Characters Discussed

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Ichiro Yamada

Ichiro Yamada, a twenty-five-year-old, second-generation (“Nisei”) Japanese American. During World War II, he spent two years in an internment camp for Japanese Americans and two more years in federal prison because he chose to be a “no-no boy,” refusing to serve in the armed forces and to swear allegiance to the United States. He refused because he was angry at the U.S. government for forcing all Japanese aliens and Japanese American citizens into the camps. Throughout the novel, he struggles with his guilt about his decision not to fight in the war and with his feelings of conflict about his ethnic identity. In the end, he decides that he is an American and that both he and his country made mistakes; he looks to the future with cautious optimism.

Kenji Kanno

Kenji Kanno, Ichiro’s friend and supporter. Although he shared Ichiro’s anger about racial injustice toward Japanese Americans and other ethnic minorities, Kenji joined the Army when war broke out. Like many other Japanese American soldiers, he fought bravely against the Germans; he lost a leg in battle, and the wound eventually kills him. He believed that the “melting pot” was a myth.

Mrs. Yamada

Mrs. Yamada, Ichiro’s mother. An immigrant (or “Issei”) Japanese, she has lived in the United States for thirty-five years, yet she considers herself Japanese rather than American, and she speaks virtually no English. She refuses to believe that the Japanese were defeated in the war. She is proud of Ichiro’s refusal to fight for the United States, but Ichiro feels alienated from her, and there is tension between them. Her mind deteriorates, and she commits suicide by drowning in her own bathtub. Ichiro never completely forgives her for trying to make him Japanese instead of American.

Mr. Yamada

Mr. Yamada, Ichiro’s father. A weak-willed and confused man, he lacks a sense of cultural identity, feeling neither Japanese nor American. He tries to understand Ichiro’s problems but can offer his son little guidance or support. He becomes virtually helpless and turns to alcohol after his wife’s death.


Emi, a young Japanese American woman whom Kenji introduces to Ichiro. Abandoned by her husband, who served with Kenji in the war, she is lonely. She is attracted to Ichiro, and the two have an affair. Ichiro, still tortured by guilt and psychological conflict, finally rejects her offer of love.

Taro Yamada

Taro Yamada, Ichiro’s younger brother. He despises Ichiro for being a “no-no boy.” He sets up Ichiro for a beating. When he turns eighteen, he immediately enlists in the Army.


Freddie, Ichiro’s friend and fellow “no-no boy.” Like Ichiro, he is struggling to resolve his feelings of conflict about his refusal to serve in the Army; unlike Ichiro, he disguises his feelings with loud talk and brash actions. His feelings of rage eventually lead to his death in a car accident.


Eto, an Army veteran and former friend of Ichiro. He hates all “no-no boys” and spits on Ichiro and Freddie when he meets them after the war.


Bull, another Japanese American veteran who detests “no-no boys.” His tauntings of Freddie are indirectly responsible for the latter’s fatal car accident.

Mr. Carrick

Mr. Carrick, an empathetic Anglo American who realizes that Japanese Americans were victims of injustice and oppression during the war. He offers Ichiro a job, in part because he wants to atone for his country’s mistreatment of Japanese Americans.

Themes and Characters

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Details of Executive Order 9066 help place Okada's book in its historical context. The executive order, signed by...

(This entire section contains 1658 words.)

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President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, resulted in the internment of over one hundred thousand Japanese Americans in prison camps throughout the United States. The titleNo-No Boy refers to two questions the U.S. government required all internees to answer in order to secure their release: "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?" and "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attacks by foreign or domestic forces, and foreswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?" Those who answered "yes" to both questions were released and enlisted in the U.S. armed forces. Those who answered "no" to both questions remained in prison. Ichiro, the central character in the novel, answered "no," and thus became a "no-no Boy." But Okada makes it clear that neither answer provided any resolution. The Japanese Americans caught in the aftermath of World War II found themselves in a continual struggle for self-acceptance, acceptance within American society, and acceptance within their own communities. Some Japanese pledged their allegiance to the U.S. and considered themselves Americans, while others remained loyal to their Japanese roots. Almost all of them felt displaced and confused.

