No-No Boy Analysis

  • The historical basis of the novelthe interment of Japanese-Americans during World War II—establishes Ichiro as a fictional representative of the real-life Japanese immigrants who refused to swear allegiance to the United States.
  • No-No Boy is considered one of the first novels about the Japanese-American experience. Though the novel remained obscure for many years, it has since become a staple in school curriculum thanks to a re-printing in the 1970s.
  • No-No Boy is written in third-person perspective. The omniscient narrator primarily focuses on Ichiro, but readers are also granted access to the inner thoughts and feelings of the other characters, including Ichiro's parents.

Analysis

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Society and Individual Identity

Okada uses Ichiro's personal journey to accept his "Americanness" as an allegory for the overall integration of Japanese Americans (and perhaps all immigrants) into American society. Ichiro and his contemporaries, like Okada and his, were forced to embark on this journey. In order to achieve personal identity, they had to accept themselves as both Japanese and American. Ichiro's struggle to do this and the identity crisis he suffers underscores the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of the task. Okada uses the death of several key characters to allude to the "death" of Japanese culture. He uses the notion of self-sacrifice to parallel the self-sacrifice that Japanese internees had to experience in order to feel accepted in American society. Through these themes, Okada reveals his opinion that reconciling the two cultures could never have occurred during this time in history, because in order to integrate into American society, these Japanese people had to renounce their Japanese heritage. The hatred that Okada's characters experience, both toward themselves and others, alludes to the overall atmosphere of hatred that existed during the war. The Japanese were the enemy, and any Japanese living in America had difficulty shaking that image.

Point of View

Though the novel is written in third person, from the perspective of Ichiro, readers gain clear insight into the thoughts and feelings of many other characters in the book, all of whom reveal their own perspectives of the wartime situation. Ichiro represents the Japanese Americans who chose not to fight for America and went to jail for their decision. Mike and Bull represent the Japanese-Americans who fought in the war and came to despise those who chose otherwise. Kenji represents the Japanese Americans who fought in the war but held no hostility against those who did not fight. Mrs. Yamada represents the Japanese-American citizens who continued to embrace traditional Confucian principles and continued to remain fiercely loyal to Japan. Okada uses these characters individually to highlight the confusion of the Japanese-American people, and in doing so, he creates a mosaic of life in the West Coast Japanese communities. All the people living in these communities, regardless of their personal choices, experienced a sense of displacement. All of them appeared to question the meaning of loyalty. Upon analysis of Okada's treatment of the issue of loyalty, we begin to recognize that both his references to Confucian practice and to Japanese literature reinforce the discrepancy between what the Japanese people associate with the word "loyalty" and what the American people associate with the word. Loyalty, to the Japanese, encompasses the concept of filial piety, of dedication to one's family. This is but one of the cultural differences that keep the notions of "Japanese" and "American" in opposition.

Political Commentary

No-No Boy is a study in contrasts, and it is both a political commentary and a realistic account of racial discrimination in America. Okada contrasts the ideal of America as a melting pot and the reality of America as a place of bigotry and hatred. The United States government prides itself on welcoming immigrants into their country, but how does America truly feel about racial integration? Do immigrants feel accepted as American citizens or do they feel more like victims of discriminatory practices that will cause them to feel forever alienated? Okada explores these questions while driving home his own view that Japanese Americans who lived through the internment following the bombing of Pearl Harbor will always struggle with their identity and never feel truly part of the American nation.

Okada draws a strict dividing line between "Japanese" and "American." He...

(This entire section contains 773 words.)

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develops the characters and attitudes of Ichiro's mother, his father, Kenji, Emi, and the other people in the community to delineate a contrast between those who feel loyal to Japan and those who feel loyal to America. By showing that Ichiro and the other characters feel the split between cultures, Okada makes it known that contrasts exist within the Japanese communities themselves as well as in America as a whole. He makes the divisions clear. The conflicts between the no-no Boys and the yes-yes boys are similar to the conflicts between thenisei (American-born Japanese) and the nikkei (native-born Japanese living outside Japan). Furthermore, those conflicts seem to parallel the general conflicts between two vastly different cultures; the wartime conflicts between America and Japan, and the conflicts that exist when people have no choice but to tolerate the guise of racial equality, yet experience the reality of bigotry and hatred. Though No-No Boy deals with a uniquely Japanese experience, it details the plight of all immigrants searching for identity and acceptance in America.

