Ichiro, the protagonist of No-No Boy, experiences discrimination from many sides. He is discriminated against by white Americans for being Japanese, and he is also shunned by many of his fellow Japanese-Americans because he refused the draft and went to prison. Experiencing this kind of hatred and prejudice makes Ichiro extremely sensitive to the mistreatment of others. Instead of becoming angry at his own mistreatment, however, he is more frustrated by a world in which there is so much animosity between people who are essentially the same. Ichiro sees that many minority groups, although subjected to mistreatment, only find others to mistreat in turn. Race, ethnicity, and perceived national allegiances are used to discriminate against people and deny them opportunities. However, Ichiro’s optimism in the face of intense discrimination raises the possibility of a future in which there is no racism or prejudice, and in which every member of society can live together peacefully, if America’s citizens can look past each other’s physical or cultural differences to their underlying humanity.
In No-No Boy, every Japanese and Japanese-American character has faced intense mistreatment and discrimination because of their race. Indeed, institutional discrimination against the Japanese is at the heart of No-No Boy and the history of Japanese immigrants in America. Laws regarding where Japanese people could live and work led many of them into segregated neighborhoods and low-paying jobs. When WWII began, and Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor, anyone with Japanese ancestry living in America was rounded up and sent to internment camps, where they were kept in extremely poor living conditions for four years. As one no-no boy points out when he is called to fight for the United States Army, the United States operated according to a clear double standard in rounding up only Japanese people, since the enemy forces in World War II were also German and Italian. As this unnamed no-no boy argues, why, if “you couldn't have loyal Japanese when Japan is the country you're fighting…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… what do you think they'll say when you try to draft them into your army of the country that is for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?” Notably, only the non-white Japanese were deemed to be a threat, while German and Italian Americans were allowed to continue living their lives. This no-no boy’s prescient observation underscores the racism behind the internment of the Japanese during World War II.
No-no boys, in addition to facing discrimination because they are Japanese, face an additional level of hatred and disdain because of their refusal to prove themselves “good Americans” by fighting in the war. Conversely, some Issei, like Ichiro’s mother Mrs. Yamada, look down upon the second-generation Japanese men who did choose to serve. Yet Ichiro and his fellow no-no boys like Freddie and Gary are also rejected not just by mainstream (white) American society, but by many of their fellow Japanese friends and family. Upon being released from prison, one of the first people Ichiro meets is Eto, another Japanese man, but one who served in the military. Eto is friendly until he realizes that Ichiro is a no-no boy, at which point he calls him a “rotten, no-good bastard,” and spits on him. Freddie explains how many of the no-no boys are working the “same crummy jobs,” for the “same rotten pay. Before the war the Japs got what the white guys didn't want. Now, if we want work, we take the jobs the good Japs don't want." Thus, even within a marginalized community, the no-no boys are further marginalized.
Discrimination was, of course, widespread in mid-century America, and took many forms. Ichiro sees the ways that different minority groups pick on each other, and he sees little solidarity, despite the fact that many people are experiencing similar struggles. He is relieved and inspired by brief moments with men and women who seem to be able to look past differences of race, ethnicity, and nationality, but knows these moments are few and far between. Ichiro observes, "One only had to look about to see all the hatred in the world. Where was all the goodness that people talked about, the goodness of which there was never quite enough to offset the hatred?" He thinks specifically of a church in Idaho, which he visited when working as a migrant farmhand during his internment. At one church he felt immediately unwelcome, and after the service a white man leaned out of his car and told Ichiro and his friend, Tommy, that “One Jap is too many” and they shouldn’t come back. Several weeks later, Tommy found a different, ostensibly more accepting church. Ichiro went for several weeks, until one week he noticed an old black man standing in the back of the church. No one set out a chair for him, and no one acknowledged him. This upset Ichiro, who saw that although this church was willing to accept the Japanese, they were unwilling to accept African Americans. Tommy argued that, because this church liked them, they were “in no position to stick out [their] necks.” Ichiro rejects this response, and refuses to return to a church that he feels is discriminating against anyone.
Unfortunately, however, discrimination works in many directions. Ichiro notes, “half a billion Chinamen…hated the ninety million Japanese and only got hatred in return.” Early in the novel some African American men on the street tell him to “Go back to Tokyo.” Ichiro recognizes that so many people are “on the outside looking in,” and turn against each other to prove that they are the most American in hopes of gaining mainstream acceptance by “true” white Americans. Still, Ichiro remains committed to tolerance, and has a “place deep down inside where tolerance for the Negroes and the Jews and the Mexicans and the Chinese and the too short and too fat and too ugly abided because he was Japanese and knew what it was like better than those who were white and average and middle class and good Democrats or liberal Republicans.” He rarely meets others with similar tolerances for people unlike them, but his heart is warmed when he does. Mr. Carrick, an engineer in Portland, is one such man, who offers Ichiro a job for more pay than he would have given to a white applicant. Although Ichiro turns him down, Mr. Carrick becomes a symbol of a more accepting America, and one that even takes action to acknowledge and undo its sins of racism—an America that Ichiro could learn to love again.
In the book’s final pages, Ichiro feels “a glimmer of hope,” imagining a future where racial divisions are not so strong, and where discrimination and prejudice are not so prevalent. Although he has been raised in a world where racism determines governmental policy itself, he is not so jaded as to believe the world cannot change for the better. Although Ichiro is treated poorly by white Americans, black Americans, and even fellow Japanese Americans, his belief in a future where America can become the melting pot it has often claimed to be suggests there is hope for the nation after all.
Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism ThemeTracker
Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism 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.
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.
…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.
“…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?”
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.
A few days later Tommy, reluctant to lose one who had appeared such a promising recruit, tried to justify the incident. “The ways of the Lord are often mysterious,” he had said. “There are some things which we cannot hope to understand. You will feel better by next Sunday.”
“Save the holy crap for yourself,” he had replied. “Seems to me like you goddamned good Christians have the supply spread out pretty thin right now.”
And then Tommy had revealed himself for the poor, frightened, mistreated Japanese that he was. “Holy cow!” he had exclaimed in a frantic cry, “they like us. They treat us fine. We’re in no position to stick out our necks when we’ve got enough troubles of our own.”
“Good deal. You hang on to it, will you? Son of a bitch like you needs a good thing like that.”