Every character in No-No Boy is dealing with the aftermath of World War II and the effect it had on their lives—and each person has had a different experience. Every Japanese person was interned, but afterwards some were imprisoned, while others went to war. Although the experience of war is different from person to person, what most characters have in common is a desire to heal from their emotional or physical pain and move on with their lives. Okada presents three categories of people, doing their best to cope in the aftermath of war: those who have accepted the past and are attempting to move on, those who have refused to re-assimilate into daily life, and those who have yet to settle and decide how to move forward. Ichiro, the novel’s protagonist, has yet to figure out his life or future after being released from prison, and also watches members of his family and community struggle to readjust to post-war life. He sees that those who commit to accepting the past and moving forward are given a chance at a future and inner peace, whereas those who refuse to address their emotions or to try and live a normal life become stuck in the past, unable to ever be fully happy.
Some characters are able to accept the painful realities of the past and attempt to move forward. The novel presents this as the best-case scenario in the aftermath of war. Kenji fought in WWII, where he lost his leg. Although it was originally amputated below the knee, an infection forces doctors to continually whittle away at it. While he currently has eleven inches of leg left, Kenji knows that over time he will have less and less, and suspects that his leg will eventually kill him. He and Ichiro discuss whose life is worse, each asking the other if he would trade places with him if he could. Ichiro would happily take Kenji’s place, but Kenji has come to terms with his life and his illness, and explains, "When it comes to the last half inch and it starts to hurt, I'll sell the car and spend the rest of my life sitting here with a drink in my hand and feeling good." Ichiro understands that Kenji is saying no to the hypothetical trade. He is content with his life, despite the ways he remains crippled by the past.
Towards the end of the novel, Ichiro meets Gary, another no-no boy who has found employment as a sign painter. Gary is content with his new life, explaining, "” died in prison. And when I came back to life, all that really mattered for me was to make a painting...What was unfortunate for you was the best thing that ever happened to me.” Gary was reborn in prison, and sees his new life as a second chance, and he intends to make the best of it. He has a mission and a purpose, and so is able to see his imprisonment as a necessary evil on his way towards a brighter future.
Other characters are unable to cope with the trauma of the past, and therefore are unable to move forward. Although No-No Boy is a complex novel, and not moralistic, the lives of the characters who struggle to process their emotions and move into the future are markedly less happy and more difficult than the lives of characters who succeed in doing so. Mrs. Yamada, Ichiro’s mother, struggles to move on after the war. Although she was not enlisted, she suffered in an internment camp, and now refuses to accept the truth of America’s victory and Japan’s defeat. Early in the novel, she receives a letter addressed "To you who are loyal and honorable Japanese,” informing her that “the Japanese government is presently making preparations to send ships which will return to Japan those residents in foreign countries who have steadfastly maintained their faith and loyalty to our Emperor." She believes that Japan won the war, and that ships are coming to take her back to her pristine, undefeated homeland. Ichiro sees this belief as crazy, and describes his mother’s denial of the truth as a kind of “weird nightmare.” It causes her to reject reality, and she begins to think that letters from her relatives in Japan asking for aid are part of a government conspiracy. When Ichiro and his father force his mother to come to terms with reality, the shock literally kills her. She receives a letter from her sister that causes her to realize that America really has won the war, and the Japan she knew has been destroyed by bombs and Allied troops. Having never fully committed to life in America, and unable to return to the home she loves, she kills herself.
Ichiro’s friend Freddie, a fellow no-no boy, is also unable to adjust to life after the war. He’s been out of prison for a few weeks longer than Ichiro, and although Ichiro initially goes to see his friend for comfort, he can tell that Freddie "could be of no help to anyone else because he too was alone against the world which he had denounced." Freddie "was waging a shallow struggle with a to-hell-with-the-rest-of-the-world attitude, and wasn't being very successful." As the novel progresses, Freddie makes it clear that he has no desire to reintegrate into society. He has no job, no dreams of the future. Ichiro compares Freddie’s life to “being on a pair of waterskies, skimming over the top as long as one traveled at a reasonable speed, but, the moment he slowed down or stopped, it was to sink into nothingness that offered no real support.” Freddie, who lives life at high speeds to avoid spending any time on self-reflection, eventually dies as a result of his inability to slow down. First he picks a fight, and then he speeds away and is killed in his getaway car.
Many of the central characters in No-No Boy die before the novel is over. Kenji dies as a result of his war injury, Mrs. Yamada kills herself, and Freddie dies in a car crash. However, these deaths are different in important ways. Although Kenji suffers both physically and mentally, he has come to peace with his life—including his past and his future. He tells Ichiro he would not trade his life for Ichiro’s, and although he is unlucky, he is settled in his life and looks to the future without fear. Meanwhile, both Ichiro’s mother and Freddie are desperately unhappy, each unsuccessfully searching for ways to escape their misery. Ichiro observes his friends and family, and is given the opportunity to decide how he wants to proceed. He sees that those who are unable to cope with the past are unable to live in the present or imagine a future. He sees that, although the wartime traumas of internment and imprisonment may never disappear, there are ways to cope and move forward that would allow him to live a full life, while dwelling in the pain of the past only leads to greater suffering.
