Greetings from hot and humid New Orleans…! To date, this is my third column written for Rafu Shimpo; the previous two may be found online via rafu.com, under “Columns.” I have enjoyed your helpful and thought-provoking responses to “Tomi-Talk” over the years, especially when I wrote for Hokubei Mainichi. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
In May, I took Amtrak to New York City to witness and be part of a critical media milestone for Japanese Americans … Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s (panasianrep.org) unveiling of Ken Narasaki’s brilliant play adaptation of the “must read or re-read” cornerstone book by John Okada, “No-No Boy,” on 42nd Street…!
The play had lain dormant since its run in Santa Monica at The Miles Memorial Playhouse in March and April of 2010, produced by Timescape Arts. But what a comeback it was…
The opening scene may jar delicate sensibilities, but perhaps that is the point: “No’s” shouted out to the audience, indicating that what you are about to experience will not be a dreamy, cherry blossom-filled escape… First rage, and then what’s underneath… The agony of being rejected by what was thought of as one’s newly adopted mother country, the searing sadness of rifts dividing strong families, the regret of losing touch with Japan…
Yes, quite a cathartic process this play is, for ultimately Rebirth prevails — and thankfully so, gracefully enhancing its grave poignancy of loss and betrayal. The humbly earnest 11 actors, directed by Ron Nakahara, had a spare two weeks to rehearse with each other before opening night, memorizing their parts individually beforehand. A predominantly young cast, and one that took their ancestors’ advice to heart: work hard for the best results. The fruits of their labors were heartfelt and gratifying, indeed…
(Stay tuned for the next “Tomi-Talk,” which will elaborate on the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s production of the play, its crew and plans for future.)
If you missed this potent medicine of art due to geographical constraints, I recommend that you encourage the play to sojourn across America, and to come to life in your town – for the gravity of its content is worthy of community investment.
Why is “No-No Boy” so important, especially at this late date, in 2014? There are many reasons and answers related to this question and I am curious about yours. Here are mine: “No-No Boy” brings to light the political and non-compliant Japanese American archetype, embodied in irreplaceable leaders of change such as Fred Korematsu, Yuri Kochiyama and Richard Aoki (just to name a few). Although we may not agree with everything these activists stood for, their contributions to our trajectory as Nikkei in America cannot be underestimated. The ability to stand up and say “no” to injustice (although not always culturally easy for us to do) is essential to our survival and happiness in the United States and as citizens of the world.
Specific to John Okada’s “No-No Boy,” what is also profoundly revealed is the fluid and passionate emotionality of our Japanese American psyche. Too often in our community’s literature are feelings hidden under a “saving face” rug. And it comes as no surprise, for we are still in part Japanese, and traditionally, feelings are not something one is to be so public about.
But John Okada courageously allowed readers to peer into protagonist Ichiro Yamada’s feelings and thoughts — his pain, anger, self-doubt, regret, loyalty, love, desire and ultimately, Hope… and began to flesh out who we are as Japanese Americans. We are not Just gambatte-driven worker bees that apply a shikata ga nai philosophy to living. No, we possess a range of feelings, which are beautiful and can be messy at times. And perhaps considered “dirty laundry” that clutters the world while sullying our presentation as Good Americans, an image that we need to uphold, especially after being labeled and punished as suspected traitors.
But, the point is, Okada humanized us through his painstaking, poetic lexes. Although he went largely unacknowledged during his lifetime, he forged on to begin another novel about the Issei, which was tragically abandoned due to lack of interest. Okada was driven to tell the truth. And not solely a No-No Boy’s truth, but the truth of how many Japanese Americans felt after the war, and our dichotomous, internal struggle to be accepted as American, but to also maintain a cultural integrity as descendants of Japanese Nationals who sought a new country and life.
…As I travel-mused on slow and steady trains to and from Penn and New Orleans Union stations, which coursed through the American South and stopped in Birmingham, laden with the bloody victory of social change, I couldn’t help but wonder who John Okada was. Not a No-No Boy but a veteran, chiefly, he was a writer called to dig through the earth of Japanese America during an identity-forming era. Arguably, much of what our community sustained during that time has shaped us into who we are today. I could feel his longing, even 57 years later, to tell the world and to know – or at least begin to – who we are as a people and as distinctly separate from Japan and mainstream America.
Mr. Okada did not tell the world who you are, or who I am. We each have our own individual stories to keep or to tell. But he opened the door for us by exploring what one composited young man struggled with, within.
Which brings me to another reason to read or re-read this book. Although this predicament is slowly changing, it’s been decades that Asian American men have been unnecessarily grappling with the effects of mainstream media’s tendency to push aside or belittle their images and archetypes. And unfortunately, the media has in many ways become our default subconscious. “No-No Boy” challenges outdated notions with presenting Asian American men who are not stereotypically wimpy, asexual and scholarly nerds, but men who are physically strong and sexual, incredibly thoughtful and intuitive — but most importantly, who are of heroic conscience and backbone.
…And there is so much More to this book… Please re/discover for yourself its singular gifts. Obviously, it is imperfect, for it reflects one person’s perspective, which cannot be expected to embrace or include the kaleidoscopic facets of an entire, changing and complex community. But what John Okada has gifted us with is a literary lighthouse, and playwright Ken Narasaki has rekindled its flame.
As luck and timing would have it (one wonders how randomly coincidental these events are, happening so close together), a reprinting of the book — by its original publisher — is in production now, and includes a new foreword by Hapa Sansei writer Ruth Ozeki. The original introduction by Lawson Fusao Inada and afterword by Frank Chin remain intact, as they maintain the original printing’s contextual relevance.
“No-No Boy,” the book, may be purchased here: www.washington.edu/uwpress/search/books/OKANO2.html
Information about making donations to further produce and publicize “No-No Boy,” the play, may be found here: www.panasianrep.org/passholders.shtml
To donate directly: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/store/252/donate/18145
Please be forewarned that re/reading “No-No Boy” is no small feat. Take time with it; soothing and not-too-dear (or takai) cups of YamaMotoYama tea cozy nicely… (My favorite kind is hoji-cha, which is yours…?)
The following excerpt is reprinted with permission from the University of Washington Press and was found at the bottom of Page 228 in the paperback version of the press’ 11th printing in 2001.
He was thinking about the apostrophe, the topside comma, the period with a tail on it. It was the little scale on which hinged the fortunes of the universe. It was the slippery bald-headed pivot on which man hung, unborn and unnamed until suddenly he found himself squirming on one side or the other. It made a difference, of course, which side he chose to fall off on but, when a fellow can’t see for the heavy clouds down below, he simply has to make up his mind in a hurry and hope for the best. Was that the erratic way of the Almighty? Ohara, O’hara. Lock up the apostrophes for a while. We’ve got too many Irishmen.