The epithet 'no-no boy' came from two questions on the Leave Clearance Application Form, also known as the "loyalty questionnaire," administered to interned Japanese Americans in 1943. Some young male internees answered "no" to one or both of these questions:
- "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?"
- "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?"
Both questions were confusing to many respondents. Regarding the first, some respondents thought that by answering yes, they were signing up for combat duty, while others, given their forced removal and incarceration, said no to resist the draft. Regarding the second, to many respondents, most of whom were American citizens, it implied that the respondent had already sworn allegiance to the Japanese emperor. They saw the second question as a trap, and rejected the premise by answering no. Afterwards, all who answered "no" to one or both questions, or who gave an affirmative answer but qualified it with statements like, "I'll serve in the military after my family is freed," were sent to the Tule Lake Segregation Center. Approximately 300 young men would serve time in federal prison for refusing to join the military from camp.
The basic plot is not autobiographical. Okada, a Seattlite like his protagonist, served in the U.S. military himself. The novel was published in 1957 and remained obscure until much later. He died prematurely at age 47 in 1971. A few years later, two young Asian American men heard of Okada and his novel, and resolved to revive interest in the novel. With the cooperation of Okada's widow, they had it republished in 1976, and there was a second printing in 1977. Since that time, it has become a staple of college assigned reading.