The no-no boys and me

Elizabeth Kurata/Courtesy

I’ve always known that, in regards to my Japanese cultural heritage, I basically grew up under a rock.

Well not quite a rock — more like a collection of larger rocks. I grew up at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Colorado Springs is known for many things; it’s home to numerous conservative Christian groups; a large Army base, Fort Carson; and both the worst-dressed and fittest individuals in the United States. But it’s not known for cultural diversity or for being a hotbed of Japanese American culture. My mixed-race family was somewhat of an outlier. When my dad moved our family because of a job outside his previous tech bubble of San Jose, he inevitably had to cut ties with a familiar Japanese American community, leading to a sort of cultural isolation in Colorado Springs.

My brother and I were very young when we moved, so for us, being Japanese American
primarily meant correcting people on the spelling of our Japanese last name — “That’s Kurata with a K. K-U-R …” To be half-Japanese, or hapa, was to admit that the blond woman trailing us in public was, in fact, our mother and that, no, we were not adopted. My personal Japanese American history is primarily my dad’s love of Japanese food — particularly udon noodles, like the ones his mom made him — and my white mom, with a distaste for sushi, attempting unsuccessfully to find a Japanese teacher for my brother and me.

I can’t remember the first time I learned about the mass Japanese American incarceration. It’s possible that my grandparents’ story was always present in my mind, just as I always knew my last name. My grandparents were both born in the United States, although my grandfather was considered a keibei, a person of Japanese ancestry born in the United States but educated in Japan. He returned to the States about the same time World War II was starting. He was sent early on to build the incarceration camps, while my grandmother and her family were sent to live in the cramped, dirty horse stalls of the Santa Anita race tracks. Their paths crossed at Manzanar, and they married quickly after meeting; together they were sent to a camp called Tule Lake for Japanese Americans considered disloyal. While in camp, they had my dad’s oldest siblings, Aunt Nach and Uncle Yo. Other family lore says my machinist grandfather built a sake distillery in camp and helped construct the camera for the famous incarcerated photographer Miyatake. I’ve always known that my grandparents left the camp after the war ended and moved to Los Angeles, where my dad was eventually born. It was always a fact that my dad and his siblings never learned Japanese and never knew many stories of the camps, because it was not something on which the elders reminisced.

Their story was always just that — a story. I never met my grandparents. Their story was connected to me, but it seemed distant, and their history never seemed much of mine.

Their story was always just that — a story. I never met my grandparents. Their story was connected to me, but it seemed distant, and their history never seemed much of mine.


Since I left Colorado Springs, I have tried to learn more about my family’s story, to gain context. This summer, while interning at a Japanese American cultural center in Oregon, I heard for the first time a name for my men like my grandfather — “no-no boys.” These were men who were sent to Tule Lake and given this nickname because of how they answered the loyalty questionnaire or, more specifically, questions 27 and 28. These questions were, in short, “Will you serve the United States in combat?” and “Will you swear allegiance to the United States, forswearing allegiance to Japan?” These men answered “no” and “no,” respectively. My grandfather told the person interviewing him, “It doesn’t matter what I say — you won’t believe me anyways.” And so, he and his new bride, my grandmother, were sent to Tule Lake. The nickname was meant to defend the men’s choice to refuse to serve in the Army. But the fact that these men needed defending was intriguing to me. I had never thought of it as a divisive issue. I had seen pictures of the Japanese American 442nd infantry unit but figured that those men chose to serve in the war and that some men, such as my grandfather, simply chose not to.

In order to learn more, I spoke with Lisa Hirai-Tsuchitani, a lecturer in UC Berkeley’s ethnic studies department who is currently teaching a class on Japanese American historical and contemporary issues. As we got to talking, I asked her about her family’s story. She quickly asked me right back, “Well, does your family talk about the camps?” I told her that I had never met my grandparents, that I had heard most people of their generation tried to move on and not discuss it. In fact, because of the vacuum I grew up in, I didn’t even know the appropriate tact to take when talking about the camps.

She was, thankfully, incredibly kind and understanding of my ignorance. I told her about my confusion around the rhetoric of the no-no boys. She was very diplomatic and too kind to make big assertions, but she did tell me that growing up in Japantown, San Jose, she would see men refuse to walk on the same side of the street if one was a “draft resister” and the other served in the Army. Up to this point, I had no idea that my family — or families that lived alongside my grandparents — might have been looked down upon for choosing not to serve.

Further research gave me more background: Almost immediately after Pearl Harbor, most leaders in the Japanese American community were imprisoned. Three months later, president Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, sending all American citizens of Japanese ancestry to prison. Many people in the community wanted to protest the forced internment. But those who might have led the movement were the ones imprisoned, leaving only leaders of one organization, called the Japanese American Citizens League, or JACL. The JACL encouraged Japanese Americans to enter the camps without a fuss, to do their wartime part and prove their innocence. The JACL went so far as to formally condemn the no-no boys. The JACL hoped that if Japanese Americans fought in the war and succeeded, they would be welcomed back with open arms. Even after the war, as I learned from Dr. Hirai-Tsuchitani, the tension between the JACL and the no-no boys remained.

I asked more of my family members to see if they knew of the divide in the community between those who were labeled “patriots” and those labeled “dissenters.” Thankfully, in its Japanese American community in Los Angeles, my family never faced any animosity due to my grandfather’s decision. My dad’s eldest sister, whom we call Aunt Nachan (a nickname literally meaning “oldest sister”), said the family never questioned her father’s decision. She explained that my grandfather had no idea what was going to happen at the end of the war, so to take a survey and have to try to decide which country to be “loyal” to was difficult. There were many questions. After the war, would the families be sent to Japan, which was not even their home country? Would they be allowed to stay in the United States, a country that had imprisoned them? I imagine it would be challenging to feel loyal to a country that had done this to them. No matter who won the war, there was the undeniable fact that they were American just as much as anyone else, but their phenotypes certainly made them look like the enemy, and they had been imprisoned for that.

Aunt Nach told me that her family didn’t know anyone who served in the war. I suspect that might be, in part, why my family didn’t experience the discrimination Dr. Harai-Tschitani witnessed. But as I began to read more and more about it, I learned that my family was lucky for not receiving discrimination. I read that many people would not admit they were sent to Tule Lake or had family members in Tule Lake because of the shame they felt for not serving “their country.”

Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t know this. Maybe it’s a positive thing that I saw the community as united. Growing up as I did allowed me to make a blanket of Japanese American history — one I crafted out of my family’s history and all the things I had liked. I am a proud member of the JACL, which identifies now as a civil rights league and has been an ally in many civil rights injustices, such as Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia. And now that I know that at one point, the JACL denounced no-no boys, I don’t think this erases the good it has done in recent years. From my vantage point in history, the fact that any citizens or people were forcibly incarcerated without due cause is crazy, and to think that people who shared this atrocity were pitted against one another because of questions 27 and 28 is even more crazy. But learning of my grandfather’s decision to say “no-no” makes me proud, and I find his decision just as important as that of the men who felt called to fight in the war.

Perhaps the fact that I had no idea of these tensions bodes well for the legacy of the Japanese American community. Maybe it means that because of the luxury of temporal distance, the newer legacy of a postwar united community is right.

Maybe the fact that this history is complicated — that it does have texture, even if I have learned of it late — makes it more real to me. As I sort through these facts, it becomes less a distant story and more a part of my history.