Ichiro Yamada's Search for Psychic Wholeness

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At the beginning of No-No Boy, Ichiro Yamada is in the midst of an identity crisis as he tries to put his life back together following his release from two years in prison. The unity of his family has been shattered irreparably, and he does not know where he belongs, feeling that he was “born not soon enough or not late enough” and is therefore “neither Japanese nor American.” Using a structural rhythm that alternates between Ichiro’s encounters with various Japanese Americans and white Americans and his intense reflections about his own situation, the novel tells the story of his search for psychic wholeness and his lost sense of belonging.

There are lessons for Ichiro everywhere he goes and from everyone he meets. Not all of these experiences are helpful to him, however, especially at the beginning of the novel, when everything that happens seems to fuel his self-doubt and his fear that he has forever lost his chance to be fully accepted as an American. It is easy to understand his predicament. Along with thousands of other Japanese Americans, the U.S. government put him in a camp, as he tells Mr. Carrick, “to prove to us that we weren’t American enough to be trusted” and then imprisoned him for refusing to swear allegiance to the nation of his birth, so he has every reason to fear white America will never accept him, whatever he does to redeem himself. “Being American is a terribly incomplete thing if one’s face is not white and one’s parents are Japanese of the country Japan which attacked America,” he says. He is unfortunate in that so soon after his return to Seattle he encounters second-generation Japanese Americans such as Eto and Bull, who identify strongly with being American and have no time for a man who in their eyes chose to ally himself with the enemy.

But it is interesting to note that these men are, like Ichiro, Japanese Americans. The hostility Ichiro anticipates from white Americans simply never materializes. There is a large discrepancy between what he expects to find, given his own fear and self-hatred, and what he does find, although it is a long time before he is able to fully recognize this. In his heart he knows all along that his future has not been destroyed and that the United States, even for him, is still a land of opportunity. This can be seen by his thoughts when he walks down the street after his first meeting with Freddie Akimoto, another “no-no” boy, who acts as a foil for Ichiro. Ichiro tells himself that there surely must be the hope of redemption. He remains a U.S. citizen; he is permitted to vote, and he is free to travel and study and marry. Over time, he says, there will be forgiveness in the country that is known for its “vastness and goodness and fairness and plentitude,” and he will buy a home, start a family, and be as American as everyone else. But as soon as he conceives this vision, he denies it. “Swallowed up by the darkness of his soul,” he cannot overcome his negative frame of mind. Even then, however, he knows that “the trouble [is] inside of him”; the enemy he faces is more internal than external. It is he, no one else, who finds himself “guilty of treason.”

These points are clearly demonstrated in Ichiro’s three encounters with white Americans. The first is with Baxter Brown, his former engineering professor at the university. Brown makes it clear from the outset that he is sympathetic to Japanese...

(This entire section contains 1761 words.)

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Americans and is aware of the injustice of the internment: “Families uprooted, businesses smashed, educations disrupted. You’ve got a right to be sore.” Brown makes the assumption that Ichiro had been helping the U.S. war effort in some capacity, and Ichiro is too unsure of himself to reveal the truth, but Ichiro hardly has cause to complain about being excluded from his former place of study, since Brown urges him to return. White America is prepared to open its doors to him.

The same point is made when Ichiro goes for a job interview at Carrick and Sons in Portland. Mr. Carrick could not be more welcoming. He greets Ichiro with a phrase in Japanese and says he has had some good Japanese friends. Like Brown, he expresses regret about the internment and even goes so far as to apologize for it as “a big black mark in the annals of American history.” He also offers Ichiro the job on the spot. When Ichiro confesses he refused the draft, Mr. Carrick shows great sympathy and understanding. He does not judge Ichiro. Later, Ichiro realizes that Mr. Carrick, and others like him, “offered a way back into the great compassionate stream of life that is America,” and this marks an important milestone in Ichiro’s journey toward recovering his sense of belonging.

The third white American Ichiro meets is Mr. Morrison, who speaks to him in exactly the same, kind, tolerant, open-minded, and generous way that Mr. Carrick does. Like Mr. Carrick, he greets Ichiro with a few words of Japanese and says he admires the Japanese people. He understands Ichiro’s problem as a “no-no” boy immediately, even without Ichiro telling him, since his employee Gary has exactly the same problem. Like Mr. Carrick, Mr. Morrison offers Ichiro a job immediately.

