John Okada’s No-No Boy recounts the story of challenging cultural identity of a Japanese American young man named Ichiro. In the midst of a bloody conflict with the Japanese, the United States undertook a radical move of creating concentration camps for those of Japanese origin, whilst still requiring these people to contribute to the war effort and society. The tragedies of the war combined with the military propaganda created significant distrust and racially based discrimination against the Japanese American community both during and for years after World War II. Ichiro’s inner cultural conflict stems from the relationship with his parents which pushed him towards blind allegiance to Japanese culture, but he realizes he made the wrong decision by refusing to fight for the United States. The dominant ideologies of the post-war era which condemned everything uniquely Japanese and many those who did not fight for the U.S. contribute to Ichiro’s lost sense of identity that values his cultural upbringing but strives to become fully American.
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From the beginning of the novel, it is evident that the years of the war and its aftermath had a significant mental and emotional impact on Ichiro and the Nikkei family. From the first lines, the audience is faced with the crisis of identity in Ichiro and perhaps many other young Japanese Americans. Okada uses a simile to describe the feeling which creates the tension and eradicates any level of comfort, “Walking down the street that autumn morning with a small, black suitcase, he felt like an intruder in a world to which he had no claim” (Okada 24).
The Japanese American community was divided, which will be discussed later, but as a result of this, events which should have been reason for celebration such as the end of the war or release of Ichiro from prison was highly absent or dysfunctional. Division always sprouts hatred, and the community hated those who even remotely demonstrated allegiance to Japan and its culture such as Ichiro’s family. Upon encountering a Japanese American serviceman Eto, Ichiro is forced to admit his compliance for refusing to serve, “He wanted to return the look of despising hatred and say simply yes, but it was too much to say. The walls had closed in and were crushing all the unspoken words back down into his stomach” (Okada 25). The author uses metaphoric imagery to emphasize shame and submission on an emotional and cognitive level that Icharo felt facing his community and the general society which maintained a strong anti-Japanese sentiment, especially against those as loyal as the Nikkei.
The family has been affected by the war, far more than Icharo initially realizes. He returns to a subdued household, that does not rejoice in seeing him after a proonged absence. Instead, the family is inherently fractured, among the same lines that society is surrounding the cultural racially biased post-war politics. Icharo’s mother is a fanatic of the Japanese imperial regime which inherently caused the war and refuses to see reality in that Japan lost. Icharo’s brother, Taro, despises him for being disloyal to the U.S. and not joining the war.
Meanwhile, the father is an alcoholic that is despaired and controlled by the overbearing wife. Icharo describes his feelings, “He looked at his mother and swallowed with difficulty the bitterness that threatened to destroy the last fragment of understanding for the woman who was his mother and still a stranger because, in truth, he could not know what it was to be a Japanese who breathed the air of America and yet had never lifted a foot from the land that was Japan” (Okada 30). The family was inherently broken and split, undergoing tensions that made Icharo and perhaps other members of the family question themselves and the identity of their loved ones. This is a level of psychical trauma which stands in contrast of what was once a unified, loving, and wholesome family – now destroyed by the war despite none of them participating in it.
Dominant Ideologies and Cultural Politics
The term ‘American’ is commonly used as a reference to nationality rather than ethnicity. However, during World War II, the appellation adopted racial overtones. Unlike the Germans and the Italians, where there was largely a distinction between the enemy abroad and American citizens, Japanese Americans were not afforded that luxury. The racial overtones in the novel and at the time suggest that ‘American’ means white, while the Japanese Americans, despite being born or naturalized are seen as loyal to the enemy.
The title of the novel No-No Boy derives from a process in which Japanese Americans were asked if they are willing to enlist to fight for the United States and then if they pledge their full allegiance to the United States (Yogi 63). As known, Icharo answered no to both, accepting this label of a no-no boy which is polarizing. The dominant ideologies at the time, because of the racial and cultural tension, for most people led to assumptions that one is either Japanese or American. This is why Taro who is militantly pro-American, despises his brother, assuming that Icharo is sympathetic to Japan. Meanwhile, Mrs. Yamada is the complete opposite, and becomes a complex allegory of the reaction against the oppressor but also an imitation of them, with an insistence of maintaining a fanatical Japanese identity without consideration of other’s thoughts (Yogi 236).
