The Japanese characters in No-No Boy are divided into Issei, who are first-generation immigrants from Japan, and Nisei, second-generation Japanese-Americans who were born in the United States to Japanese parents. Although there is variation within each generation, most first-generation Japanese immigrants in No-No Boy speak Japanese and little English, and came to the United States with the goal of making money and then returning home. The second-generation Japanese immigrants, however, grew up speaking English, and while many of them understand Japanese, they do not speak it as well. Unlike their parents, who feel distinctly Japanese, the Nisei are as engaged in American culture as they are in the culture of their families. In some families, the divide between parents and children is more severe, while in others, the parents and children have values that more directly align. Across generations in all families, however, communication is never easy, and life is never simple as a result. First- and second-generation Japanese-Americans are shown to have certain cultural and ideological differences. The book suggests that the only way to overcome these differences is to practice empathy, and to communicate openly. The bonds of family are strong and difficult to break, but the wellbeing of a family is dependent on its members willingness to empathize with each other, and understand the differences between generations.
Two family dynamics are explored in depth in No-No Boy. The first is that of Ichiro’s family, in which there is a sharp generational divide, and parents and children do not get along, nor do they understand each other. Ichiro’s parents find tradition important, and are inflexible when it comes to change, which makes it difficult for them to embrace the Americanization of their children. Mrs. Yamada is especially rigid in her worldview. When Ichiro returns from prison after refusing to fight for America in World War II, she tells him “I am proud that you are back…I am proud to call you my son.” Ichiro understands that what she means is “she had made him what he was and that the thing in him which made him say no to the judge and go to prison for two years was the growth of a seed planted by the mother tree and that she was the mother who had put this thing in her son.” Ichiro’s mother is glad to have succeeded in instilling a sense of Japanese identity in her son, but is seemingly uninterested in how he has grown into his own person. Although she believes that they are alike, Ichiro has difficulty feeling love for “the woman who was his mother and still a stranger.” Even as his mother feels pride that her son rejected the draft, Ichiro feels cursed by his duty to her. He believes “she’s killed me with her meanness and hatred.” Ichiro’s mother has little desire to understand him, and even less desire to understand her younger son, Taro, who is even more American. Taro desperately wants to join the army. His mother does not understand, but Ichiro does. He sees that his brother “was not a son and not a brother…because he was young and American and alien to his parents, who had lived in America for thirty-five years without becoming less Japanese…and because Taro hated that thing in his elder brother which had prevented him from thinking for himself.” Although Ichiro attempts to reach out to his brother, Taro has fully rejected Ichiro and his parents, refusing even to come to his mother’s funeral later in the novel. Without a willingness to practice empathy, there is no way for the family to understand each other and live peacably together. When they can only see each other as inaccessible strangers, they are unable to be happy individually, and are unable to work towards common goals, financially, professionally, or personally.
The second family dynamic explored in the novel is that of Kenji’s family. Kenji’s family gets along much better than Ichiro’s, and is a testament to how it is possible for families to grow and change together, remaining loving, open, and honest, if they are willing to put in the effort. When Mr. Kanno was in the internment camp, he went to talks by a sociologist who tried to “impart a message of great truth”—that “the old Japanese, the fathers and mothers…did not know their own sons and daughters.” This sociologist wondered, “how many of you are able to sit down with your own sons and own daughters and enjoy the companionship of conversation? How many, I ask?” He went on to argue that “If we [the Nisei] are children of America and not the sons and daughters of our parents, it is because you have failed. […] This is America, where you have lived and worked and suffered for thirty or forty years. This is not Japan.” As a result, he argues, the Nisei will naturally be different than the Issei, with different cultural identities, different interests, and different priorities. This is something Kenji’s father hears, understands, and internalizes, while Ichiro’s parents by contrast do not understand the sociologist’s message. As a result, Kenji’s father puts in the effort to understand his children, and gets along well with all of them. This is perhaps because Kenji’s father has begun to embrace and acknowledge America as his home, just as it is his children’s home, but it is also simply because he trusts and loves his children and honors their choices. For example, when Kenji went to war, his father “[acceded] to his son’s wish because his son was a man who had gone to war to fight for the abundance and happiness that pervaded a Japanese household in America and that was a thing he himself could never fully comprehend except to know that it was very dear.” Additionally, Kenji’s father has given up on moving back to Japan. Instead, “this country which he had no intention of loving [America] had suddenly begun to become a part of him because it was a part of his children and he saw and felt in their speech and joys and sorrows and hopes and he was a part of them.” Unlike Ichiro’s family, and Ichiro’s mother specifically, who refuses to see the ways in which her son is American, Kenji’s father sees that his children are American, and so he too tries to become more American so he can remain connected to them. As a result, Kenji and his father love each other and connect easily. Kenji cannot lie to his father, and speaks to him candidly about the pain in his leg and his fears for the future.