Ichiro is twenty-five years old when he is finally released from prison and returns home to his disinterred family in Seattle. He finds himself facing his own identity crisis, which arose when, after the war, his confusion over race and nationality intensified. He is a man caught between cultures, hostile toward the U.S. government that imprisoned him, yet hostile toward his own Japanese culture as well. He is full of self-hatred. Ichiro returns to a divided community and a divided family. His mother is devoutly loyal to Japan and believes that Japan has won the war. His brother Taro is devoutly loyal to the United States and disrespects Ichiro for his no-no status. Ichiro's father is an alcoholic struggling with issues of his own, including a domineering wife. Thus begins Okada's novel, Ichiro's struggle, and the confusion over identity and nationality that plagued Okada himself in postwar America.

Ichiro's choice to answer "no" to both questions forces him to analyze his loyalties. Raised by a traditional Japanese mother, and a domineering one at that, Ichiro himself embraced the traditional concept of filial piety—loyalty to one's family above all else. Mrs. Yamada, Ichiro's mother, praises Ichiro's choice and views his actions as a show of pride in his Japanese heritage. But Ichiro feels conflicted. He realizes that whether he identifies himself as Japanese or American, he is doomed to a life of racial discrimination. He cannot identify with his mother, who falsely believes that Japan emerged from the war victorious, and he cannot identify with his brother, who professes to be an American and discounts their Japanese status. Ichiro cannot distance himself from his family or from his culture, but at the same time, he feels that he can never live in America and be truly free from discrimination.

The issue of filial piety is one that Okada addresses in the novel, in part by referring to the Japanese fairy tale"Momotaro: The Peach Boy." In the fairy tale, the son proves his willingness to sacrifice his life to save his parents. Ichiro proves this willingness by becoming a No-No Boy and remaining in prison with his parents. He acted out of respect for his parents, out of filial piety. Clearly, his mother expected him to remain loyal to Japan, even if it cost him his freedom. Yet not only does he lose his freedom, he is ostracized both by the Japanese-American community and by American society for the remainder of his life.

Okada's novel points to the American treatment of Japanese citizens after the bombing of Pearl Harbor as constituting a violation of their constitutional rights. The Japanese prisoners were unable to express their opinions, and required to simply answer "yes" or "no" to the questions. Were they loyal to the U.S. government or to the emperor of Japan? Neither choice offered them resolution or freedom in any real sense. In the novel, Okada creates characters who choose different courses of action and embrace different beliefs. All these characters suffer the same confusion; all feel that they will lose their rights as citizens, no matter what choice they make. Mike fights in the war, and believes that he demonstrates his loyalty to America by doing so. Bull continually harasses Ichiro for his no-no status and his avowed "disloyalty" to the United States. Kenji becomes a yes-yes boy, but unlike Bull, instead of treating Ichiro with contempt for his no-no status, Kenji treats him with respect. But both Ichiro and Kenji question their decisions and suffer guilt for making them. Ichiro's guilt is reinforced by the discrimination he suffers at the hands of those Japanese Americans who consider him a traitor to America; Kenji's guilt is reinforced by those Japanese loyalists who consider him a traitor to his own heritage.

Perhaps because Okada himself was a yes-yes boy, Kenji's turmoil likely parallels Okada's anguish. Kenji is a wounded war veteran who dies little by little when he loses his leg. Consider the symbolism of Kenji's war wound. He literally loses more and more of himself, just as Japanese Americans lose themselves figuratively by discounting their culture. Kenji's family has become Americanized; they have adopted American customs and attitudes, and Kenji sacrifices himself for the American cause. The theme of self-sacrifice recurs throughout the novel.

