Books

New edition of Japanese America novel ‘No-No Boy’ sparks backlash

Widely recognized as the first Japanese American novel, John Okada's "No-No Boy," about a Japanese American man struggling to find his place in the U.S. and in his community in the years after WWII, is a historic work of literature. But the book wasn't always celebrated.

A new edition of "No-No Boy," published by Penguin Classics in May in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, has recently brought the book's complicated publication history into the spotlight and has raised questions regarding its ownership.

On May 31, University of Washington professor Shawn Wong took to Facebook to call out the publisher in a post that claimed he helped register the copyright of "No-No Boy" on behalf of Okada's widow, Dorothy Okada, when publishing a 1976 edition of the novel. The post included a photo of the U.S. copyright.

Penguin says according to its research, "No-No Boy" is in the public domain in the United States.

"We fully investigate the copyright status of any work that is going into our classics program," Penguin's Yuki Hirose, VP, associate general counsel, said in a statement. "According to U.S. Copyright Office records, the 1957 edition was never registered and therefore is not afforded copyright protection in the U.S."

Set in the aftermath of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, "No-No Boy" tells the story of Ichiro Yamada following his release from prison for refusing to serve in the U.S. military.

When the novel was initially published in 1957, it was rejected by a Japanese American community that was still reeling from the social upheaval caused by internment and sensitive to how the community was portrayed. It wasn't until the 1970s that Okada's book was rediscovered thanks to a group of Asian American writers looking to shed light on forgotten and neglected Asian American works.

In 1971, "My friends and I found a used copy of 'No-No Boy' for 50 cents at a used book store," Wong told The Times. "No one knew anything about it. Nobody had ever heard about it."

Still a college student at the time, Wong and his friends sought out Okada to interview him about the book, only to discover the Japanese American author had died of a heart attack just months before, his book still lost in obscurity.

Because of this, Wong, Jeffery Paul Chan, Frank Chin and Lawson Fusao Inada tried to bring the book into the limelight. And when they could not find a publisher willing to reissue "No-No Boy" when it went out of print, they worked to publish it themselves under the Combined Asian-American Resources Project banner in 1976.

In an interview, Wong explained that the only reason CARP was able to pay for the cost of printing was because all 3,000 copies of the first printing sold out through preorders by mail, thanks to a column in The Pacific Citizen, a Japanese American newspaper. Ninety% of these buyers were Japanese American, according to Wong.

The publishing rights, Wong says, were transferred in 1979 to the University of Washington Press, which has sold 157,000 copies of the book over the last 40 years and has paid royalties to the Okada family. "No-No Boy" has not gone out of print since 1976.

"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.

Penguin denies Wong's claim. "The only copyright registration on file with the Copyright Office related to 'No-No Boy' is for the 1976 introduction by Lawson Fusao Inada, which we did not reproduce in our edition," said Hirose.

Frank Abe, one of the editors of "John Okada: The Life and Rediscovered Work of the Author of 'No-No Boy,' " explained in a blog post that the copyright situation is complicated because the 1957 edition of "No-No Boy" was published by Charles Tuttle, based in Japan.

Only the U.S. publishing rights are in question. According to Wong and Abe, UW Press owns the worldwide publishing rights and all other media rights.

According to readings of the laws that govern international copyright, the Charles Tuttle edition of the book was never under U.S. copyright. And despite Wong's understanding that he was registering the copyright for the full text of the book on behalf of Okada's family, some attorneys say that, because of a loophole, he didn't.

But according to the New York Times, other legal experts believe the Okadas have a case for ownership over the novel.

For Wong and other members of the Asian American community, the pushback is not just about whether Penguin had legal clearance to publish a new edition of the book.

Wong says the publication history behind "No-No Boy" is an important part of Asian American history and that Penguin has disregarded that part of its legacy. He also is disappointed that the publisher had not consulted Okada's family before releasing its edition.

"Whether or not the largest publisher in the U.S. has a legal right to now bring out an unauthorized edition of 'No-No Boy,' you can judge for yourself whether it has a moral right," wrote Abe in a blog post about the situation.

Similarly, author Viet Thanh Nguyen took to Twitter and said he was "very disappointed in 1/8Penguin3/8 for appropriating John Okada's 'No-No Boy'" and encouraged people to keep seeking out the UW Press version of the novel.

"'No-No Boy' is part of my history," said Wong. "It's part of my career. I worked as hard to get that book published as I worked to get my own book published."

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