The reader may feel that the close similarities between these two characters and how they interact with Ichiro, coming so close together in the narrative, detract from the literary merits of the novel. It seems that Okada the author may have been, at least in this instance, more concerned with making a didactic point than in creating realistic characters. His treatment of Mr. Carrick and Mr. Morrison seems to reflect the predominant belief in the 1950s, that white America was now successfully extending the hand of friendship to the Japanese Americans whom it had once regarded as a subversive influence.

Certainly, Ichiro’s external problems, as opposed to his internal doubts, lie not with white America but with the Japanese American community, which is divided not only between the Issei (first-generation immigrants, born in Japan) and the Nisei (second-generation, American born), but also between the Nisei themselves. Those who fought in the war, the novel implies, have something to prove—that they are fully American—and tend to become aggressive super-patriots, intolerant of those who cling to their Japanese heritage. Ichiro, for example, fears that his brother, Taro, who is about to enter the army, will end up like these arrogant Nisei, “walk[ing] the streets of America as if you owned them always and forever.”

But Ichiro is fortunate in that not all the Nisei are like Eto, or Bull, or those who tormented Gary, the third “no-no” boy in the novel, when he worked at the foundry. Ichiro also has Kenji and Emi to show him a better path, as well as Freddie to show him the way not to live.

In Kenji, Ichiro finds true friendship. A Nisei who fought and was wounded in the war, Kenji declines to reproach Ichiro for his refusal to serve. He does not feel even a twinge of anger or resentment about the matter. He also manages to give Ichiro some good advice. As he lies dying in his hospital bed, he warns about how the Japanese in Seattle are putting up psychological fences around themselves, cutting themselves off in their own little enclave: “They [b——] and hollered when the government put them in camps and put real fences around them, but now they’re doing the same damn thing to themselves.” He feels strongly that ethnic differences should be transcended; he sees people as people, not as members of a particular group that differentiates them from another group. He tells Ichiro to return to Seattle where things will work out well for him in the long run. “The kind of trouble you’ve got, you can’t run from it,” he tells his friend.

Running from his troubles is the mistake made by Ichiro’s other friend, Freddie, who cultivates a defiant, me-against-the-world attitude that merely compounds the problem. Ichiro realizes that Freddie has “blindly sought relief in total, hateful rejection of self and family and society,” and Ichiro eventually comes to the understanding that such a path leads nowhere. Unlike Freddie, Ichiro is able to reflect honestly on his experiences and face his fears. At the end of the novel, Freddie’s sudden and violent death symbolizes the fact that his way was untenable in the long term. Instead, it is Ichiro who finds the ray of hope he so desperately needs.

In this rediscovery of hope he has much to thank Emi for. She is a sweet, practical, down-to-earth woman who does not let her own sorrows—the desertion by her husband, Ralph—make her bitter. She reminds Ichiro of the greatness of the country of which he is a citizen (“This is a big country with a big heart. There’s room for all kinds of people”) and also helps him to get beyond his constant negative self-talk. A key incident occurs in chapter 9, when Ichiro takes Emi to a dance, where a man they do not know insists on buying them both a drink. Ichiro is suspicious. He offers Emi a variety of explanations involving ulterior motives on the part of the man, who appears not to be Japanese, until Emi coaxes out of him the comment, “I want to think . . . that he saw a young couple and liked their looks and felt he wanted to buy them a drink and did.” Emi confirms for him, “You keep on thinking that. That’s how it was.” Emi is quietly encouraging Ichiro not to read into situations things that are not there but to have a simple, more accepting attitude. Up to this point, Ichiro has made up a story for himself about his own life and his place (or lack of it) in the United States, but the story is neither helpful to him nor true. In silencing the negative, fear-based workings of his mind, which only impose a veil over what is really happening, he gives himself a better chance of finding that “elusive insinuation of promise” that will enable him to make his way once more in the land of his birth.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on No-No Boy, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

The Splintering Effects of Internment on Japanese American Families and Communities

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Unquestionably, internment propelled to crisis dimensions the conflicts and tensions already existing in the Japanese American family and community. But no Japanese American literary work depicts the fragmenting effects of internment on the family and community more vividly or poignantly than John Okada’s No-No Boy (1957). The novel is set in Seattle just after the end of the war, when the disfiguring effects of the internment and the racial hysteria that made it possible were discernible in Japanese American communities all along the West Coast. Like All I Asking for Is My Body, No-No Boy is about the nisei’s rebellion against the issei generation, about the nisei’s desire for an identity separate from his parents’. Clearly, the nisei’s rejection of his parents is linked to his desperate desire for acceptance in American society, which the nisei believes is made impossible by his Japanese heritage. The nisei’s unfulfilled longing to participate in American society causes the fragmentation and disfiguration of both his family and his community.

