The book No-No Boy by John Okada has been a favorite of mine since I first encountered it in Professor Seiler’s class entitled “War, Race and American Literature Since WWII”. I’ve been drawn back to this text once again as I think about relevant primary sources that engage the reader in a personal account of what its like to return to an imagined “home” after fighting in a war for a country you only slightly consider yourself a citizen of – and all of the emotional and physical traumas that are suffered as a result. The Japanese-American community, which is highlighted in this novel through the main protagonist, Ichiro, is explored through the main tropes of identity, belonging, and the unequal balance between juggling two cultures as a Japanese-American. This text develops multiple layers of Ichiro’s life, who acts as a stand-in for the Japanese community in America as a whole, by explaining the internal battle he has regarding serving in an army that he considers foreign, while also uncovering his external battle with friends and family who question his decisions on not fighting for the US, but also not being wholly American either.
When I first encountered this book, I was merely reading it for a class to understand how it contributed to the larger scope of work we were studying, and how it fit within the description of how literature changed after WWII. Because of these circumstances, I only scratched the surface of the major themes working together in the book that created this accurate portrayal of life for an American citizen who is struggling with balancing two separate and very unrelated cultures. Although I read the text and was aware of these themes – identity, self-discovery, lost sense of home, cultural frustration, etc. – I was unable to situate them within a larger conversation, nor was I able to see how this writing could have been a representation of the author’s actual experiences as well.
NJohn Okada, a Japanese-American citizen himself who resided in Seattle for the majority of his life, wrote No-No Boy as a way to express his own experiences with balancing dual cultures in an America that was highly prejudice against Japanese citizens during this time, due to Pearl Harbor and WWII. Through Okada’s personal account, the main protagonist, Ichiro, expresses his confusion right off the bat, stating to his mother (but, more broadly, to America) “I am not your son, I am not Japanese, I am not American” (12), suggesting that the author, much like Ichiro, has a conflicting relationship with the two types of identities he has – as an American man and as a Japanese man. On a similar note, Ichiro expresses his awareness of his conflicting cultural background, stating “…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” (10). Once again, Ichiro states how he feels American because he lives on American soil, but yet he still is bound to Japan because he feels that culture in a more intimate way than he feels the American culture.
Upon first reading statements like these made by Ichiro, I understood them as him disobeying his family’s wants and rebelling as a teenager who went off to war to fight. After rereading these same passages in a more analytical way, I was able to understand these reactions as a way for Ichiro to express his pain and lost sense of self he is experiencing as a Japanese man. Not only is he a Japanese man in America during a controversial time, but he also feels extremely connected to his culture, and is forced to take a side and fight for a country he resides in, but doesn’t completely feel connected to what would compel him to fight otherwise. The underlying message of Okada’s No-No Boy has less to do with a young boy rebelling against his parents wishes, and more to do with how Ichiro 1) is battling with his identity and where he stands as both an American man and a Japanese man and 2) how Ichiro stands in for not only the author, John Okada, but countless other Japanese-American citizens who struggled with this same internal battle during the 1940s, when this novel takes place.
Okada, John. No-No Boy. Combined Asian American Resources Project, 1976.