Critical Evaluation

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A second-generation, or Nisei, Japanese American, John Okada was born and raised in Seattle, where he attended the University of Washington. Shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which required that all Japanese noncitizen immigrants and Japanese American citizens be relocated to internment camps, where they were forced to remain for the duration of the war. Despite being imprisoned in their own country, Japanese American men also were subject to the military draft. Thousands of young Japanese Americans enlisted or were drafted into the U.S. armed forces, and many gave their lives defending the country that had unjustly imprisoned their relatives and friends. Outraged by the great injustice perpetrated against them, some Japanese Americans refused to serve in the armed forces and to swear allegiance to the United States; they were labeled “no-no boys.”

First published in 1957, Okada’s first novel, No-No Boy, was virtually ignored. A second novel, about the Issei, or first-generation Japanese Americans, remained unfinished at his death in 1971. Because no one seemed interested in Okada’s fiction at the time, his wife burned the manuscript. However, there was indeed growing interest in Okada’s work. During the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Asian Americans, like members of other American racial and ethnic minority groups, became increasingly interested in their ethnic heritage and in the literary works that reflected and preserved that heritage. As a result of this increasing interest, No-No Boy was reissued by the University of Washington Press in 1976. Since then it has been widely read and is now generally regarded as a classic of Japanese American literature.

No-No Boy is based on fact, but it is not an autobiographical novel. Okada himself was not a no-no boy; he served in the Army in World War II as an interpreter in the Pacific theater. As Okada explains in the preface to the novel, Ichiro is modeled on a friend of Okada who refused to enter the Army unless the government would release his parents from an internment camp. Like the character Kenji, Okada understood and respected his no-no boy friend for making his hard decision, a decision that, as is emphasized throughout No-No Boy, could bring scorn and even violence from intolerant individuals both inside and outside the Japanese American community. Instead of writing about his personal experiences serving in the war, Okada chose to document the moral issues and turbulent emotions related to the no-no boy experience, which had never before been explored in literature.

Okada does not dwell on life in the internment camps or in prison, however. The action of the novel begins after Ichiro has been released from incarceration. There are backward glances at camp and prison life, but the bulk of the narrative centers on Ichiro’s attempts to resolve his conflicted feelings about his refusal to serve in the Army and about his cultural identity.

The great African American writer W. E. B. Du Bois once stated that African Americans always feel their “twoness,” knowing they are both African and American. These two culturally different identities, Du Bois asserted, were ever at war in the individual. Du Bois’s observations apply as well to the protagonists of many American ethnic novels, including Ichiro. Ichiro’s two selves—his Japanese and American cultural identities—are at war with each other at the start of the narrative. His strong-willed mother never assimilated into American society, and she does not want her sons to assimilate either. Ichiro was born in the United States, however, and was educated in its schools; he therefore feels little connection with traditional Japanese...

(This entire section contains 989 words.)

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culture. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government and many “white” Americans treated all Japanese Americans as if they were aliens. It is this that causes the deep psychological conflict in Ichiro: He feels American but his country considers him Japanese. He therefore exists in a cultural no-man’s-land at the beginning of the novel.

By the end of the novel, Ichiro’s “twoness” is resolved when he reaffirms his faith in America and forgives his country for the great injustice it dealt to Japanese Americans. Ichiro’s renewed faith in America is not absolute, however; he has witnessed too much bigotry and injustice to have a naïve view of American race relations. However, the many good people whom he meets during his journey to self-knowledge—Kenji, Emi, Carrick, and others—save him from sliding into pessimism and despair. He comes to believe that America is like a bruised apple: “Not rotten in the center where it counts, but rotten in spots underneath the skin.”

No-No Boy has been criticized for rejecting the Japanese half of Japanese American identity. The novel contains few positive images of Japanese culture or traditions. Ichiro’s mother, the primary representative of Japanese culture, is portrayed as an oppressive force from which Ichiro must liberate himself. Thus, where many ethnic writers celebrate the traditional culture and resolve the “twoness” problem by fusing the ethnic with the American identity, Okada seems to endorse cultural assimilation. Okada’s depreciation of Japanese culture, however, must be examined in historical context. No-No Boy was written in the 1950’s, before the “ethnic revival” of the 1960’s. Moreover, though Japan was officially an ally of the United States, anti-Japanese feelings still ran high in the 1950’s; and the Korean War (1950-1955) fueled anti-Asian feeling in general. It is therefore not surprising that Okada would emphasize the “Americanness” of Japanese Americans.

Technically, No-No Boy is quite conventional. The novel is constructed of a series of scenes and dialogues in which Ichiro is exposed to different ideas and points of view, each of which leads him to new insights and self-awareness. Okada seemed primarily interested in dramatizing the moral dilemma and psychological conflicts that Japanese Americans experienced during and after World War II. Increasing numbers of readers testify that he succeeded in his aim.

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Critical Overview