No-No Boy is replete with contradictions and unanswered questions: whether the self-deluded issei who are still waiting for a final Japanese victory are fanatical fools or the hopeless victims of a racist society in search of temporary comfort; whether the nisei veterans who fought in the American army are brave and heroic, or self-hating martyrs; whether the Japanese American community is a comforting haven or destructive to the individual Japanese American. The question that underlies all the others is whether America is in fact the desirable land of democracy and freedom or a racist, predatory society.

The nisei of John Okada’s novel are driven almost to self-destruction by their desperate desire to belong in America. In the nisei world, there is hardly a sacrifice too great for the prize of acceptance. War veteran Kenji loses his leg and eventually his life, while the people of the community think of him as an enviable hero. Ichiro’s “mistake,” the mistake of refusing the draft, is serious enough for him to be totally ostracized by the community. Another “no-no boy,” Freddie, is killed by someone whose hatred of him makes him feel important among his peers. Brothers betray brothers, children turn against their parents, who become alcoholic or commit suicide; husbands desert wives, and wives commit adultery. The community is torn apart by the almost hysterical desire of its members to be accepted as genuine Americans, no matter what the cost.

Like the world of Eat a Bowl of Tea and All I Asking for Is My Body, Okada’s community has been sustained by self-deception that must now come to an end. Like Ben Loy and Mei Oi, like Tosh and Kiyo, Ichiro has been deceived. His mother’s fanatical loyalty to Japan has led him to imprisonment for refusing the draft and then to the hatred of his fellow nisei, who are themselves desperate to prove their loyalty through their collective reputation. Ichiro’s mother’s fanaticism culminates, after her stubborn refusal to admit Japan’s defeat, in her insanity and eventual suicide.

Ichiro’s mother, “dried and toughened” through the many years of hardship in America, is unable to “accept a country which repeatedly refused to accept her or her sons” and turns all her hopes toward Japan. She walks twenty-six blocks to save 35 cents on ten loaves of day-old bread from a bread factory, saving her pennies for what she dreams will be her eventual triumphant return to Japan. Ashida-san works the night shift at a hotel, “grinning and bowing for dimes and quarters from rich Americans who he detested, and couldn’t afford to take his family on a bus,” but always comforted by the thought of ships on their way to conquer America. Although Ichiro understands that these issei are the victims, not the originators, of the hatred that destroys their rationality, he cannot forgive them, because they have allowed their stubbornness and weakness to make them irrational and resistant to truth or change. He blames them for refusing to face the fact that they were never going to return to Japan, that their real future was in America. Even though “growing families and growing bills and misfortunes and illness and low wages and just plain hard luck were constant obstacles to the realization of their dreams,” they should have tried to learn English, to integrate themselves into white society, to buy homes and make long-term commitments to an American future. They should have “exchanged hope for reality” and reconciled themselves, instead of clinging to illusions and rationalizations. But what makes Ichiro bitterest is that the issei’s inability to face reality is passed on to their children.

When his mother dies, Ichiro feels no regret. He has suspected her of an “incurable strain of insanity,” which he hints might be a “Japanese” insanity that might spread through the family to him. The affliction is “Japanese” to the extent that it revolves around loyalty to Japan and reminds Ichiro of Japanese fascism and militarism. Just as many issei are susceptible to false hopes and illusions, many nisei are also weak and vulnerable. Ichiro asks himself:

Was it she [Ichiro’s mother] who was wrong and crazy not to have found in herself the capacity to accept a country which repeatedly refused to accept her or her sons . . . or was it the others who were being deluded, the ones . . . who believed and fought and even gave their lives to protect this country where they could still not rate as first-class citizens because of the unseen walls?

While some issei are subject to unrealistic hopes of being saved by Japanese ships from humiliation and drudgery, many nisei are afflicted by stifling, narrow-minded thoughtlessness caused by their feelings of inferiority and insecurity. Ichiro’s mother is a “rock of hatred,” whose “curse” has sent him into prison and shame, but his former friend, a nisei, spits on him for being a “no-no boy” and the other nisei assume the roles of moral judges on his deviant actions. Their desperation to prove themselves as Americans drives them to idolize and accept those who wear war wounds as proof of their loyalty and despise those who refused the draft. Ichiro feels forced to escape from the diner and the tortured young nisei working there who “had to wear a discharge button on his shirt to prove to everyone who came in that he was a top-flight American.”