Places Discussed

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*Seattle

*Seattle. Pacific Northwest city in Washington State that is hometown to Ichiro Yamada. Described realistically and with a keen eye for detail, Seattle’s Japan town struggles to come back to life after most of its residents return from internment camps after World War II. Rising above the harbor, with Jackson Street as its central thoroughfare, this district lies between the city’s Fifth and Twelfth Avenues, and borders Chinatown.

Through the eyes of Ichiro, readers learn of the changes that political upheavals bring to his old neighborhood. Before the eviction and internment of its Japanese and Japanese American residents in 1942, the neighborhood was home to a community that harbored strong ties to the land and culture of their ancestors: Japan. After the war, the returning residents struggle with the influx of African Americans, and the effects of a pleasure-seeking, relatively affluent postwar society that turns clothing stores into pool parlors. There, young Japanese American men who have fought in the U.S. Army participate in the raucous nightlife, feeling they have earned their place in American society. They despise those who—like Ichiro—did not fight. Yet Ichiro remains skeptical whether this place will really accept these men.

Ozaki’s grocery store

Ozaki’s grocery store. Seattle store run by Ichiro’s parents. A familiar feature of prewar Japan town, the operation is a cramped and marginal enterprise. Separated from the small shop by a curtain, the family’s living quarters are in the back. Four people share a kitchen, a bathroom, and one bedroom. With its typical bell to alert the family to each entering customer, the grocery is a place indicative of the fate of so many Japanese immigrants.

Instead of striking it rich quickly and returning to Japan as they had hoped to do when they came to America, Ichiro’s parents find themselves living in a place they still consider alien territory after thirty-five years. With frugality and persistence, they have made a modest living while their children have grown up and adopted American ways. The wartime internment, however, serves as brutal reminder that the place of one’s birth may turn against one. To Ichiro, the family grocery store represents both the cultural insularity of his parents’ generation and their meek acceptance of America’s social and economic order. While his mother believes the Japanese will eventually win the war, she nevertheless works hard to keep her store afloat. She commits suicide after realizing that Japan has lost the war.

Akimoto’s apartment

Akimoto’s apartment. Run-down home of Fred Akimoto, another “no-no boy” who is carrying on an affair with his married neighbor, a young plump Japanese American mother. Fred’s shabby apartment mirrors his mental torment at being ostracized by his fellow Japanese Americans for having refused to enlist in the army. His affair with the woman next door reflects the nihilistic recklessness that ultimately leads to his death.

*University of Washington

*University of Washington. Because Ichiro has refused to fight for the United States, he believes he has no right to return to this idyllic Seattle campus. His departure after visiting his old professor is described in terms that invite an allusion to Adam’s banishment from the Garden of Eden, with Ichiro passing his expulsion on himself.

Club Oriental

Club Oriental. Nightclub on King Street in Seattle’s Chinatown that serves a Japanese American clientele, some of whom bring white girlfriends. The intended harmony of the place is destroyed when the club becomes flashpoint for the tensions generated by the majority of Japanese Americans, who feel that their army service has earned them a place in American society. They hate those like Ichiro who refused to serve, and the club sees violent altercations.

Emi’s house

Emi’s house. Home of a young married woman with whom Ichiro has an affair, located south of Seattle. Since Emi’s husband refuses to leave the army and prefers to stay in Germany, she lives alone and invites Ichiro to share her bed. Emi’s house represents a comforting shelter that Ichiro continually denies to himself.

Kumasaka house

Kumasaka house. Home owned by a Japanese American family. In Ichiro’s eyes, buying a home in Seattle makes the Kumasakas Americanized. Unlike Ichiro’s mother, the Kumasakas have let go of the dream of returning to Japan and embraced America as their own—the land for which their son Bob dies in the war.

