No-No Boy Themes

The main themes in No-No Boy are loyalty, generational conflict, and identity.

  • Loyalty: Ichiro is asked to pledge his loyalty to the United States. However, this expectation of loyalty proves one-sided once Japanese internment begins.
  • Generational conflict: Ichiro's mother considers herself Japanese rather than American. She is proud of her son for refusing to fight. However, Ichiro is conflicted, as he identifies with both Japan and America.
  • Identity: Ichiro's identity is informed by his race, his age, his conflicts with his parents and the  government, and, ultimately, with the war. He struggles to establish a sense of identity separate from these external factors.

Themes

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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 genuine bond of sympathy.

The familial conflicts which afflict Ichiro are sharply contrasted with the bonds of love and affection that bind Kenji and his family together. Kenji’s father accepted Kenji’s decision to join the army, although it was not what he would have wished. But his flexibility and wisdom allow their family to remain united, without rancor, in contrast to the bitter divisions that tear the Yamada family apart.

Assimilation and Overcoming Self-blame
Despite his Japanese heritage, Ichiro knows in his heart that he is American. He knows also that when he answered no to the two questions in the internment camp he was not being true to who he really is. He makes his feelings plain early in the novel, when he first returns home:

[O]ne is not born in America and raised in America and taught in America and one does not speak and swear and drink and smoke and play and fight and see and hear in America among Americans in American streets and houses without becoming American and loving it.

His task now is to integrate American mainstream life. But he faces a double barrier. Not only does he have to convince white Americans that he is a true American, he also faces hostility from other Japanese Americans who despise him for being a “no-no” boy. During the two weeks in which the novel takes place, Ichiro embarks on an inner journey in which he must convince himself...

(This entire section contains 814 words.)

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that a life in the United States, as an American, is possible for him. Having once turned his back on himself and the country that he knows is his, he must learn to face them both again. He must overcome his tendency to blame himself for his predicament and also his own feeling that he, having once rejected the United States, is now forever unacceptable to it. Time and again, he encounters people, especially the employers Mr. Carrick and Mr. Morrison, as well as Kenji and Emi, who show him that the United States is in fact a land of generosity, compassion, and inclusiveness. These people are far less concerned about the choice Ichiro made in the internment camp than he is himself. His actions then do not matter to them, and they show him only kindness and affection. By the end of the novel, Ichiro has made progress toward the realization that his troubles are of his own making. He is ready to make a free choice to accept his rightful place, knowing that the United States is a vast community in which injustice and hatred certainly exist, but which also offers the possibility of forgiveness and a new start for those who have lost their way.

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