The novel opens as Ichiro, a no-no boy and second-generation Japanese American man, returns home to Seattle. World War II has just ended, and Ichiro is free for the first time in four years. He has spent two years in an internment camp, and the next two in prison, after he refused the draft.
Ichiro moves in with his parents, Mr. Yamada and Mrs. Yamada, who own a grocery store where they live and work. He also joins his younger brother, Taro, who resents Ichiro and his parents. Taro feels American, and does not understand his Japanese family. Ichiro’s relationship with his mother and father is also fraught, as he believes they raised him to be too Japanese, and this loyalty to them and to Japan caused him to reject the draft. Ichiro regrets his decision, and feels he has ruined his life. He faces discrimination from others in the Japanese community who did fight for the United States, as well as general anti-Japanese discrimination from people of other races and ethnicities.
Ichiro does his best to resume his normal life and explore options for his future. He spends some time with his friend, Freddie, another no-no boy who has been free for several weeks but remains unemployed, drinking, gambling, and partying. Disturbed by this, Ichiro begins to see Freddie as a cautionary tale.
Ichiro runs into an acquaintance, Kenji, near his old university. Kenji lost most of his left leg while serving in the United States Military, but holds no hate in his heart for the army, or for Ichiro for not serving. Kenji’s leg has remained infected even after amputation, and he believes he only has a few years left to live. Still, he is happy with his life and would not trade it for anything. Ichiro and Kenji quickly become friends, and spend the day and night together, their friendship fully cemented when Kenji defends Ichiro from two Nisei teenagers who attack him for his rejection of the draft.
Kenji takes Ichiro to meet his friend Emi, a young woman whose husband is overseas and has refused to come home. Ichiro and Emi sleep together, and in the morning Emi argues with Ichiro that his life is not over—there is the potential for happiness in his future.
Kenji has to go to Portland for another surgery on his leg, and invites Ichiro to go with him. In Portland, Ichiro drops Kenji off at the hospital and applies for jobs as he waits for his friend to complete surgery. He meets with an engineer, a white man named Mr. Carrick, who feels that the United States was wrong in interning its Japanese citizens, and who offers Ichiro a job on the spot as a kind of reparation. Kenji rejects the offer, but is happy to see that there are people in the world free from prejudice.
Ichiro visits Kenji in the hospital. His friend is clearly sick, and expects to die. He tells Ichiro to go home and mend his relationship with his family instead of staying in Portland. Ichiro leaves and returns to Seattle in Kenji’s car. He drops the car with Mr. Kanno, Kenji’s father, who tells him that Kenji died that afternoon.
Mrs. Yamada believes Japan won WWII, despite all evidence to the contrary, and insists that the U.S.’s apparent victory was simply propaganda. Ichiro and Mr. Yamada have done their best to convince her otherwise, and finally, before Ichiro leaves for Portland, they seem to have a breakthrough. Unfortunately, however, the breakthrough completely destroys Mrs. Yamada, and when Ichiro returns home one day he finds that his mother, desperately unhappy in America and unable to return to Japan, has killed herself.
The next week after his mother’s funeral, Ichiro begins to look for work in Seattle. He meets with Gary, a fellow no-no boy who now works at the Christian Rehabilitation Center, a charitable commune where he paints signs in the daytime and paints for himself at night. Gary believes imprisonment saved his life and helped clarify his purpose. Although Ichiro did not feel that way, he is inspired by how contented Gary seems to be.
In the evening Ichiro goes out with his friend Freddie one final time. Freddie is in a downward spiral, picking fights, smoking and drinking. The two go to a club where Freddie has been in fights before, and he is dragged outside by a man named Bull who wants to teach him a lesson. Ichiro intervenes, and Freddie runs to his car and takes off, but drives erratically and crashes into a wall, killing himself. Standing stunned in the aftermath, Ichiro begins to believe that there might be a future for him after all, if he will forgive himself and allow himself to choose happiness and community.