Because of their desperation to be “Americans,” hatred of “no-no boys” is prevalent among the nisei. Bull threatens Ichiro and Freddie at a night club just to win approval from the crowd. Emi’s husband re-enlists in the army because his brother had refused the draft and he feels he must prove his own loyalty again and again. Even Ichiro’s younger brother, Taro, betrays Ichiro by leading him into an ambush so that Taro can win acceptance from his peers.

The fragmented and warped Japanese American community in No-No Boy almost disintegrates during the course of the novel. Ichiro himself is characterized as incomplete and fragmented. He and his brother Taro are two halves of the same person, joined by a common weakness. Ichiro thinks he refused to join the army because he was too cowardly or too unimaginative to go against his mother’s wishes. Taro joins the army and betrays his brother because he too is cowardly. Taro rejects Ichiro because he hates “that thing in his elder brother which had prevented him from thinking for himself,” and yet Taro is also unable to think for himself. According to Ichiro, what differentiates the two brothers is only time and circumstance:

Taro, my brother who is not my brother, you are no better than I. You are only more fortunate that the war years found you too young to carry a gun. . . . And you are fortunate because the weakness which was mine made the same weakness in you the strength to turn your back on Ma and Pa and makes it so frighteningly urgent for you to get into uniform to prove that you are not a part of me.

Just as Ichiro fears that his mother’s insanity has contaminated him, he finds his father’s weakness in himself and in his brother. The old man is described as a “fat, grinning, spineless nobody” who is afraid to challenge his wife’s delusions even in crisis. In fact, none of the characters in No-No Boy can be healthy and complete. Ichiro and Kenji, a returned nisei veteran, are also two parts of an incomplete whole. But while Ichiro is despised and outcast from the nisei community because he has refused the opportunity to prove his loyalty in battle, Kenji is the veteran whose gangrenous amputated leg serves as an immediate and indisputable sign of his “manliness.” The fusion of the two men takes place when Kenji “procures” Emi for Ichiro:

“She needs you,” said Kenji, “No, I should say she needs someone. Just like you need someone. Just like I need someone sometimes. I won’t apologize for her because then I’d have to apologize for myself. . . . I’m only half a man, Ichiro, and when my leg starts aching, even that half is no good.”

The hot color rose to his face as he lashed out at Kenji angrily. “So you’re sending in a substitute, is that it?”

The interchangeability or the complementary nature of the two men is brought out clearly when they ask each other if they would ever change places: Ichiro, the detested, and Kenji, the dying. In the topsy-turvy world where Japanese American men are required and require each other to risk their lives and their manhood, to sacrifice their families and their wives, to prove their loyalty to America, Ichiro would change places with his dying friend if he could:

I’ll change with you, Kenji, he thought. Give me the stump which gives you the right to hold your head high. Give me the eleven inches which are beginning to hurt again and bring ever closer the fear of approaching death, and give me with it the fullness of yourself which is also yours because you were man enough to wish the thing which destroyed your leg and, perhaps, you with it but, at the same time, made it so that you can put your one good foot in the dirt of America and know that the wet coolness of it is yours beyond a single doubt.

But Kenji, mutilated and slowly dying, would not change places with Ichiro. The measure of manliness and loyalty becomes all the more ironic and bizarre when it begins to be considered in terms of inches of amputation. As pieces of Kenji’s leg are chopped away, as the stump comes closer to his body and his “manhood,” the two men wonder how many inches of leg is worth the sacrifice and whose problem is worse:

“We’ve both got problems, bigger than most people. That ought to mean something.”

. . . “I was thinking all the time we were silent that I decided that, were it possible, I might very well trade with you.”

“For eleven inches, or for the seven or eight that’ll be left after the next time?”

“Even for two inches. . . .”

“Mine is bigger than yours in a way, and then again, yours is bigger than mine.”

