A black and white collage featuring a man with his hands over his eyes, a newspaper clippings and documents, and Japanese people lined up at an American concentration camp.

442: ‘No-No Boys’ Never Should Have Had to Prove Their Loyalty

How a misleading government survey led to further stigmatization of Japanese Americans during WWII

"No-no boys" were Japanese American men who answered "no" to two key questions in a "loyalty questionnaire" during WWII.

Illustration by Vivian Lai

Words by Samantha Pak

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

Have a historical tidbit you’d like to share? Let us know!

Japanese Americans on the West Coast were dealt many injustices during World War II, the biggest of which was when more than 120,000 of them were illegally and unconstitutionally incarcerated in concentration camps. But the wrongs against this community didn’t stop there.

In the winter of 1943, all adults in the 10 camps were given an Application for Leave Clearance form, otherwise known as a “loyalty questionnaire.” As this informal name implies, the federal government used the questionnaire to assess people’s loyalty and segregate the “loyal” from the “disloyal.” Men who fell in the latter category became known as “no-no boys” for how they answered two particular questions.

Those two questions—questions 27 and 28—were seen as problematic, according to Densho. The former asked Nisei (second generation Japanese American) men if they were willing to serve on combat duty wherever ordered (and asked others if they would be willing to serve in other ways such as in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps). The latter asked if people would swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and forswear any form of allegiance to the emperor of Japan.

Young men were worried that saying they were willing to serve in the army would mean they were actually volunteering to serve a country that was actively imprisoning them and their families without due process. They were partially correct, as the questionnaire was also used to aid the War Department at the time in recruiting men for an all-Nisei combat unit.

And with question 28, those who were American citizens resented being asked to renounce loyalty to an emperor they were never loyal to in the first place. In addition, Issei, first-generation Japanese immigrants, weren’t allowed to become U.S. citizens because of anti-Japanese sentiment. So if they answered “yes,” it meant they were renouncing their only citizenship, which would leave them stateless and unprotected in many ways (while they were already living behind barbed wire fences). To address this, Issei successfully petitioned to have the question revised to: “Will you swear to abide by the laws of the United States and take no action which would in any way interfere with the war effort of the United States?”

The majority of Japanese Americans answered “yes” to these loyalty questions, but there was a sizable minority—about 12,000 of the 78,000 people who were given the questionnaire—who either refused to answer, gave qualified answers, or answered “no,” according to Densho. These folks were sent to Tule Lake, which became the concentration camp for the “disloyal.”

Although their unconstitutional treatment would have made folks’ resentment against the government and having to answer such loyalty questions understandable, “no-no” status was stigmatized after the war and many people are still reluctant to share their stories.

Published on December 7, 2023

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.

Art by Vivian Lai

Vivian Lai is an experienced L.A.-based graphic and UI designer with a proven track record of problem-solving for diverse clients across industries. She is highly skilled in design thinking, user experience, and visual communication and is committed to staying up-to-date with the latest design trends and techniques. Vivian has been recognized for her exceptional work with numerous industry awards.