Ichiro arrives at the Seattle bus station. It is the first time he has been back to Seattle in four years. He has just spent two years in an internment camp, and then two years in prison.
Ichiro lived on the West Coast and had Japanese ancestry. As a result, he, like 10,000 others of Japanese descent, was labeled a threat and imprisoned by the U.S. government for the first half of WWII.
Although he grew up in Seattle, Ichiro feels “like an intruder” there now. He regrets refusing to go into the army two years previously. He thinks that now the best thing for him would be to kill someone and return to prison.
A young man in military fatigues crosses the street towards Ichiro. He recognizes him as Eto Minato. Ichiro tries to avoid him but Eto chases him down, calling him by his nickname, Itchy, and reintroducing himself. However, when Eto realizes that Ichiro was not in the army, his demeanor shifts and he becomes angry. He remembers that Ichiro was a no-no boy. He spits on him, and threatens to pee on him the next time they meet.
At first, Eto believes that he and Ichiro have something in common—a shared American identity, which they “earned” fighting in the war. However, when he realizes his mistake he turns against Ichiro. Eto, a veteran, sees Ichiro as a threat to his own American assimilation. Because people like Ichiro remained loyal to Japan (in practice at least) by refusing to fight for America, Eto worries non-Japanese Americans will assume all people of Japanese ancestry are also “traitors.”
Ichiro feels as though “the walls had closed in.” He sees Eto as representative of “the jury that had passed sentence upon him.” However, he doesn’t blame Eto for his behavior. Ichiro feels as though he has doomed himself, “driven the nails” of his disgrace in “with his own hands.”
Ichiro is a hopeless and pessimistic character at this point—he regrets his decision to choose Japan over America, and understands why he is discriminated against. He believes he made the wrong choice, and accepts that his life will be worse because of it forever.
Ichiro walks towards Jackson Street, which houses Seattle’s Japantown. A group of black men harass him, calling him “Jap!” and telling him to “go back to Tokyo.” Ichiro thinks derogatory thoughts in return, realizing that the space inside him that formerly housed tolerance for “the Negros and the Jews and the Mexicans and the Chinese and the too short and too fat and too ugly” is now filled with hate instead.
Although in the 1940s African American people were still heavily discriminated against both culturally and legally, this sense of oppression does not motivate these men to treat Ichiro, the member of another oppressed group, with any empathy. Ironically, they tell him to go back to Japan, a place he’s never lived and has no real loyalty to.
Ichiro makes it to his new home—a grocery store his parents have purchased since leaving the internment camp. Mr. Yamada described it to him in a letter, written in simple Japanese characters with explicit directions “as if he were a foreigner coming to a city for the first time.” This infuriates Ichiro.
Ichiro was not born in Japan and speaks little Japanese. Meanwhile, his parents were born in Japan and speak mostly Japanese. Although Ichiro deals with discrimination because he appears Japanese, he does not even have the benefit of feeling like he belongs to Japanese culture at all.
Mr. Yamada greets his son happily. Ichiro’s father speaks mostly in Japanese; Ichiro speaks mostly in English. This is common in mixed-generation immigrant families, the narrator says. Mrs. Yamada has gone to the bakery to buy bread, and Ichiro argues with his father that this is a waste of time and money. They eventually cool down, sitting down in the back of the shop to talk. Ichiro’s father asks Ichiro about prison. Ichiro jokes that it was fun, and then says he doesn’t want to dwell on it.
Ichiro and his parents are almost from different worlds. His parents are first-generation immigrants who intend to return to Japan, their true home. Ichiro was raised by his parents, who instilled in him their values, but he has no connection to Japan, and is as American as he is Japanese—which in this divisive society seems to mean he cannot be fully either.
Mrs. Yamada comes home. She tells Ichiro she is proud to call him her son. Ichiro understands that what she is really saying is that she is glad that she influenced him so powerfully as a child, instilling in him a Japanese identity that prevented him from enlisting in the American army.
