Penguin Battles for Rights over the First Japanese American Novel


No No- Boy by John Okada  (1956) was the first novel by a Japanese American dealing with the Japanese internment camps in America after the bombing of Pearl harbour. The book was not well received by the Japanese  American community initially. It dealt with issues like racism and army drafting.

The novel centres around a Japanese American who refused to draft for the second World War by pledging loyalty to the Emperor Hirohito backed by the allied troops and to fight against those that “misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest”.

It was so hard for Okada to find a publisher in America that he published in Japan in 1956 with a Japanese English language publisher. In 1971, CARP ( Combined Asian-American Resources Project) found the book  and republished it. Now a copyright controversy rages between the University of Washington professor Shawn Wong  ,who republished the book in 1976 for CARP and Penguin. Penguin recently republished the book in May 2019 as part of a series featuring Asian American writing. Penguin claims that as the book was never registered in America, it has no copyright protection in USA, where it sells well and is taught as part of university curriculum.

Penguin’s edition not only tramples on my copyright for the Okadas but also sidesteps paying royalties to the Okadas because they claim the book is in the public domain, which is so, so morally wrong,” said Wong.

“My friends and I found a used copy of No-No Boy for 50 cents at a used book store,” Wong added in an interview published in the Los Angeles Times. “No one knew anything about it. Nobody had ever heard about it.” 

In a book that has been recently published, John Okada: The Life and Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy (2018) edited by Frank Abe, Greg Robinson and Floyd Cheung, Shawn Wong described how they found John Okada’s novel, just missed the novelist because he was dead and discovered it’s value in the literary pantheon. He wrote: “We called Dorothy Okada, John Okada’s widow, and that’s when she told us, ‘You’re too late. John Okada is dead.’ He had died only a few months before — we just missed meeting him — but the four of us wanted to find out more about the person behind the book.”

Read more in this extract from Shawn Wong’s narrative in the yes! Magazine.


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