*Portland

*Portland. Oregon city to which Ichiro goes to see his friend Kenji, who is dying from a war wound. While he is there, he refuses a job offer because he feels guilty about taking the place of a Japanese American man who fought in the war. However, Kenji tells him that soon the United States will not honor these veterans and again discriminate against them. Before Kenji dies, Ichiro follows his advice by returning to Seattle to make his peace with himself, the city, and the United States.

Historical Context

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Internment of Japanese Americans
After the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S. government considered that Japanese Americans were a threat to national security because they might support Japan rather than the United States. Much of this suspicion was fueled by racism, the belief that Japanese immigrants were somehow different and could never be fully American. The American fear of Japanese immigrants was evident historically in a law passed in 1924 that prohibited intermarriage between Japanese men and white women. There was also a prohibition on Japanese immigrants sponsoring wives from Japan.

Convinced by his advisors that Japanese Americans were being recruited as spies, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. The order revoked the civil rights of Japanese Americans, despite the fact that two-thirds of them were U.S. citizens. About 112,000 Japanese Americans from all over the Pacific coast were rounded up and sent to internment camps in nine states. Most of the camps were built on Native American reservations.

The internment was a devastating experience for the Japanese, since they were forced to quickly abandon their homes and businesses. It also damaged their culture. The Japanese are a self-reliant people, but in the camps they were forced to depend on the U.S. government to meet their basic needs. The internment was especially hard on the Issei, the first generation immigrants, many of whom, like the Yamada family in No-No Boy, had been living in the United States for thirty or forty years. They lost everything they had worked for.

In January 1943, the U.S. government decided to recruit second-generation Japanese immigrants into an all-Japanese combat unit. All males in the internment camps were required to answer a series of questions, which included whether they were willing to serve in the U.S. armed forces and whether they would swear allegiance to the United States, defend the country against any attack, and renounce obedience to the Japanese emperor. Most of the internees answered yes to these questions, giving the lie to the idea that all Japanese immigrants were threats to national security. However, several hundred, including Ichiro in No-No Boy, did not, and they were sent to prison for disloyalty.

In 1944, the Supreme Court upheld the Executive Order 9066, but the U.S. government finally rescinded it on January 2, 1945. All Japanese American prisoners were released from the internment camps. In 1988, the U.S. Congress passed a law that provided for payment of twenty thousand dollars each to the surviving Japanese-American victims of internment.

Japanese American Literature in the 1950s
In the 1950s, the United States was generally unwilling to face up to what had happened to Japanese Americans during World War II. It was considered more important to present a picture of the United States in which nonwhite immigrants were able to integrate into the mainstream culture. This was during the cold war between the West and the Soviet Union, and the cultivation of an optimistic image of the United States was considered necessary in countering Soviet charges of U.S. economic and racial inequalities. The U.S. postwar alliance with Japan was also a factor. Given this political and cultural environment, the type of Japanese American literature favored by mainstream publishers was mostly innocuous autobiographical accounts of immigrants who told of their struggle as newcomers to establish themselves in U.S. society and the success and assimilation of their children. Monica Sone’s autobiographical Nisei Daughter (1953), which was a commercial success, told of her experience during internment, but she was careful to present an image of Japanese Americans that she believed would be acceptable to white Americans. She made it clear, for example, that she regarded the United States rather than Japan as her home and that Japanese immigrants were fully capable of assimilating American life. More challenging accounts of race relations in the United States were left to African American authors, with the publication, for example, of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). It was for these reasons that it took two decades before No-No Boy, a more controversial, hard-hitting account of the Japanese American experience than Nisei Daughter, won a wide readership.