Several incidents that take place at the Club Oriental underscore the divisions within the Japanese community and clarify the racial hierarchy inherent in postwar America. The Club Oriental is a hangout for nisei, and during the postwar years, an obvious setting for young people to play out the tensions between Japanese and American loyalists. One scene involves a young man named Bull who enters the bar with a white woman and makes it obvious that he considers her superior to him. Another scene involves nisei discriminating against several African Americans who enter the bar and are turned away. Both of these incidents reflect the self-hatred with which the young nisei struggle. It is ironic that Kenji feels comfortable at the Club Oriental because he does not feel prejudice there, yet the Chinese owners of the club prevent two African American from entering. It is ironic that Bull boasts of escorting a white woman, because this reveals his own reticence to accept minorities like himself as social equals to white Americans. This appeared to be a common attitude among Japanese Americans. Kenji tells Ichiro to move away from the Japanese community and marry a white girl—essentially to dissimulate himself—to interbreed with whites to the point of Japanese extinction, as if this is the only way that integration in America will ever insure equality. The notion of Japanese extinction—of the death of one culture for the survival of another—clearly emerges as another theme. Kenji's death, Mrs. Yamada's death, and, at the end of the novel, Freddie's death, all exemplify this. Kenji and Freddie are literally broken apart, symbolically alluding to the fractured lives and feelings these people faced as they witnessed outright hatred for their native culture.

By highlighting his characters' ambivalence about their native culture, Okada not only explores the theme of racial tension, but also the theme of self-hatred. Ichiro's search for self-acceptance and the impossibility of the postwar situation lead to his own self-hatred. The issue stems from the fact that nisei who identified themselves (or wished to identify themselves) as American found themselves hating and resenting their parents and their culture—and themselves. Ichiro's relationship with his mother is problematic. True to Japanese tradition, he was taught to demonstrate unconditional loyalty to his family, and Mrs. Yamada clearly expects her son to be fiercely loyal to Japan. Yet Ichiro feels he must distance himself from his mother's loyalty to become integrated into American society. He resents her for her inability to accept Japan's loss in the war. Because Ichiro's conditioning to embrace Japanese culture and values is at odds with his need to become integrated into American society, his relationship with his mother suffers. It is only after Mrs. Yamada's death that Ichiro feels comfortable enough to move toward integration and finds it possible to truly identify himself with both cultures.

Mrs. Yamada's death represents a crucial turning point in the novel. She commits suicide when she can no longer deny Japan's loss in the war, as if she knows that by accepting the loss, she will never feel comfortable as a Japanese woman living in America. Again the theme of self-sacrifice surfaces. Ichiro has mixed emotions about his mother's death. In one way it gives him the freedom to integrate into American culture, but on the other hand, it forces him to recognize the value of his Japanese culture. His mother, Ichiro knew, could never be comfortable living as an American, nor was she ever accepted as an American (because issei were denied citizenship.) If she had accepted herself as American, Ichiro realizes, she would be a woman with no country, displaced and homeless and unable to ever feel at peace in her new land. Though Ichiro is still conflicted at the end of the novel, he has come to an understanding of his mother's loyalties and has forgiven her for instilling in him a Japanese identity he felt pressure to shed. By the end of the novel, and through his mother's death, Ichiro has also learned to accept responsibility for answering "no" to the loyalty questions. He looks toward a more positive future, though he knows he will continue to live in a fractured community.


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Freddie Akimoto
Freddie Akimoto is a Japanese American friend of Ichiro. Like Ichiro, Freddie has just returned to Seattle, although whether he was in an internment camp or a prison is not stated. Freddie now has a defiant attitude. He lives recklessly, filling his time with activities such as drinking, fighting, womanizing, playing poker, and going to the movies. He lives this way to distract himself from his own unhappiness. Ichiro thinks Freddie is just running away from reality, but Freddie thinks Ichiro is stuck in a rut. Freddie is killed after he gets involved in a fight at the Club Oriental and drives off recklessly.