Healing in the Aftermath of War ThemeTracker
Healing in the Aftermath of War 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.
The round face wasn’t smiling any more. It was thoughtful. The eyes confronted Ichiro with indecision which changed slowly to enlightenment and then to suspicion. He remembered. He knew.
The friendliness was gone as he said: “No-no boy, huh?”
Ichiro wanted to say yes. He wanted to return the look of despising hatred and say simply yes, but it was too much to say. The walls had closed in and were crushing all the unspoken words back down into his stomach. He shook his head once, not wanting to evade the yes but finding it impossible to meet them…
“Rotten bastard. Shit on you.” Eto coughed up a mouthful of sputum and rolled his words around it: “Rotten, no-good bastard.”
Surprisingly, Ichiro felt relieved. Eto’s anger seemed to serve as a release to his own naked tensions. As he stooped to lift the suitcase a wet wad splattered over his hand and dripped onto the black leather. The legs of his accuser were in front of him. God in a pair of green fatigues, U.S. Army style. They were the legs of the jury that had passed sentence on him. Beseech me, they seemed to say, throw your arms about me and bury your head between my knees and seek pardon for your great sin.
“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.
“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.
…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.
Time would ease the rupture which now separated him from the young Japanese who were Americans because they had fought for America and believed in it. And time would destroy the old Japanese who, living in America and being denied a place as citizens, nevertheless had become inextricably a part of the country which by its vastness and goodness and fairness and plentitude drew them into its fold, or else they would not have understood why it was that their sons, who looked as Japanese as they themselves, were not Japanese at all but Americans of the country America. In time, he thought, in time there will be a place for me. I will buy a home and love my family and I will walk down the street holding my son’s hand and people will stop and talk with us about the weather and the ball games and the elections. I will take my family to visit the family of Freddie, whom I have just left as I did because time has not yet done its work, and our families together will visit still another family whose father was two years in the army of America instead of two years in prison and it will not matter about the past, for time will have erased it from our memories and there will be only joy and sorrow and sickness, which is the way things should be.
And, as his heart mercifully stacked the blocks of hope into the pattern of an America which would someday hold an unquestioned place for him, his mind said no, it is not to be, and the castle tumbled and was swallowed up by the darkness of his soul, for time might cloud the memories of others but the trouble was inside of him and time would not soften that.
For a brief moment Ichiro felt a strange exhilaration. He had been envying Kenji with his new Oldsmobile, which was fixed to be driven with a right leg that wasn’t there any more, because the leg that wasn’t there had been amputated in a field hospital, which meant that Kenji was a veteran of the army of America and had every right to laugh and love and hope, because one could do that even if one of his legs was gone…
[Ichiro] gripped his knees with his hands, squeezing the hard soundness of the bony flesh and muscles, and fought off the sadness which seemed only to have deepened after the moment of relief. Kenji had two years, maybe a lifetime if the thing that was chewing away at him suddenly stopped. But he, Ichiro, had stopped living two years ago.
I’ll change with you, Kenji, he thought. Give me the stump which gives you the right to hold your head high. Give me the eleven inches which are beginning to hurt again and bring ever closer the fear of approaching death, and give me with it the fullness of yourself which is also yours because you were man enough to wish the thing which destroyed your leg and, perhaps, you with it but, at the same time, made it so that you can put your one good foot in the dirt of America and know that the wet coolness of it is yours beyond a single doubt.
“If it were [possible], Ken, if it were and there was just half an inch to trade for my fifty years, would you then?”
Kenji thought about that for a long while. “When it comes to the last half an inch and it starts to hurt, I’ll sell the car and spend the rest of my life sitting here with a drink in my hand and feeling good.”
“That means no, of course.”
“That means no, yes.”
“Thanks for being honest.”
So they sat silently through the next drink, one already dead but still alive and contemplating the next fifty or sixty years more of dead aliveness, and the other, living and dying slowly. They were two extremes, the Japanese who was more American than most Americans because he had crept to the brink of death for America, and the other who was neither Japanese nor American because he had failed to recognize the gift of his birthright when recognition meant everything.
“Mike was born in California and went to college there. He knocked around for a while and was doing graduate work in Louisiana when the war, the first world war, started. He’d left California because he didn’t like the way the white people treated the Japanese and he was happy in Louisiana because they treated him like a white man there. So, when the war came, he wanted to get into it and did. He spent a year in France, came back, joined the VFW, returned to California, and got into the produce business. He did well, got married, and had two children. Then the second war started. When talk about the evacuation started, he wouldn’t believe it. He was an American and a veteran of the first war. He thought there might be justification in interning some of the outspokenly pro-Japanese aliens, but he scoffed at the idea of the government doing such a thing to him. When it became apparent that the government proposed to do just that, he burst into a fury of anger and bitterness and swore that if they treated him like a Japanese, he would act like one. Well, you know what happened and he stuck to his words. Along with the other rabidly pro-Japanese, he ended up at the Tule Lake Center, and became a leader in the troublemaking, the strikes and the riots. His wife and children remained in this country, but he elected to go to Japan, a country he didn’t know or love, and I’m sure he’s extremely unhappy.”
