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From a Japanese American Literature Class at a German University

A short insight into the conflicts in John Okada’s No-No Boy

While attending the University of Wuppertal in Germany, I took a course where I learned about the history and development of Japanese Americans in the United States, from their first experiences with Americans and their reasons for moving to a new country, to their inconceivable experience during the Second World War, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. During the course, we reviewed many stories and books written by Japanese American writers, which provided interesting but alarming and thought-provoking insights into Japanese American lives.

One of the books I preferred was the novel No-No Boy by John Okada. Published in 1957, it went unnoticed until 1970, and should be considered a classic among Asian American writing today. No-No Boy reflects on the effects of the Second World War on Japanese Americans. It deals with their deportation into the relocation centres, even for those Japanese American citizens born in the United States. It also depicts fragmented families whose lives are marked by uncertain identity and, in addition, have to cope with a hostile society and racism. What I especially liked about the book is the fact that it evoked in me such deep sympathy for Japanese Americans, for the misery and harm they received. It is written in such a way that I, as the reader (who thankfully has never known what it is like to be in such a situation), can see things from the character’s perspective, and thus feel an even deeper empathy.

No-No Boy presents several views of Japanese Americans during this time period: there is Ichiro and his companion, Freddy, who did not fight for the war, and thus were imprisoned; there is Kenji, who did fight for the United States during the war; there were other Japanese Americans who fought during the war, and despised those who did not; and finally, there were people who did not care whether people served for the army or not, as well as many more views.

Although there are many different characters whose lives are portrayed, it is Ichiro who is the protagonist of the novel. Ichiro, who is a Nisei, was not willing to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, and also forswear an allegiance to the Japanese emperor, which made him a “No-No” Boy. As a consequence, Ichiro and his family were sent to an internment camp, before he was imprisoned for two years. The novel depicts his story after he is released from prison and returns to his family in Seattle. The reader accompanies Ichiro as he searches for his identity, trying to find his place in a state where minority races belong neither to Japan nor to America. The novel illustrates the difficulty of being a Unites States citizen by birth, while growing up in a community that isolates itself from American influence, in order to preserve his own native roots and culture.

In No-No Boy, Ichiro remains loyal to his Japanese culture, even while he considers himself an American. This is due to the influence of his parents, especially his mother, who never integrated into American society, and believed she would return home to Japan one day. Thus, the relationship between Ichiro and his parents presents one of the major themes of the novel; a generational conflict that does not seem to be extraordinary to immigrant families in those days. Ichiro’s parents represent the Issei, the first generation who had come to the United States from Japan. The Issei generation only identify with their country of origin, which is in contrast to the younger generation born in the United States, who considers themselves as Americans.

Over the course of the novel, it becomes more and more apparent that Ichiro blames his mother for his decision to not serve in the war. Thus he believes she is at fault for his identity crisis, and his inability to accept himself or worthy of being an America. Ichiro even goes one step further and thinks she is insane, due to her belief that Japan won the war, and all else is propaganda that was staged by the United States government. Ichiro’s father’s behaviour intensifies this conflict. He fails to open his wife’s eyes to reality, and avoids the conflict by drowning out the present in alcohol. Hence, the father-son relationship fails as well.

As he becomes aware of his parent’s development, Ichiro feels that he does not want to end up like them. Gradually, Ichiro regrets his decision acting out against the United States, and faces these consequences again and again. This becomes obvious when he declines a job offer as he does not feel worthy, since he did not fight in the war. Furthermore, Ichiro experiences several kinds of racism. In the novel, racism is not only about blacks and whites or Japanese Americans and Caucasians, but the conflict is expanded among Japanese Americans themselves. For instance, it is revealed that Ichiro’s brother Taro despises him because he did not fight in the war. All these experiences that happened to Ichiro after he is released from prison drive him into despair, to the point where he would rather change places with the wounded Kenji. For Ichiro, he would even accept a disability, if would help him feel like an American with a clear identity.

No-No Boy offers so many interesting themes and options that look into people’s minds, it is impossible to give a detailed representation of all characters and their relationships among themselves. The main reason for this article is to recommend that everyone read this wonderful work of fiction and experience the content for themselves. Accordingly, this short article focuses on Ichiro’s life and conflicts after the Second World War, while providing only a brief insight of how he experiences this difficult time.

© 2010 Anna Katharina Schulz

Germany john okada literature No-No Boy (book) university of wuppertal World War II WWII

About this series

This series of articles come from a Japanese American Literature class in Germany. Bettina Hofmann teaches American Studies at the University of Wuppertal, Germany and contacted Discover Nikkei about her class. She asked her students to write their response to the course - to be published on Discover Nikkei.