Ichiro feels bitterness towards Mrs. Yamada, even as he works to understand her. She is both “his mother and still a stranger,” because he cannot understand what it is like to “be a Japanese who breathed the air of America and yet had never lifted a foot from the land that was Japan.”
While Mrs. Yamada assumes that she understands her son, Ichiro knows for certain that he does not and cannot understand his mother, who grew up in such a different world than he did, and who still clings so fiercely to that world—she has never even “lifted a foot” from Japan.
Ichiro retreats to the bedroom and flings himself into bed, chain-smoking and thinking. He blames Mrs. Yamada for his past actions—he feels that she “cursed” him, and that her influence forced him to reject the draft and go to prison. He feels like she hammered away at his personality and his happiness, killing him “with her meanness and hatred.”
Mrs. Yamada raised Ichiro to be Japanese, refusing to accept any part of her son that could be seen as American. However, living his life in America, Ichiro feels cursed by an inability to fully assimilate, as he is still tied to Japan by his mother.
Mrs. Yamada comes to fetch Ichiro for lunch. The family does not speak as they eat. Finally Ichiro’s mother breaks the silence, telling Ichiro he must go back to school. She argues that he will have “unlimited” opportunities in Japan with a college degree. Ichiro isn’t sure he wants to go back to school, and is shocked by his mother’s belief that they could return to her home country.
The U.S. ensured Japanese surrender in WWII by dropping two devastating atom bombs. These bombs, in addition to a more conventional military invasion, led to massive destruction of the country and its infrastructure. Mrs. Yamada refuses to accept that this is true, instead preferring to believe that her home country remains pristine and victorious, waiting for her return.
Mrs. Yamada shows Ichiro a letter sent from Sao Paulo, ostensibly from the Japanese government, that claims it is sending ships to collect loyal Japanese people living around the world. The letter brings her comfort, as it proves to her that “we are not alone.” This letter upsets Ichiro, who describes it as a kind of “weird nightmare,” a confirmation of his mother’s insanity.
Mrs. Yamada feels abandoned and alone in America. It is difficult for her to imagine that she will spend the rest of her life in a country she does not love, and instead invests in a fantasy that she has not been abandoned by her government—that Japan won the war, and that she will be able to return.
Mrs. Yamada tells Ichiro they’ll discuss it later. She assures him that his doubts will disappear, because he is her son. Although he says nothing, Ichiro thinks to himself that he is no longer her son. He feels he is only half Japanese, because he was born in America and has lived among American culture and American people for so long. His connection to his mother guaranteed he would never become fully American, and he resents that his loyalty to her made him feel too Japanese to enlist.
Mrs. Yamada believes that her oldest son is exactly like her. She thinks that, because he rejected the draft, he has the same unwavering loyalty to Japan, and the same confidence in its ability to come out of the war unscathed. Ichiro, however, is only half like his mother. He is also half American, and remains conflicted and torn.
Ichiro continues his internal monologue. He asserts that he is not Mrs. Yamada’s son, and he is “not Japanese” and “not American.” He wishes he could be fully either, but he cannot be. For this he blames a world in which countries fight each other, he blames his mother, and he blames himself.
One of Ichiro’s central conflicts in the novel is the question of whether or not he is Japanese or American, and whether he can be truly happy torn between two enemy nations. His mother is responsible for making him feel Japanese, but he also takes responsibility for listening to her.
Upset, Ichiro goes to sleep. The next morning, his younger brother shakes him awake. Taro is uninterested in talking to Ichiro, who tries to engage him anyway. Taro tells Ichiro he plans to go to the army after high school. Although Taro does not say it explicitly, Ichiro understands that Taro feels compelled to enlist because Ichiro did (and could) not.
Ichiro feels torn between American and Japanese identities, but Taro feels fully American. Seeing how Ichiro’s rejection of the draft ruined his life, Taro has reacted by swinging in the opposite direction—rejecting his Japanese family and any allegiance to the home of his ancestors.