Setting

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The setting of Okada's novel is post-World War II Seattle, immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Ichiro returns to his family, who are living in a lower-middle class Japanese community. Okada embellishes his text with enough historical facts to place Ichiro in his fictional setting. In the preface, Okada sheds light on the postwar environment. He recounts the story of a young man—like Okada himself at the time of the war—who answered "yes" to the loyalty questions, donned a U.S. army uniform, and fought against his native country. When this young man tells an American soldier, his copilot, that his parents are in an internment camp, the American wonders out loud why on earth this young Japanese soldier is fighting. This question, and the postwar setting, is crucial to Okada's message. The notion of America as a model of acceptance and tolerance is less than true. In the Japanese communities during the postwar era, many people felt that their American citizenship would never truly afford them the rights and privileges that America professed to offer them.

Okada calls attention to the contradiction that while the United States government professes to practice integration and tolerance, it enforces racist policies. Setting his novel in the Japanese community helps Okada define the rift between policy and practice and underscores the resultant racial injustice. Ichiro's parents, as issei (first generation immigrants) were denied U.S. citizenship, which confined them and other families like them to their own communities. The discriminatory practices of the U.S. government also denied these families the opportunity for well-paying jobs and prevented them from moving up the socioeconomic ladder. Integration into American society was not a possibility, at least not during this time in history.

Several crucial incidents take place on the night Ichiro returns home from prison. Ichiro and his mother visit several nikkei (native-born Japanese living outside Japan) families and their homes provide the appropriate setting to highlight the Japanese traditions and customs that Ichiro starts to reject. Homecomings are celebrated with festivity in Japan, and Mrs. Yamada, Ichiro's mother, gleefully celebrates her son's homecoming. She is elated that her son answered "no" to the obligatory questions because in her mind, this declared his loyalty to his culture. But Ichiro loathes what he witnesses in the nikkei homes. These people live in poverty and hold what he considers to be undesirable jobs, and he recognizes how severe the rift is between the rich Americans and the impoverished Japanese. He becomes disillusioned and dismayed that the job opportunities afforded him are less than satisfactory, and he recognizes—painfully—the blatant discrimination he and his people will continue to face.

Ichiro's visit to the Ashidas and his subsequent visit to the Kumasakas bring to light yet another side of the issue. Ichiro finds himself hating the Ashidas for their poverty, and for their apparent willingness to accept their role as second-class citizens. The Kumasakas have achieved more success than the Ashidas economically, but their son was a yes-yes boy, served in the army, and died in the war. Ichiro becomes incensed when he realizes that his mother knew of the Kumasaka's son's death yet bragged to them of her son's loyalty. She seemed to be saying that the Kumasaka's son was dead because he denounced Japan, and her own son was alive because he remained loyal. Depicting this type of incident, Okada underscores the divisions within the Japanese community.

Literary Style

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Setting
The novel gives a realistic picture of the Japanese immigrant area of Seattle, which includes Jackson Street, where Ichiro and his family live, and extends from Fifth to Twelfth Avenue. Known as “Japanese town,” it is adjacent to another immigrant area known as Chinatown. Both areas are known for the prevalence of gambling, prostitution, and drinking. They are also impoverished and have gotten worse in the four years Ichiro has been away: “Everything looked older and dirtier and shabbier.” In Chinatown, the brick buildings are “more black than red with age and neglect.” The young people in these areas spend their time aimlessly in the pool halls, the cafés, and the taverns, although they seem not to lack ready cash to enjoy themselves in the evenings.

The home of Ichiro’s parents, behind the grocery store they own, is “a hole in the wall with groceries crammed in orderly confusion on not enough shelving, into not enough space.” The cramped, inadequate quarters reflect the difficult lives of first-generation immigrants who have had to struggle and make do with little as they tried to establish themselves in a new country. The Ashidas, friends of the Yamadas, also live in less than ideal circumstances. They have only four rooms, on the second floor of a three-story house, in which two adults and three children live together. In a telling detail, the living room is described as “sparsely furnished.” The Kumasakas, by contrast, live in more prosperous circumstances, in a “freshly painted frame house” with a “neatly kept lawn.” The details are significant because this family has shown more willingness to assimilate American culture. They have decided to stay in the country permanently, and their son fought and died for the United States in the war. As a result of this assimilation, their home “is like millions of other homes in America.”