Regardless of the specific type of relationship each family has, the bonds of family remain important to each character’s identity, and prove difficult to break. Those without strong families feel lonely and unfulfilled. Emi, for example, is alone without her mother, father, or husband, Ralph, and struggles to lead a happy, meaningful life. Similarly Freddie, cut off emotionally from his family and society, struggles to find purpose and direction. Even as he resents his mother, Ichiro still feels an obligation to her and his father. He writes that they are “a mother and son thrown together for a while longer because the family group is a stubborn one and does not easily disintegrate.” Ichiro plans to move to Portland and abandon his family, but changes his mind. His “past had been shared with a mother and a father and, whatever they were, he too was a part of them and they a part of him and one did not say this is as far as we go together, I am stepping out of your lives, without rendering himself only part a man. If he was to find his way back to that point of wholeness and belonging, he must do so in the place where he had begun to lose it.” Ichiro understands that to truly begin a new life he must first reckon with his old one. The man who he has become was shaped by his family, whether he likes it or not, and so he must make peace with the idea of family, if not his actual family members, before he can truly grow.
The immediate family unit, and the larger family network made up of relatives spread across America or still living in Japan, is central to the lives of the characters in No-No Boy. However, just because these relationships are important, doesn’t mean they are always caring or positive. Because there are such intense generational divides between parents born in Japan and children born in the United States, members of both generations must put in additional effort to understand each other’s perspectives in order to live with one another. The members of Ichiro’s family are unable to empathize with each other, and everyone suffers because of it, feeling isolated and misunderstood. In contrast, Kenji’s family has put time and effort into understanding the struggles and experiences of different generations, and their relationships are warm and positive as a result, with siblings and parents providing each other with love, comfort, and safety.
Family and Generational Divides ThemeTracker
Family and Generational Divides Quotes in No-No Boy
Walking down the street that autumn morning with a small, black suitcase, he felt like an intruder in a world to which he had no claim. It was just enough that he should feel this way, for, of his own free will, he had stood before the judge and said that he would not go in the army. At the time there was no other choice for him. That was when he was twenty-three, a man of twenty-three. Now, two years older, he was even more of a man.
Christ, he thought to himself, just a goddamn kid is all I was. Didn’t know enough to wipe my own nose. What the hell have I done? What am I doing back here? Best thing I can do would be to kill some son of a bitch and head back to prison.
“I am proud that you are back,” she said. “I am proud to call you my son.”
It was her way of saying that she had made him what he was and that the thing in him which made him say no to the judge and go to prison for two years was the growth of a seed planted by the mother tree and that she was the mother who had put this thing in her son and that everything that had been done and said was exactly as it should have been and that that was what made him her son because no other would have made her feel the pride that was in her breast.
He looked at his mother and swallowed with difficulty the bitterness that threatened to destroy the last fragment of understanding for the woman who was his mother and still a stranger because, in truth, he could not know what it was to be a Japanese who breathed the air of America and yet had never lifted a foot from the land that was Japan.
“Why don’t you do something about it?”
“I tell [Taro]. Mama tells him. Makes no difference. It is the war that has made them that way. All the people say the same thing. The war and the camp life. Made them wild like cats and dogs. It is hard to understand.”
“Sure,” he said, but he told himself that he understood, that the reason why Taro was not a son and not a brother was because he was young and American and alien to his parents, who had lived in America for thirty-five years without becoming less Japanese and could speak only a few broken words of English and write it not at all, and because Taro hated the thing in his elder brother which had prevented him from thinking for himself. And in this hate for that thing, he hated his brother and also his parents because they had created the thing in their eyes and hands and minds which had seen and felt and thought as Japanese for thirty-five years in an America which they rejected as thoroughly as if they had never been a day away from Japan.
“Oh, yes, the picture of Japan.” She snickered. “He is such a serious boy. He showed me all the pictures he had taken in Japan. He had many of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and I told him that he must be mistaken because Japan did not lose the war as he seems to believe and that he could not have been in Japan to take pictures because, if he was in Japan, he would not have been permitted to remain alive… I told him that what must really have happened was that the army only told him he was in Japan when he was someplace else, and that it was too bad he believed the propaganda. Then he got so mad his face went white… It is not enough that they must willingly take up arms against their uncles and cousins and even brothers and sisters, but they no longer have respect for the old ones. If I had a son and he had gone in the American army to fight Japan, I would have killed myself with shame.”
“They know not what they do and it is not their fault. It is the fault of the parents…” Ichiro’s mother looked at him with a look which said I am a Japanese and you are my son and have conducted yourself as a Japanese and I know no shame such as other parents do because their sons were not really their sons or they would not have fought against their own people.
The mother was crying now, without shame and alone in her grief that knew no end. And in her bottomless grief that made no distinction as to what was wrong and what was right and who was Japanese and who was not, there was no awareness of the other mother with a living son who had come to say to her you are with shame and grief because you were not Japanese and thereby killed your son but mine is big and strong and full of life because I did not weaken and would not let my son destroy himself uselessly and treacherously.
