Looking At John Okadas No No Boy English Literature Essay

Right from the beginning of John Okada’s No No Boy there is the juxtaposition of the Japanese-Americans returning from internment camps at the end of World War II and the Japanese-Americans that pledged themselves to the U.S. Military returning from service overseas. Ichiro Yamada, the protagonist, is facing a personal dilemma of national identity. He blames his stubborn Japanese heritage for him getting locked up, and the Americans were the ones that did the locking. His parents speak only Japanese in defiance to American influence. Despite being born and raised in America, Ichiro claims to be a Japanese nationalist and is consequentially imprisoned. His mother claims that the entire family is wholly Japanese, although Ichiro has never been to Japan. This generational conflict that’s common in immigrant families is the spur for Ichiro’s identity crisis throughout the novel.

The one exception to the hostility of the generational split lies in Ichiro’s friendship with Kenji. Kenji is a decorated war hero that was rewarded for his military efforts with material possessions from the federal government. He doesn’t condemn Ichiro for his decision. He instead provides Ichiro a valuable glimpse at the extravagant reward of assimilation, but the image is tainted with the gangrenous injury he sustained in the service. Kenji’s character is polarized by that of Freddie. He is an old friend of Ichiro’s and a fellow No No Boy that is determined to run from his problems with society and his family instead of dealing with them rationally like an adult.

Okada associates everything maternal in the story with Japanese loyalty. Ichiro blames his Japanese nationalist mother as the reason that he became a No No Boy in the first place. She is a nationalistic elitist in every sense of the word. She refuses to learn English during the thirty years that she lives in Seattle and doesn’t even believe the numerous reports that mighty Japan has lost the war to the Americans. To her, assimilation equals death. By contrast, Ichiro’s example of successful integration, Kenji, has a superb family life without a mother. When Mrs. Yamada finally comes to terms with Japan’s loss in the war, she drowns herself in the bathtub. The rest of the family is relieved from the alleviated expectations. Ichiro identifies his mother early on as the solitary force preventing him from reproachfully integrating into popular American culture, but her death provides a passing of the torch in Japanese nationalism and he soon finds out that his problems are of his own making.

When Ichiro comes back to Seattle, things are not what he expects. Since he was so abruptly rounded up and shipped off to an internment camp, “to prove…that they weren’t American enough to be trusted,” he anticipates discrimination among mainstream culture, but he is met with what is developing into the most accepting era in American history (p. 153). The civil rights movement is just around the corner. The hostility that he expects from white Americans doesn’t happen. The only bullying he meets is at the hands of other Japanese-Americans.

Every powerful white man that Ichiro runs into receives a good impression from him. His old Professor Brown urges him to come back to the university. Mr. Carrick offers him a job on the spot at an engineering office in Portland. Both of them are very sympathetic for what he has endured and disagree with the injustice of the whole affair, yet Ichiro rejects all them. He could assimilate if he wanted to, but he doesn’t because he is convinced that since he once rejected the United States that he is forever intolerable to it. He could have been an engineer in Oregon and ascend the social ranks. No longer would he have been a lower-class immigrant, but a shining member of the middle class. Instead, he chooses to maintain his social immobility and cultural isolation. This was a common feeling during this time, as Kenji puts it:

“They bitched and hollered when the government put them in camps and put real fences around them, but now they’re doing the same damn thing to themselves.” (p. 164)

Post-war Japanese-Americans are forcing segregation upon themselves. Most Americans, at least in this novel, prove entirely compliant in moving forwards from the past from which they came. They are willing to bring cultural diversity into their schools and workplaces, but the Japanese-Americans seem insistent on continuing their oppression.

Early in the novel, Ichiro cites the guilt of his disloyalty to the United States as a reason for not accepting any of these offers. He hasn’t fought for the country and doesn’t feel like he’s earned such lavish opportunities, so he leaves them for truly Americanized people to capitalize on. This reverence exhibited by Ichiro for American culture and those that it approves counteracts his attempts to remain loyal to his Japanese ancestry. He externalizes his need to be devoted to Japan onto his mother, but it doesn’t end when she dies. He realizes that her strict codes of Japanese loyalty were not the only thing keeping him from assimilating. Ichiro turns down another promising job offer at the Christian Reclamation Center where the owner had already hired another No No Boy.

It is no coincidence that Mrs. Yamada’s suicide is juxtaposed with Kenji’s death. The chapter in which both events are contained is the turning point in the novel. Mrs. Yamada dies because of her refusal to integrate into American society and Kenji dies from gangrene in an injury he suffered during his attempts to integrate into American society. The two extreme examples of national identity can no longer survive. Kenji tells Ichiro on his death bed that ethnic differences should be transcended to blur the lines of racial distinction, and therefore prove categorization difficult. Ichiro seems to take Kenji’s advice to heart when he plans on becoming a true American with a house and a wife and kids, only to put himself on trial moments later for his treasonous intentions. He has also inherited the voice of his mother in his brain in addition to Kenji’s – a rampant incompatibility. These opposing viewpoints eventually begin to balance each other out, and Ichiro realizes that he is neither Japanese nor American.

Ichiro began the novel concerned with improving his public image, and he gradually changes his concern to self-respect. The problem with his initial mindset is that self-esteem is determined by the will of the state. Nations create their own hegemonic value systems in this way to establish cultural standards. The notion of free choice is illusory. It is misery to continually cater to the evaluations of anonymous strangers. To project the lives of others onto oneself is to completely hide one’s own personality. Ichiro is ashamed of his disloyalty to America. He acts as if every white American thinks that he is a traitor for not demonstrating himself to the country, but his fixation is evidence that he cares more on the matter than any white character in the story. With the deaths of his mother and Kenji, Ichiro becomes startlingly aware of the importance of his self-respect, since he no longer has his mother to blame his problems on or Kenji to live out his Americanized daydreams. Ichiro begins to resist integration because, to him, it would mean forfeiting his identity in lieu of conformity. He concerns himself only with his own opinions and thinks independently of the cultural groups which surround him, as Kenji suggested he do.

The symbolism of Ichiro’s altered ideals is apparent when comparing the start and end scenes of the novel. It starts with Ichiro walking out into the downtown Plaza as he contemplates his own path of nationalism, and ends with Ichiro ducking down a dark narrow alley. That path less travelled is precisely the path that Ichiro has chosen to take in his life. He chose not to blaze the beaten paths of American ideals or Japanese elitism that everyone seemed to be treading on, but rather a small hidden passageway tucked in between the two avenues.

Throughout the novel, Emi remains an image of normalized American domesticity, and yet another failed opportunity at Americanization for Ichiro. Much like his wasted job offers, Ichiro thinks that he doesn’t deserve Emi because her husband is in the military. When she devotes herself to him, they go out dancing and Ichiro fancies the thought of being with a woman that other men want. His fixation on the men that find her attractive rather than the attractive girl herself gives the scene masculine undertones. Emi alone is not enough to sway Ichiro to commit himself to her, but the sheer interest of other men provokes Ichiro think that he has a real catch on his hands. This is a prime example of Ichiro succumbing to the opinions of the general public in America instead of listening to his own self-respect and his own opinions.

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