No Boys. But if No-No Boy is the single story, maybe it can become the gateway, not the destination, for other stories about Tule Lake and the No-No Boys. For me, Okada’s novel is now the proverbial tip of the iceberg: a defiant pyramid above the water, but with so many hardened crystallized layers beneath the surface.

If I am being very honest, sometimes I feel saturated with the stories of camp. I’ve read so many, I’ve studied so many, I’ve written and taught and spoken and thought about camp, and felt how the camp story is my story as well. I know that the very saturation is a recent privilege, since the Issei and Nisei did not speak about their experiences for decades after the war. I do know that the resulting narrative fatigue is very little to speak of, compared with what my family and my community endured. And yet, as I tell a friend about writing this piece, she wonders about my sense of saturation in camp narratives. She’s an English professor at a rural Midwestern university. She’s just finished teaching Miné Okubo’s novel Citizen 13660 to this summer to her students. “They were blown away,” she tells me. “None of them had even heard of internment.”

Camp provides me with a link of empathy, even a small one, to other minority communities and communities of color who continue to feel the weight of history every day in their bodies. I’m writing this essay not long after George Zimmerman’s trial and verdict. I am also trained as a scholar of African American and multicultural literature, which means that I have also studied history. Camp is where my social justice roots begin, in the difficult telling of difficult stories that are not often told.

What is it to inherit the history of camp, to reckon with it? How do we ensure that the most important parts of its legacy, the painful and the beautiful, remain alive? What is it to be born into a Japanese American post-camp generation, including the younger Sansei like myself and on through the Yonsei and Gosei?

I’m starting to wonder if this is our story: the inheritance and the reckoning. And the vertigo.

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