“I can’t say I blame him.”
“I’m sure he wishes he were back here.”
[Ichiro] patted her back awkwardly, trying to think of what to say to soothe her.
“Ralph won’t come back because of Mike. He’s ashamed,” she whimpered. “How am I to tell him that it makes no difference what Mike has done? Why is it that Ralph feels he must punish himself for Mike’s mistake? Why?”
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.
…As he thought about Mr. Carrick and their conversation time and time again, its meaning for him evolved into a singularly comforting thought. There was someone who cared. Surely there were others too who understood the suffering of the small and the weak and, yes, even the seemingly treasonous, and offered a way back into the great compassionate stream of life that is America. Under the hard, tough cloak of the struggle for existence in which money and enormous white refrigerators and shining, massive, brutally-fast cars and fine, expensive clothing had ostensibly overwhelmed the qualities of men that were good and gentle and just, there still beat a heart of kindness and patience and forgiveness.
Where is the place that they talk of and paint nice pictures of and describe in all the homey magazines? Where is that place with the clean, white cottages surrounding the new, red-brick church with the clean, white steeple, where the families all have two children, one boy and one girl, and a shiny new car in the garage and a dog and a cat and life is like living in the land of the happily-ever-after? Surely it must be around here someplace, someplace in America. Or is it just that it’s not for me? Maybe I dealt myself out, but what about that young kid on Burnside who was in the army and found it wasn’t enough so that he has to keep proving to everyone who comes in for a cup of coffee that he was fighting for his country like the button on his shirt says he did because the army didn’t do anything about his face to make him look more American? … Even Mr. Carrick. Why isn’t he in? Why is he on the outside squandering his goodness on outcasts like me? Maybe the answer is that there is no in. Maybe the whole damned country is pushing and shoving and screaming to get into someplace that doesn’t exist, because they don’t know that the outside could be the inside if only they would stop all this pushing and shoving and screaming, and they haven’t got enough sense to realize that.
“Have a drink for me. Drink to wherever it is I’m headed, and don’t let there be any Japs or Chinks or Jews or Poles or Niggers or Frenchies, but only people. I think about that too. I think about that most of all. You know why?”
He shook his head and Kenji seemed to know he would even though he was still staring out the window. “He was up on the roof of the barn and I shot him, killed him. I see him rolling down the roof. I see him all the time now and that’s why I want this other place to have only people because if I’m still a Jap there and this guy’s still a German, I’ll have to shoot him again and I don’t want to have to do that. Then maybe there is no someplace else. Maybe dying is it. The finish. The end. Nothing. I’d like that too. Better an absolute nothing than half a meaning…”
He was enjoying it and he felt that Emi was too. This is the way it ought to be, he thought to himself, to be able to dance with a girl you like and really get a kick out of it because everything is on an even keel and one’s worries are only the usual ones of unpaid bills and sickness in the family and being late to work too often. Why can’t it be that way for me? Nobody’s looking twice at us… Everything’s the same, just as it used to be. No bad feelings except for those that have always existed and probably always will. It’s a matter of attitude. Mine needs changing. I’ve got to love the world the way I used to. I’ve got to love it and the people so I’ll feel good, and feeling good will make life worth while. There’s no point in crying about what’s done. There’s a place for me and Emi and Freddie here on the dance floor and out there in the hustle of things if we’ll let it be that way. I’ve been fighting it and hating it and letting my bitterness against myself and Ma and Pa and even Taro throw the whole universe out of perspective. I want only to go on living and be happy. I’ve only to let myself do so.
“It was good, the years I rotted in prison. I got the lead out of my ass and the talk out of my system. I died in prison. And when I came back to life, all that really mattered for me was to make a painting. I came home and said hello to the family and tried to talk to them, but there was nothing to talk about. I didn’t stay. I found a room next to the sky, a big, drafty attic atop a dilapidated mansion full of boarders who mind their own business. Old friends are now strangers. I’ve no one to talk to and no desire to talk, for I have nothing to say except what comes out of my paint tubes and brushes. During the day, I paint for my keep. At night, I paint for myself. The picture I want is inside of me. I’m groping for it and it gives me peace and satisfaction. For me, the cup is overflowing.”
He turned and the peace he spoke of was clearly written on his face: “What was unfortunate for you was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Ichiro put a hand on Bull’s shoulder, sharing the empty sorrow in the hulking body, feeling the terrible loneliness of the distressed wails, and saying nothing. He gave the shoulder a tender squeeze, patted the head once tenderly, and began to walk slowly down the alley away from the brightness of the club and the morbidity of the crowd. He wanted to think about Ken and Freddie and Mr. Carrick and the man who had bought the drinks for him and Emi, about the Negro who stood up for Gary, and about Bull, who was an infant crying in the darkness. A glimmer of hope—was that it? It was there, someplace. He couldn’t see it to put it into words, but the feeling was pretty strong.
He walked along, thinking, searching, thinking and probing, and, in the darkness of the alley of the community that was a tiny bit of America, he chased that faint and elusive insinuation of promise as it continued to take shape in mind and in heart.