No-No Boy Analysis

  • No-No Boy tells the story of a first-generation Japanese American man named Ichiro who is imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. The historical basis of the novel allows Ichiro's experience to stand in for those of the other "No-No Boys" who refused to swear allegiance to the United States. This in turn gives the novel added social and historical significance.
  • No-No Boy is generally considered to be the first Asian American novel ever published. Since its original publication in 1957, it has gone on to become a classic of Asian American literature and is regularly taught in schools. It was re-released in 2014 with a foreword by Ruth Ozeki, bestselling author of A Tale for the Time Being.
  • John Okada wrote No-No Boy in the third person. 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. This point of view allows Okada to explore situations from many different angles.

Analysis

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...

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Places Discussed

*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...

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Historical Context

Internment of Japanese Americans
After the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S....

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Setting

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...

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Literary Style

Setting
The novel gives a realistic picture of the Japanese immigrant area of Seattle, which includes Jackson Street,...

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Social Sensitivity

No-No Boy forces readers to examine the issue of racial inequality. The racial tensions experienced between Okada's Japanese and...

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Compare and Contrast

  • 1940s: In 1945, the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat team is awarded 18,143 Medals of Valor and 9,486...

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Topics for Discussion

1. To what extent do you believe Mrs. Yamada was responsible for Ichiro's confused sense of identity?

2. Put yourself in the...

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Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. Compare the racial discrimination experienced by Japanese Americans versus the discrimination experienced by African Americans.

...

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Topics for Further Study

Conduct some interviews with some first- and second-generation immigrants from any country, either from your school or the local community,...

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Related Titles / Adaptations

Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian-American Writers is a collection that includes works of fiction by Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino...

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What Do I Read Next?

Joy Kogawa’s Obasan (1981), which has won many awards, examines the effects of internment and forced relocation on Japanese...

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For Further Reference

Ling, Jinqi. "Race, Power, and Cultural Politics in John Okada's No-No Boy." American Literature 67 (June 1995): 359-381. Ling...

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Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

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....

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Gribben, Bryn, “The Mother That Won’t Reflect Back: Situating Psychoanalysis and the Japanese Mother in...

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