Taro, Ichiro, Mrs. Yamada, and Mr. Yamada eat in silence. Taro eats quickly and leaves. Ichiro’s father explains that Taro never studies. Ichiro wonders if his parents can do anything about this. Ichiro’s father says no, he has no control over his youngest son—the war has made him “wild like cats and dogs.”
Ichiro understands that Taro is fully American, whereas his parents, even after thirty-five years in America, have remained fully Japanese, and this is why they cannot understand each other. Taro hates that Ichiro remained Japanese enough to be unable to think for himself, and so is rebelling against his entire family. Mr. Yamada and Mrs. Yamada only came to America to make money, and say they plan on returning to Japan “pretty soon.”
Mr. and Mrs. Yamada have been unable and unwilling to assimilate. Because they always planned to return to Japan, they saw their time in America as a layover, and did not invest in any kind of American identity. Their children, meanwhile, have known no other country, and so have difficulty loving both America, which their parents do not love, and also Japan, which they have no connection to.
Mrs. Yamada takes Ichiro to see two family friends, the Ashida family and the Kumasaka family. These families are from the same village in Japan, and have been close for decades. It is customary to visit one another when a family member is about to leave for a big trip or has just returned. Ichiro doesn’t want to go, but doesn’t resist.
Moving to America from Japan was incredibly lonely, so families are joined together to create new social networks in their new, foreign home. Although Ichiro doesn’t want to go, he understands it is tradition, and doesn’t want to argue with and disrespect his mother.
At the Ashidas house, Mrs. Ashida and Mrs. Yamada discuss pictures of Japan taken by the son of a family friend stationed in Japan. His photos show the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but both Mrs. Ashida and Mrs. Yamada believe these photos are fake, or else taken somewhere other than Japan. Mrs. Yamada says that if Ichiro had both joined the American army to fight Japan and lost respect for his elders, “I would have killed myself.” Ichiro sees his mother’s “madness…was in mutual company.”
Both Mrs. Ashida and Mrs. Yamada miss Japan, and have been unable to find healthy ways to deal with their unhappiness. Instead of acknowledging that the US won WWII, devastating Japan on its path to victory, both women insist on believing a convoluted conspiracy theory, in which their homeland is intact and just as they remember it, waiting for their return.
Mrs. Yamada shares the South American letter with Mrs. Ashida. They commiserate with each other about how many of their friends falsely believe that Japan lost the war. Unhappy and uncomfortable, Ichiro insists that they leave.
Once again, Mrs. Yamada and Mrs. Ashida are unable to cope with the idea that the Japan they know and love is gone. Instead, they have bought into a fantasy.
Mrs. Yamada insists they visit the Kumasaka family next. The Kumasakas lived in an apartment above their dry-cleaning shop before the war, but have now purchased a house. Ichiro sees this as a rejection of Japan, and a decision to fully commit to living in America. Mr. Kumasaka and Mrs. Kumasaka greet Mrs. Yamada and Ichiro. They explain that they “finally decided that America is not so bad.”
Although the Kumasaka family initially employed similar logic to Mrs. Yamada and Mrs. Ashida—refusing to put down roots in America—they’ve finally admitted to themselves that they will not return to Japan, and will do their best to make America feel like home.
Mrs. Yamada sits on the couch and proudly declares that Ichiro “has suffered but I make no apologies for him or for myself. If he had given his life for Japan, I could not be prouder.” She continues, saying that it is hard to be a mother, not just to give birth but to raise a child you are proud of. Some people succeed, and some fail.
Mrs. Yamada sees Ichiro’s rejection of the draft as a rejection of America, and she sees this rejection of America as loyalty to Japan and loyalty to her. The Kumasakas’ son enlisted in the U.S. military, and with this lecture Mrs. Yamada is cruelly implying that the Kumasaka family failed to raise a good Japanese child.