Social Sensitivity

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No-No Boy forces readers to examine the issue of racial inequality. The racial tensions experienced between Okada's Japanese and American characters (or those who label them as such) closely parallels the racial tensions experienced today between blacks and whites. The message is disturbing, because Okada's book paints a negative portrayal of America. It brings to the surface the prevalent idea that many Americans largely ignore racial injustice and often discount class divisions, resulting in hypocritical viewpoints. If America welcomes immigrants into the country, why do Americans treat the Japanese and other racial minorities as second-class citizens? If America is the land of opportunity, why do these minorities have difficulty acquiring high-paying jobs?

Okada's book is about civil rights, and civil rights for all people of any race living in America. The writing of No-No Boy coincided with civil rights campaigns run by African Americans who suffered the same discrimination the Japanese Americans suffered. But a Japanese civil rights movement never occurred, and the civil rights of those interned after the bombing of Pearl Harbor were certainly violated. No matter which choice the Japanese prisoners made, they lost. America won. If Japanese Americans declared their loyalty to America, they still knew that America considered them noncitizens. If they did not declare loyalty to America, but to the Emperor of Japan instead, they would be imprisoned. Either way, they were considered inferior in the country in which they lived, and for a long time they would be considered the enemy. Okada's book pits Japan against America. But it also emphasizes that the wartime situation and the internment of Japanese-American citizens made enemies among the citizens living within the Japanese communities themselves. Okada's cast of characters demonstrate the opposing Japanese-American viewpoints about what it meant to be American. Okada's characters also act out the hatred that arose from a situation where many of Japanese-American people lived their lives feeling imprisoned by their feelings of displacement—both from the land of their birth and the land of their choice. Okada's novel makes it clear the notion of America as a model of racial diversity never occurred, that none of the Japanese people who lived during the horrors of the World War II truly experienced America as the "land of the free."

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1940s: In 1945, the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat team is awarded 18,143 Medals of Valor and 9,486 Purple Hearts, making it the highest decorated military unit in U.S. history.

    Today: Americans of Japanese descent make their mark in many fields of activity. In 1999, General Eric Shinseki becomes the thirty-fourth chief of staff, United States Army, and serves in that position until his retirement in 2003.

  • 1940s: In 1945, defeated Japan is forced to accept U.S. occupation. Those Japanese considered war criminals are tried and hanged. Japan is given a constitution and the work of reconstruction begins. Japan no longer possesses a Pacific empire.

    Today: Japan is a staunch U.S. ally and a major economic power in Asia and globally.

  • 1940s: After release from internment, many Japanese Americans move to parts of the country other than the West and Northwest Coast in order to restart their lives.

    Today: The number of Japanese Americans in the United States is approximately 1,148,000. The largest communities remain in California and Washington, but there are also sizable Japanese American communities in New York, Texas, Illinois, Oregon, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Florida. Each year, about seven thousand Japanese immigrants enter the United States.

For Further Reference

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Ling, Jinqi. "Race, Power, and Cultural Politics in John Okada's No-No Boy." American Literature 67 (June 1995): 359-381. Ling analyzes No-No Boy and the contradictory notions that affect Ichiro's experience in postwar Seattle.

McDonald, Dorothy Ritsuko. "After Imprisonment: Ichiro's Search for Redemption in No-No Boy." Melus 6(3) (1979): 19-26. McDonald discusses the problems Ichiro encounters in his search for redemption and self-identity. She feels that Ichiro represents the many Japanese Americans who faced racial discrimination and cultural confusion after their release from prison during World War II.

Sato, Gayle K. Fajita. "Momotaro's Exile: John Okada's No-No Boy." In Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992:238-258. Sato refers to the Japanese legend of "Momotaro: The Peach Boy" and discusses the theme of filial piety in the legend and in Okada's novel.

