Essays and Criticism
Ichiro Yamada's Search for Psychic Wholeness
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 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...
(The entire section is 1761 words.)