No-No Boy Themes

  • At the heart of No-No Boy is the question of loyalty: will Ichiro serve in the United States Army? Will he pledge allegiance to his new country and forsake Japan? He answers no to both questions, earning the moniker "No-No Boy." Loyalty, however, proves less important when the United States imprisons innocent Japanese-American citizens. Ultimately, the novel asks: does loyalty to one's country supercede one's individual identity?
  • There are many generational conflicts in the novel. Ichiro's parents, the Yamadas, were born in Japan, and Ichiro's mother considers herself Japanese—not American. She is proud of her son for refusing to fight against Japan. Nevertheless, he feels alienated from her, in part because it was her influence that caused him to say "no." His loyalties actually lie with America, unlike his parents.
  • Identity is another important theme in the novel. Ichiro's identity is informed by his race, his age, his conflicts with his parents and the United States government, and, ultimately, with the war. It takes him a long time to find his identity, in part because his mother's domineering attitude prevents him from being his own person. 


(Novels for Students)

Generational Conflict
The novel presents a type of generational conflict that is peculiar to immigrant families. The older, first generation parents identify with their country of origin, whereas the younger generation born in the new country identifies with it rather than the ancestral home. So it is with Ichiro Yamada, but in this case the generational conflict is sharpened by the facts of war.

When Ichiro is asked the two questions in the internment camp, he does not have the courage, maturity, or self-knowledge to answer what he truly feels in his heart. His real allegiance lies with the United States, but he holds back from stating it because he cannot free himself from the powerful influence of his mother, who will not allow him to develop an identity separate from hers. Her love is conditional. She says she is proud to call him her son, but he knows this is only because of his refusal to serve in the U.S. armed forces. Had he made a different decision, she would have rejected him. For her, there can be no compromise. She is incapable of seeing a situation from any point of view other than her own. She may think that she loves her son, but she is in effect smothering him, trying to make him deny who he really is. In return, all Ichiro can offer her is hostility, bitterness, and rage. His mother now is as much of a stranger to him as Japan, her country of origin that he has never seen. They literally speak different languages. The conflict can only be resolved by his mother’s death, and Ichiro feels no grief at her passing.

Ichiro has no respect for his father either and regards him as weak. But his father is not as fanatical as his mother and is prepared to allow Ichiro, and also Ichiro’s younger brother Taro, to go their own ways. His reasonableness in this respect allows him to maintain at least a semblance of a relationship with his son, and after the death of his wife, there is a hint that Ichiro and his father may develop a more...

(The entire section is 814 words.)