In Ichiro’s world, nothing can be complete. Kenji is losing inches of his body little by little. Ichiro describes himself as “half a man” and his mother as a withered, stunted adolescent. The individuals in the Japanese American community described in No-No Boy are stunted and incomplete because their options are limited. Faced with a choice between the army and the concentration camp, between America and Japan, between his country and his parents, Ichiro chose prison, saying no to both impossible options, and is outcast for his choice. Kenji is forced to choose between his wife and his country. Taro chooses between his brother and his country. Virtually all the nisei in the novel are subjected to a choice between Japan, which represents their race and their parentage as much as it does militarism or fascism, and America, which represents the realities of racial bigotry as well as the dream of democracy. Faced with such choices, individuals felt cut in half, as Ichiro does:

There was a time when I was your son. . . . Then there came a time when I was only half Japanese because one is not born in America and raised in America and taught in America without becoming partly American. . . . But it is not enough to be American only in the eyes of the law and it is not enough to be only half an American and know that it is an empty half. I am not your son and I am not Japanese and I am not American. I can go someplace and tell people that I’ve got an inverted stomach and that I am an American, true and blue and Hail Columbia, but the army wouldn’t have me because of the stomach. . . . I wish with all my heart that I were Japanese or that I were American. . . . I do not understand you who were the half of me that is no more and . . . I do not understand what it was about that half that made me destroy the half of me which was American and the half which might have become the whole of me if I had said yes I will go and fight in your army because that is what I believe and want and cherish and love.

Ichiro describes the torment of being torn between desire to belong and knowledge of rejection: “[I]t is not an easy thing to discover that being American is a terribly incomplete thing if one’s face is not white and one’s parents are Japanese of the country Japan which attacked America. It is like being pulled asunder by a whirling tornado.”

Like the characters and community, the America in No-No Boy is not yet whole and complete. Kenji notices Japanese discriminating against blacks and concludes that race hatred is eroding the Japanese American community and the world beyond it:

The Negro who was always being mistaken for a white man becomes a white man and he becomes hated by the Negroes with whom he once hated on the same side. And the young Japanese hates the notso- young Japanese who is more Japanese than himself, and the not-so-young, in turn, hates the old Japanese who is Japanese and, therefore, even more Japanese than he. . . .

And Kenji thought about these things and tried to organize them in his mind so that the pattern could be seen and studied. . . . And there was no answer because there was no pattern and all he could feel was that the world was full of hatred.

What Ichiro detests in his mother is her irrational absolutism, which allows her to equate good and evil with nationality. She gloats over the death of her friend’s son, who has joined the American army. To Ichiro, tragedy makes “no distinction as to what was wrong and what was right and who was Japanese and who was not.”

Ichiro detests no less the race prejudice that allows the internment of the Japanese Americans because of their nationality alone. He longs to be accepted for “what he is,” not as a Japanese or an American or a Japanese American: “If Smith would do the same for Eng and Sato would do the same for Wotynski and Faverghetti would do likewise for whoever happened by. Eng for Eng, Jap for Jap, Pole for Pole, and like for like meant classes and distinctions and hatred and prejudice and wars and misery.” Kenji hates the ghetto, hoping that there will be no “Jackson Street wherever I’m going to.” He concludes that racism can be ended only when communities are broken up and scattered and distinct national and racial groups can no longer be identified. He advises Ichiro to leave the Japanese American community and try to find anonymity somewhere far away: “Marry a white girl or a Negro or an Italian or even a Chinese. Anything but a Japanese. After a few generations, you’ve got the thing beat.” But Ichiro wants to belong to the nisei community and to be a part of America at the same time. Before the war, poverty and segregation had been tolerable to him because at least his peers faced similar problems. What obsesses him now is that he might have forfeited his chance to move with other nisei, his chance to attain the American dream that had become possible for the nisei who had volunteered to fight in the U.S. Army.

Ichiro is acutely aware of the furniture, rugs, and phonographic equipment in Kenji’s family’s house, which to him symbolize belonging in America: Ichiro looked out at the houses, the big, roomy houses of brick and glass which belonged in magazines and were of that world which was no longer his to dream about. Kenji could still hope. A leg more or less wasn’t important when compared with himself, Ichiro who was strong and perfect but only an empty shell. He would have given both legs to change places with Kenji.

Ichiro’s desire for material comfort is part of his desire to be acceptable, an average all-American. Ichiro hopes that someday there will be a place for him in America’s “vastness and goodness and fairness and plenitude” and that in time he too will “buy a home and love my family and . . . [be] walking down the street holding my son’s hand and people will stop and talk with us about the weather and the ball games and the elections,” just like in the movies and magazines.

