At the center of No-No Boy is the question of what it means to be American, and what it means to be Japanese. The protagonist, Ichiro, is a second-generation Japanese-American immigrant. His parents were born in Japan and moved to the United States with the intention of returning to Japan when they had become wealthy, and they remain loyal to Japan even after decades in America. Ichiro, in contrast, was born in America, and has become at least “half an American.” He does not speak Japanese well, and has never visited Japan. Although he and he parents both live in Seattle, they experience the city differently. For Ichiro, the city is home—the only world he has ever known. For his parents, however, Seattle is just a pit stop on their way to a more comfortable retirement in their home country. Questions of national and cultural identity are often complicated for second-generation immigrants, and this is especially true for the second-generation Japanese-Americans who, like Ichiro, were forced to declare allegiance to either America or Japan during World War II. This group, known as the Nisei, found themselves unable to be fully Japanese or fully American, torn between the country in which they grew up and the country of their ancestors. By pointing out the downsides of rigid conceptions of national identity, especially those that ask people to declare their allegiance to one part of themselves at the expense of another, Okada ultimately seems to argue that national and cultural identity can and should be fluid.
Many of the characters in No-No Boy live in America but cling tightly to their Japanese identity. Even those who had begun to feel American in the years and decades leading up to the second World War are shocked out of any sense of loyalty to their adopted nation when the government rounds them up and locks them in internment camps—under the pretense that they are not truly American, and pose a threat to national security because of their loyalty to the enemy nation of Japan. Ichiro describes how his parents "had lived in America for thirty-five years without becoming less Japanese and could only speak a few broken words of English and write it not at all." They were uninterested in assimilating into American society, having come to the United States with the intention of staying only temporarily. When Ichiro is drafted, he refuses to fight for America and is imprisoned. Ichiro understands how his rejection of the draft appears to others. He feels that he is looked upon with contempt, and that in their gazes people are saying to him, “This is America, which is for Americans. You have spent two years in prison to prove that you are Japanese—go to Japan!” In this way, Ichiro notes how others create an opposition between Japanese identity and American identity, effectively denying him the right to be both at once. Because he refuses to fight for America, others label Ichiro un-American and fully Japanese, although he himself feels that his identity is much more complex than that.
Tens of thousands of Nisei, and even some Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants), attempt to prove their Americanness by risking their lives for America at war. This was an especially difficult decision, as most Japanese men were drafted only after being imprisoned in internment camps by the government under the pretense that they were in fact not true Americans. By fighting for their country these men hoped to prove the government wrong. Although Ichiro himself refuses to fight for America, he understands why so many young men agreed to enlist. He knows that "for each and every refusal based on sundry reasons, another thousand chose to fight for the right to continue to be Americans because homes and cars and money could be regained but only if they first regained their rights as citizens, and that was everything." During a hearing before the draft board, one young man argues that he should fight for the United States because he is a “good American.” He says, "maybe I look Japanese and my father and mother and brothers and sisters look Japanese, but we're better Americans than the regular ones because that's the way it has to be when one looks Japanese but is really a good American. We're not like the other Japanese who aren't good Americans like us. We’re more like you and the other, regular Americans." According to this young man, a “regular American” is a white American, and being a “good” Japanese-American means acting less Japanese. The two identities, at least during wartime, are presented as mutually exclusive.
Some Nisei, feeling that they are neither fully Japanese nor fully American, struggle to find a clear sense of identity. This dilemma becomes especially fraught when they are called for the draft and must decide whether they will fight for America or be imprisoned for their loyalty to Japan. After being released from prison, Ichiro extensively meditates on whether he is American or Japanese. He sees his mother as his primary tie to Japan, and blames her for preventing him from becoming fully and happily American. He explains, "there came a time when I was only half Japanese because one 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.” However, he is still “half my mother,” and “thereby still half Japanese,” and this is the part of him that wins when he is forced to choose whether or not to reject the draft. Although Ichiro became American by virtue of being born in America, his loyalty to his mother, which he curses and regrets, prevented him from feeling American enough to fight for America in the war.
Ichiro also recalls the arguments of his fellow Japanese-American men who were called upon to answer the draft. Each had a complicated split identity, although each felt differently about the ways in which he was both Japanese and American. One man says that the government “can't make me go in the army because I'm not an American,” arguing that if he were truly an American they “wouldn't have plucked me and mine from a life that was good and meaningful and fenced me in the desert like they do the Jews in Germany.” Although this man had once felt like an American, the government’s treatment of him and his family had convinced him that, whatever he had felt before, he had been mistaken. Another man argues that, “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 went back to Japan when I was two years old and couldn't know him if I saw him, it's the feeling that counts, and what can a fellow do?” Although he is American, he cannot help that part of his family remains Japanese, leaving him with a feeling of deep connection to a country that is now an enemy of the United States.
Many of the characters within No-No Boy see the question of identity as a simple one: Japanese people are those loyal to Japan, while Americans are those loyal to America. In reality, however, the intersections between personal history and national identity are more complicated. For Ichiro and many Japanese-Americans like him, it is hard to choose between the country where they were raised and the country of their ancestry. Similarly, it is hard to choose between Japan—a country many of them have never even seen—and America, a country that has disenfranchised them as citizens and corralled them into internment camps before finally calling them to risk their lives in the American military. To be Japanese or to be American, No-No Boy shows, is not a mutually exclusive proposition, as many within the novel think it to be. Instead, to be a human—and especially to be a second-generation immigrant—is always to have more than one identity, and to contain those identities fully and simultaneously despite what others may see as their contradictions.
Japanese vs. American Identity ThemeTracker
Japanese vs. American Identity 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 war had wrought violent changes upon the people, and the people, in turn, working hard and living hard and earning a lot of money and spending it on whatever was available, had distorted the profile of Jackson Street. The street had about it the air of a carnival without quite succeeding at becoming one. A shooting gallery stood where once had been a clothing store; fish and chips had replaced a jewelry shop; and a bunch of Negroes were horsing around raucously in front of a pool parlor…
He walked past the pool parlor, picking his way gingerly among the Negroes, of whom there had been only a few at one time and of whom there seemed to be nothing but now…
“Go back to Tokyo, boy.” Persecution in the drawl of the persecuted…
Friggin’ niggers, he uttered savagely to himself and, from the same place deep down inside where tolerance for the Negroes and the Jews and the Mexicans and the Chinese and the too short and the too fat and too ugly abided because he was Japanese and knew what it was like better than did those who were white and average and middle class and good Democrats or liberal Republicans, the hate which was unrelenting and terrifying seethed up.
“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.
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.
“…We’re American and …we’re Japanese and sometimes the two don’t mix. It’s all right to be German and American or Italian and American or Russian and American but, as things turned out, it wasn’t all right to be Japanese and American. You had to be one or the other.”
“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?”
“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 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.
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.
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.
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.