…he was thinking about the Kumasakas and his mother and kids like Bob who died brave deaths fighting for something which was bigger than Japan or America or the selfish bond that strapped a son to his mother. Bob, and a lot of others with no more to lose or gain then he, had not found it necessary to think about whether or not to go into the army. When the time came, they knew what was right for them and they went.
What happened to him and the others who faced the judge and said: You can’t make me go in the army because I’m not an American or you wouldn’t have plucked me and mine from a life that was good and real and meaningful and fenced me in the desert like they do the Jews in Germany…
And some said: You, Mr. Judge, who supposedly represent justice, was it a just thing to ruin a hundred thousand lives and homes and farms and businesses and dreams and hopes because the hundred thousand were a hundred thousand Japanese and you couldn’t have loyal Japanese when Japan is the country you’re fighting and, if so, how about the Germans and Italians that must be just as questionable as the Japanese or we wouldn’t be fighting Germany and Italy? Round them up. Take away their homes and cars and beer and spaghetti and throw them in a camp and what do you think they’ll say when you try to draft them into your army out of the country that is for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? …
And then another one got up and faced the judge and said meekly: I can’t go because my brother is in the Japanese army and if I go in your army and have to shoot at them because they’re shooting at me, how do I know that maybe I won’t kill my own brother? I’m a good American and I like it here but you can see that it wouldn’t do for me to be shooting at my own brother; even if he want back to Japan when I was two years old and I couldn’t know him if I saw him, it’s the feeling that counts, and what can a fellow do? Besides, my mom and dad said I shouldn’t and they ought to know.
“I came to America to become a rich man so that I could go back to the village in Japan and be somebody. I was greedy and ambitious and proud. I was not a good man or an intelligent one, but a young fool. And you have paid for it.”
“What kind of talk is that?” replied Kenji, genuinely grieved. “That’s not true at all.”
“I will go with you.”
“No.” He looked straight at his father.
In answer, the father merely nodded, acceding to his son’s wish because his son was a man who had gone to war to fight for the abundance and happiness that pervaded a Japanese household in America and that was a thing he himself could never fully comprehend except to know that it was very dear. He had long forgotten when it was that he had discarded the notion of a return to Japan but remembered only that it was the time when this country which he had no intention of loving had suddenly begun to become a part of him because it was a part of his children and he saw and felt in their speech and joys and sorrows and hopes that he was a part of them. And in the dying of the foolish dreams which he had brought to America, the richness of the life that was possible in this foreign country destroyed the longing for a past that really must not have been as precious as he imagined or else he would surely not have left it. Where else could a man, left alone with six small children, have found it possible to have had so much with so little?
It had mattered. It was because he was Japanese that the son had to come to his Japanese father and simply state that he had decided to volunteer for the army instead of being able to wait until such time as the army called him. It was because he was Japanese and, at the same time, had to prove to the world that he was not Japanese that the turmoil was in his soul and urged him to enlist. There was confusion, but, underneath it, a conviction that he loved America and would fight and die for it because he did not wish to live anyplace else. And the father, also confused, understood what the son had not said and gave his consent. It was not a time for clear thinking because the sense of loyalty had become dispersed and the shaken faith of an American interned in an American concentration camp was indeed a flimsy thing. So, on this steadfast bit of conviction that remained, and knowing not what the future held, this son had gone to war to prove that he deserved to enjoy those rights which should rightfully have been his.
…It was on this particular night that the small sociologist, struggling for the words painstakingly and not always correctly selected from his meager knowledge of the Japanese language, had managed to impart a message of great truth. And this message was that the old Japanese, the fathers and mothers, who sat courteously attentive, did not know their own sons and daughters. “How many of you are able to sit down with your own sons and own daughters and enjoy the companionship of conversation? How many, I ask? If I were to say none of you, I would not be far from the truth.” He paused, for the grumbling was swollen with anger and indignation, and continued in a loud, shouting voice before it could engulf him: “You are not displeased because of what I said but because I have hit upon the truth. And I know it to be true because I am a Nisei and you old ones are like my own father and mother. If we are children of America and not the sons and daughters of our parents, it is because you have failed. It is because you have been stupid enough to think that growing rice in muddy fields is the same as growing a giant fir tree. Change, now, if you can, even if it may be too late, and become companions to your children. This is America, where you have lived and worked and suffered for thirty and forty years. This is not Japan.”
As he shouted, Ichiro listened and, it was as if he were hearing about a stranger as the man spoke of the girl baby born in the thirty-first year of the Meiji era to a peasant family, of her growing and playing and going to school and receiving honors for scholastic excellence and of her becoming a pretty young thing who forsook a teaching career to marry a bright, ambitious young man of the same village. And as the large man transported the young couple across the vast ocean to the fortune awaiting them in America, Ichiro no longer listened, for he was seeing the face of his dead mother jutting out of the casket, and he could not believe that she had ever been any of the things the man was saying about her.