Ichiro asks the Mr. Kumasaka and Mrs. Kumasaka where their son, Bob is. Mr. Kumasaka is shocked by the question. His son died in the army. He can’t believe Mrs. Yamada hasn’t told Ichiro. Mr. Kumasaka calls Jun, one of Bob’s friends from the army, into the room. Jun is staying with the family on his way home. Mr. Kumasaka asks Jun to tell them about Bob, and how he died.
Mrs. Yamada has brought Ichiro to the Kumasakas’ home to show him that he made the right choice in rejecting the draft. She is proud of Ichiro, who she sees as Japanese, and has only disdain for Bob, who she believes sacrificed his Japanese identity to fight for America, and therefore deserved to die. It’s becoming clearer how extreme and imbalanced she has become.
Mrs. Kumasaka cries as Jun recounts Bob’s death. Ichiro recognizes that in her “bottomless grief” she “made no distinction as to what was wrong and what was right and who was Japanese and who was not.” Mrs. Kumasaka similarly doesn’t realize that Mrs. Yamada has brought Ichiro to her house to punish her by showing that her son, who remained dedicated to Japan, is alive.
Mrs. Yamada gets up and leaves without saying goodbye. Ichiro apologizes to Mr. Kumasaka for his mother, calling her “crazy” and a “goddamed Jap!” Mr. Kumasaka urges Ichiro to “try to understand her,” as Ichiro leaves.
By calling Mrs. Yamada a “Jap,” Ichiro distances himself from her, implying that she is Japanese (and that this is something undesirable and inferior) and that he is not.
Ichiro does not want to go home; instead, he walks and thinks. He considers his bond with Mrs. Yamada. He feels like his decision to reject the draft was selfish. He considers how Bob was able to do what was right for him and go into the army.
In hindsight, Ichiro regrets his decision to reject the draft. He feels that he was only looking out for his own interests, and his own hurt pride at having been interned. He did not consider how serving in the army would benefit a country he genuinely does like.
Ichiro thinks back to when he stood before the judge with many other Japanese American men who had been drafted. He remembers their various answers for why they would not serve. Some men argued that they had been treated by the US government the way the Nazis treated the Jews. Others argued that it didn’t make sense that only Japanese people were sent to camps and not Germans or Italians. Others said they had brothers in Japan and couldn’t fight against their own families. Some pled to be released from the camps.
During WWII, Japanese Americans were rounded up and put in internment camps. Although Japan was an enemy of the U.S., notably German American and Italian American families were not similarly rounded up. This created understandable resentment in the Japanese community, and provided justification for many young men as to why they would not answer the draft.
Ichiro sees that for every man who could not fight for America, thousands were able to see past their parents’ allegiance to their home country. He admits to himself that Mrs. Yamada was not to blame—instead, he blames his own weakness. He considers various men he knew who, despite the injustices committed against them by the American government, willingly enlisted.
Ichiro regrets his behavior because he worries he’s ruined his future. Although he used to blame his mother for making him too loyal to Japan, he now believes his behavior was also his own fault for being unable to think for himself. He acknowledges that the U.S. government did treat him poorly, but also believes that doesn’t excuse his behavior.
Ichiro eventually makes it back to the grocery store. Mr. Yamada is drunk, which surprises Ichiro, and is going through a stack of letters from Japan. Mr. Yamada tells Ichiro that Mrs. Yamada is sick, and that he cannot do anything to help her. He has received letters from family in Japan asking for help, money, clothes, and food, but Mrs. Yamada doesn’t believe they are suffering, claiming the letters are propaganda, and refuses to send anything. This is hard for Mr. Yamada to deal with, and so he drinks. Ichiro goes to bed. As he leaves, Mr. Yamada apologizes to his son for going to prison for him and Mrs. Yamada. Ichiro tells him to “forget it.”
Mr. Yamada knows that his wife is delusional, but does not know how to cope with this. Instead of dealing with his emotions constructively, he turns to alcohol, which numbs them. Mr. Yamada is further troubled by his inability to help his relatives back in Japan, who need him, but who Mrs. Yamada refuses to help because she believes they are lying about Japan losing the war.