Throughout the novel, Ichiro has hovered between hope and despair, between bitter anger and almost pathetic gratitude for a kind word from a white man. What he finally comes to understand is that the contradictions within himself and within his community also prevail in America. The same America that is abundant, beautiful, and desirable is also an America where racial hatred and injustice flourish. Ichiro realizes that he is not alone after all, not even when he is on the outside looking in, but that almost everyone else is probably on the outside too. Perhaps, he concludes, there is no “in” after all. What had seemed to be individual alienation might be common to all, and it might be causing people to commit acts of hatred towards each other:

[W]hat about the young kid on Burnside who was in the army and found out it wasn’t enough so that he has to keep proving to everyone who comes in for a cup of coffee that he was fighting for his country like the button on his shirt says he did because the army didn’t do anything about his face to make him look more American? And what about the poor niggers on Jackson Street who can’t find anything better to do than spit on the sidewalk and show me the way to Tokyo? They’re on the outside looking in, just like that kid and just like me and just like everybody else I’ve ever seen or known. . . . Maybe the answer is that there is no in. Maybe the whole damned country is pushing and shoving and screaming to get into someplace that doesn’t exist, because they don’t know that the outside could be the inside if only they would stop all this pushing and shoving and screaming, and they haven’t got enough sense to realize that. . . . And then he thought about Kenji in the hospital and of Emi in bed with a stranger who reminded her of her husband and of his mother waiting for the ship from Japan and there was no answer.

Ichiro’s final affirmation comes when he understands the connections between himself and other human beings. He has felt totally alone and ostracized as a “no-no boy,” misunderstood and hated by everyone. His search has been a search for wholeness, for completion and connections. The connection emerges as compassionate love that has the potential to combat the damage done to America’s potential, to the issei, to the diseased nisei community. This love is a “good sharp knife” that cuts out the tumors. Ichiro’s painful compassion for and understanding of the fellow nisei who hate him because they are also on the outside looking in even helps him understand the issei he once hated and resented.

In a transparent bid for attention and approval from his peers, Bull causes a “no-no boy” to die in an accident. Ichiro is overcome by compassion for his friend’s killer when he looks into his “frightened, lonely eyes” peering through a film of tears and begging for solace. Ichiro and his friend’s killer are together in sorrow and struggle, victimized by racism and the feelings of inferiority that drive them to make terrible and self-destructive mistakes. He decides that he should not “disappear,” should not leave his community, his roots, and his past:

A man does not start totally anew because he is already old by virtue of having lived and laughed and cried for twenty or thirty or fifty years and there is no way to destroy them without destroying life itself. That he understood. He also understood that the past had been shared with a mother and father and, whatever they were, he too was a part of them and they a part of him and one did not say this is as far as we go together, I am stepping out of your lives, without rendering himself only part of a man. If he was to find his way back to that point of wholeness and belonging, he must do so in the place where he had begun to lose it.

No-No Boy ends with the hope that the America in Ichiro’s heart will one day become a reality: “He walked along, thinking, searching, thinking and probing and, in the darkness of the alley of the community that was a tiny bit of America, he chased that faint and elusive insinuation of promise as it continued to take shape in mind and in heart.” No-No Boy was not welcomed by the American public, much less by the Japanese American community, at the time it was first published. According to Charles Tuttle, the Japan-based publishers: “At the time we published it, the very people whom we thought would be enthusiastic about it, mainly the Japanese-American community in the U.S., were not only disinterested but actually rejected the book.” No doubt the Japanese American community was protecting itself from being revealed in such an unflattering light, even a decade after internment. The Japanese Americans in No-No Boy are not the patient, law-abiding hard-working, docile model minority: they are tormented, uncertain, and incapacitated by self-hatred. The community described in the novel has been violently distorted by racism. Nor is American society portrayed in a very favorable light. What is desirable does not yet exist.

Most of Okada’s characters are not fully developed. The fragmentation and disintegrating influence of American racism on the Japanese American community and its members are depicted through the incompleteness of each individual character: Ichiro is filled out by Kenji, Taro, Freddie, and Bull. No-No Boy explores creatively the effects of racism on the Japanese American community and on the individual Japanese American psyche. It is an important book not only because it is a pioneer effort but also because it is a moving and contemporaneous expression told by an insider of an experience heretofore largely ignored in American culture.

Source: Elaine H. Kim, “Japanese American Portraits,” in Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context, Temple University Press, 1982, pp. 148–56.


Critical Overview