Mrs. Ashida
Mrs. Ashida and her husband come from the same village in Japan as the Yamadas. The two families are friends. Agreeing with Mrs. Yamada’s sympathies, Mrs. Ashida’s loyalties are to Japan. Mrs. Ashida believes that Japan won the war.

Birdie is a black man who defends Gary at the foundry when the other workers are hostile to him.

Professor Baxter Brown
Baxter Brown is a professor of engineering at the university and Ichiro’s former teacher. He encourages Ichiro to resume his studies.

Bull is a loud and rough Japanese American who is friendly to Kenji but not to Ichiro or Freddie. He and Freddie twice get into a fight at the Club Oriental.

Mr. Carrick
Mr. Carrick is the owner of the small engineering business to which Ichiro applies for a job. He is a decent man who likes Japanese people. He tells Ichiro that the internment of Japanese during the war was a big mistake and a black mark in the annals of U.S. history. When Ichiro confesses that he refused the draft, Mr. Carrick is sympathetic and tells Ichiro not to blame himself. Mr. Carrick’s kindness and generosity help to give Ichiro hope that he may have a future in the United States.

Emi is an attractive, twenty-seven-year-old Japanese American whose husband, Ralph, is stationed with the U.S. Army in Germany and shows no signs of wanting to return. Ichiro is introduced to Emi by Kenji. He and Emi sleep together, and Emi gives Ichiro sound and encouraging advice about how he can move forward in his life. When she hears that her husband wants a divorce, she again seeks out Ichiro’s company, and they go dancing together. She is a positive influence on Ichiro.

Gary is a Japanese American friend of Ichiro. He works as a sign painter at the Christian Reclamation Center. He enjoys his work and wants to become an artist. Like Ichiro, he has served time in prison, but unlike his friend he regards it as the best thing that happened to him because it enabled him to sort out his goals. He realizes that he has wasted a lot of time but now he believes he is moving in a positive direction.

Hanako Kanno
Hanako Kanno, Kenji’s sister, works as a bookkeeper in an office in Seattle.

Kenji Kanno
Kenji Kanno is a young Japanese American who volunteered to fight in World War II. He was wounded and lost most of his leg and was awarded the Silver Star. The U.S. government has rewarded his sacrifice by giving him a new car, specially designed so he can drive it, as well as education and pension benefits. However, Kenji’s wound is gangrenous, and he knows he may die soon. But he faces his fate with courage. What most upsets him is not his own condition but the bigotry, meanness, and racial prejudice he observes in others, attitudes that are foreign to his own nature. Kenji is a friendly, well-adjusted man, generous and level-headed, who is liked and respected by everyone. He comes from a close-knit, affectionate family, and he tries to help others, including his friends Emi and Ichiro, who is in every way his opposite. Kenji dies in the hospital in Portland.

Mr. Kanno
Mr. Kanno is Kenji’s father, a good-hearted man who is close to his son and allowed him to volunteer for service in the U.S. armed forces. Mr. Kanno originally came to the United States to get rich and then return to Japan, but he eventually got used to and appreciated the fact that he could create a life for himself and his family there. After his wife died, he was left to raise six small children, which he did with much struggle. Now the children are grown, and he is comfortably off, although he grieves about the wound his son suffered in the war.

Tom Kanno
Tom Kanno, Kenji’s brother, works as a drafter at an aircraft plant and is a baseball fan.

Mr. Kumasaka
Mr. Kumasaka and his wife are friends of the Yamada family. Unlike the Ashidas, Mr. and Mrs. Kumasaka have bought a house and are reconciled to staying in the United States. Their son Bob was killed fighting for the United States in the war, and they are still grief-stricken.

Eto Minato
Eto Minato is an old acquaintance of Ichiro. When the two meet after the war, Eto, who has been in the U.S. Army, is friendly to Ichiro until he finds out that Ichiro did not serve. Then he insults him and spits on him. Freddie later says that Eto was only in the army six months and then wangled himself a medical discharge.