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The Japanese American community was split in the aftermath of the war, into the Issei and Nisei groups. Issei were first-generation immigrants from Japan, like Icharo’s parents, who were legally prevented from becoming U.S. citizens and largely lived by the rules and culture of their Japanese upbringing. Meanwhile, the Nisei were second-generation children, who were birth-right citizens, and were characterized by distancing themselves from the original Japanese culture and adopting all things American. Although Icharo was a Nisei technically, unlike his brother, he was influenced strongly by his mother’s view and was initially conflicted about his allegiance. The Nisei were openly hostile to Icharo in their encounter when Taro intentionally draws Icharo into a trap. This is due to their acceptance of the social standards of the dominant racial culture, and their fear of not being distinguished from him, a traitor, because of shared racial characteristics (Ling 364).
Icharo’s search for identity is trapped between two ideological fields that surrounded him his whole life. He is consistently wavering between the Japanese nationalistic standpoint and American assimilationist attitudes. As soon as he distances himself from either, Icharo becomes inherently lost. When refusing to fight and going to prison, Icharo was caught in a culturally political crossfire, but he inherently forced into this position because of race. He sought to rebel, implicitly protesting the racial equality, but he could not express this openly even to himself (Ling 366). Once released from prison and labeled as a traitor, Icharo is seeking a new life because his life and family is inherently “stripped of dignity, respect, purpose, and honor” (Okada 12). He is pressured by his cultural upbringing as well as the sudden racial tension that has appeared because of the war.
Icharo experiences such shame and assimilationist pressures to be an American that in a candid conversation with his severely mutilated veteran friend, he wishes that he could trade places with him, even if it meant a painful and short life. This shame is a factor that will continue haunting Icharo for the rest of his life, as the psychological wound is festering and depriving him of any self-respect and worth. It even leads him to decline a job offer because he feels undeserving and rather the job to go to a potential serviceman that may need it. In conclusion, the consequences of complying and going to war or failing to comply to the dominant pressures of Americanization on Japanese Americans were equally horrible (Ling 367). Both points are highlighted in the friendship between Ichiro and Kenjii, whom ironically does not judge or discriminate against Ichiro unlike the Nisei, the majority of who did not even serve in the war.
Okada’s No-No Boy explores many difficult themes regarding the challenges faced by the Japanese American community in the aftermath of World War II. Driven by the general mistrust and racial discrimination of Japanese Americans, the community itself began to split. There are key internal conflicts such as confusions of loyalty, family, shame, rights, agony of failure, resistance, and hopeless future for those who end up on the wrong side of a conflict much larger than their understanding. It is an exploration of stigma and hostilities experienced by the minority who did not comply with the pressures of Americanization, and ended up being caught in the raw wounds of a community which experienced significant trauma, either through war or internment camps (Yamashita). The novel is an excellent exploration of the influence of racially cultural politics on the lives of families, and the difficult homecoming of Japanese Americans, who like many veterans from minority groups, returned home where they were not welcome and antagonized.
Ling, Jinqi. “Race, Power, and Cultural Politics in John Okada’s No-No Boy.” American Literature, vol. 67, no. 2, 1995, pp. 359-381.
Okada, John. No-No Boy. University of Washington Press, 2014.
Yamashita, Erik. “John Okada’s No-No Boy Is a Test of American Character.” The Atlantic, 21 May 2019.
Yogi, Stan. “”You Had to Be One or the Other”: Oppositions and Reconciliation in John Okada’s No-No Boy.” MELUS, vol. 67, no. 2, 1996, pp. 63-77.
Yogi, Stan. “The Collapse of Difference: Dysfunctional and Inverted Celebrations in John Okada’s No-No Boy.” Revue Française d’Études Américaines, vol. 53, 1992, pp. 233-244.