Sumida, Stephen H. "Japanese American Moral Dilemmas in John Okada's No-No Boy and Milton Urayama's All I Asking for Is My Body." In Frontiers of Asian American Studies: Writing, Research, and Commentary. Edited by Gail M. Nomura, Russell Endo, Stephen H. Sumida, and Russell C. Leong. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1989: 222-233. Sumida analyzes the questions of loyalty faced by Japanese Americans as he compares Okada's novel to Milton's.

Yeh, William. "To Belong or Not to Belong: The Liminality of John Okada's No-No Boy." Amerasia Journal (Winter 1993): 121-134. Yeh presents his critical analysis of Okada's novel and discusses the problems Japanese Americans faced during the postwar period in defining their loyalties and trying to mend their fractured sense of identity.

Yogi, Stan. "You Had to Be One or the Other: Oppositions and Reconciliation in John Okada's No-No Boy." Melus 21(2) (Summer 1996): 63-77. Yogi explores the problems of self-identification among the Japanese Americans after the war, and he discusses the tension and conflicting loyalties within the Japanese communities.

Bibliography

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Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982. An excellent study of Asian American literature, which contains a sound analysis of No-No Boy that emphasizes the disintegrating influence of racism on the Japanese American community and psyche.

McDonald, Dorothy Ritsuko. “After Imprisonment: Ichiro’s Search for Redemption in No-No Boy.” Melus 6, no. 3 (Fall, 1979): 19-26. Traces Ichiro’s psychological journey from guilt and alienation to peace and self-acceptance.

Sato, Gayle K. Fujita. “Momotaro’s Exile: John Okada’s No-No Boy.” In Reading the Literatures of Asian America, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. Draws on the Japanese mythic tale “Momotaro” in arguing that No-No Boy affirms Japanese American identity by rejecting everything Japanese. Concludes that Japanese culture is portrayed almost entirely in negative terms.

Yeh, William. “To Belong or Not to Belong: The Liminality of John Okada’s No-No-Boy.” Amerasia Journal 19, no. 1 (1993): 121-134. Argues that both the novel’s central character and historical context represent a state of “betweenness.”

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Gribben, Bryn, “The Mother That Won’t Reflect Back: Situating Psychoanalysis and the Japanese Mother in No-No Boy,” in MELUS, Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer 2003, p. 31.

Inada, Lawson Fusao, “Introduction,” in John Okada, No-No Boy, University of Washington Press, 1979, p. vi.

Okada, John, No-No Boy, University of Washington Press, 1979.

Yeh, William, “To Belong or Not to Belong: The Liminality of John Okada’s No-No Boy,” in Amerasia Journal, Vol. 19, No. 1, 1993, p. 121.

Further Reading
Chu, Patricia, Assimilating Asians, Gendered Strategies of Authorship in Asian America, Duke University Press, 2000, pp. 55–61. Chu discusses the novel in terms of Ichiro’s rejection of Japanese authenticity in the form of his mother in order to construct himself as an Asian American subject.

Ling, Jingi, “No-No Boy,” in A Resource Guide to Asian American Literature, edited by Cynthia Sau-ling Wong and Stephen H. Sumida, Modern Languages Association of America, 2001, pp. 140–50. Ling discusses the reception of the novel, the biographical background of the author, the historical context, critical and pedagogical issues, and supplies a list of other Asian American works that cover similar themes.

———, “Race, Power, and Cultural Politics in John Okada’s No-No Boy,” in American Literature, Vol. 67, No. 2, June 1995, pp. 359–81. Ling argues that Ichiro’s attempt in postwar Seattle to articulate Japanese American dissent in terms of ethnic pride reflects the limited options available to Okada given the social and aesthetic milieu in which he wrote. Ling also argues that the novel transcends Ichiro’s ideological fatalism.

Sato, Gayle K. Fujita, “Momotaro’s Exile: John Okada’s No-No Boy,” in Reading the Literatures of Asian America, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling, Temple University Press, 1992, pp. 239–58. Sato analyzes the novel’s binary opposition of Japan and the United States through examination of two of the novel’s subtexts, the loyalty oath and the Japanese folk tale known as Momotaro.

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