Mr. Morrison
Mr. Morrison is the good-natured employer at the Christian Reclamation Center. He enjoys working in a job that allows him to help people, and he offers Ichiro a job without hesitation.

Rabbit is a black man who works at the shoe shine parlor.

Ichiro Yamada
Ichiro Yamada is the twenty-five-year-old Japanese American “no-no” boy of the title. He was born in the United States to first-generation Japanese immigrants and had begun his education in engineering at the university in Seattle when the war interrupted his plans. He was interned by the U.S. government, and partly out of loyalty to his Japanese mother and partly because he lacked the courage to do what he felt was the right thing, he refused to serve in the U.S. Army. As a result, he served two years in prison.

When he returns to Seattle after the war, he is confused, not knowing his place in the United States. Facing hostility from Japanese Americans such as Eto and Bull, Ichiro is filled with self-hatred and blames himself for his predicament. He is at odds with his own family, especially his mother, whom he thinks is crazy, and he regards his father as a weak man for whom he has no respect. He does not mourn his mother’s death. Ichiro is also at loggerheads with his younger brother, Taro.

Ichiro feels more American than Japanese, but he also feels that he does not belong to either country. His feelings of guilt and his apparent need to go on suffering for his mistake prevent him from accepting an excellent job offer in Portland, since he convinces himself that the job should go to someone who is fully American in a way he can never be.

For two weeks, Ichiro stumbles along, experiencing deep introspective moods in which he ponders how he got into this mess and whether he will ever have a decent life in the United States. He is fortunate in that he encounters a number of people who are kind to him and give him helpful advice, such as Kenji and Emi, both of whom tell him not to blame himself. He also meets helpful, pro-Japanese employers who offer him a chance to get his life moving forward again. Finally, he begins to feel a glimmer of hope that he can one day become fully a part of the diverse community that populates the United States.

Mr. Yamada
Mr. Yamada, Ichiro’s father, is a weak man, dominated by his strong-willed wife. Unlike her, he does not believe that Japan won the war, but he exerts little effort to tell her the truth. He regards her as a sick woman and worries about her, feeling that perhaps he is in some way partly responsible for her sickness. Mr. Yamada is a well-meaning man who tries to befriend his son, but Ichiro’s opinion of him is scathing: “Pa’s okay, but he’s a nobody. He’s a [g——d——], fat, grinning, spineless nobody.” Mr. Yamada’s main weakness is alcohol. On the night his wife commits suicide, he slowly drinks himself into a stupor. After her death and at the funeral, he seems more relieved than in mourning.

Mrs. Yamada
Mrs. Yamada, Ichiro’s fanatical mother, rigidly maintains her allegiance to Japan and insists on believing that Japan won the war. She despises the United States even though she has lived there for thirty-five years. She refuses to learn or speak English and refers to Japanese Americans who serve in the U.S. armed forces and Japanese people who do not conduct themselves as Japanese as already dead. Mrs. Yamada entirely dominates her husband, who is too weak to stand up to her, and her relationship with Ichiro is full of tension. He rejects her completely, regarding her as insane. Eventually, when she receives a letter from her sister in Japan, it becomes impossible for her to believe any longer that Japan won the war. But she will not admit that openly. Instead, she retreats to her bedroom, refuses to eat, and exhibits signs of extreme psychological disturbance, such as lining cans up on the shelves and then hurling them to the floor, repacking them in boxes and then going through the whole procedure again. Eventually she commits suicide by drowning herself in the bathtub.

Taro Yamada
Taro Yamada, Ichiro’s younger brother, is just eighteen. He is restless and refuses to study. He is determined to defy his parents’ wishes and join the U.S. Army rather than go to college. He dislikes his brother because of Ichiro’s refusal to serve in the armed forces, and he even leads Ichiro into a trap outside the Club Oriental, where two thugs try to beat him up.




Critical Essays