All Those Before the Judge: Shifting Perspectives in “No-No Boy”

Often times when we are stressed, we picture a scenario in our head in which the conflict is taking place. Perhaps we are afraid of confessing a secret to a friend and therefore need to play out all possible responses and how to address them. Or maybe we are dreading a class presentation and thus need to practice things to say and observe how they sound. An example of this subconscious response to a problem is presented in John Okada’s No-No Boy in the form of an interesting narrative style.

Ichiro Yamada, the protagonist of the novel, is plagued with feelings of anger, confusion, guilt, and hopelessness after returning to Seattle from prison. He is unsure of what to do with his life or who he truly is because as a “no-no boy”, he is constantly rejected by friends, family, and strangers alike. Tormented by these emotions, Ichiro’s thoughts burst forward onto the pages of the novel, usually in streams of consciousness or through the eyes of different characters.

1957 cover of “No-No Boy”

In one instant of the story, Ichiro’s inner turmoil over whether or not he made the right decision to say “no” twice on the loyalty questionnaire becomes a flashback to when he had to face the judge with his reasoning. Ichiro’s perspective, however, is not the only one present in the flashback. We get to see other no-no boys give their reasons for not joining the U.S. army:

“You can’t make me go into 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…” (Okada 30)

“If you think we’re the same kind of rotten Japanese that dropped the bombs on Pearl Harbour, and it’s plain that you do or I wouldn’t be here having to explain to you why it is that I won’t go and protect sons-of-bitches like you…” (Okada 30)

“I can’t go because my brother is in the Japanese army…” (Okada 31)

We thus see Ichiro dealing with his problems by reflecting on the past through the eyes of multiple no-no boys. Interestingly, there are no quotation marks, italics, or other forms of dialogue that are usually present in flashbacks, making this scene seem like it was all just a collection of Ichiro’s own thoughts. In fact, Okada later writes, “And then Ichiro thought to himself: My reason was all the reasons put together” (Okada 32), indicating that Okada’s unique narrative style is supposed to demonstrate how the various emotions and thoughts circling through Ichiro’s head represent the crisis that he is going through. By playing this scenario in his head, Ichiro struggles to understand who he is and to justify and cope with his reasoning.

B2

Works Cited

Okada, John. No-No Boy. University of Washington Press, 2014.

Introspection and Alienation in “No-No Boy”

Do you remember the feeling of returning to your hometown after just a semester of college? The sense of both everything and nothing being different was eerie to me. In No No Boy, John Okada conveys this feeling of detachment from the world and coming back to find everything transformed in subtle ways. The first couple chapters consist of Ichiro wandering around his hometown, feeling neither Japanese nor American, but 100% an outsider to his hometown, family, and country. The narrative style is mostly introspective, as much more is said through Ichiro’s thoughts than his actions. Okada writes Ichiro’s thoughts from a dejected and heartbroken perspective. These emotions are especially prominent when Ichiro visits his former professor.

The professor greets Ichiro saying “You’re Su…Suzu…no…Tsuji…,” immediately indicating to Ichiro that he is not as important to the professor as the professor is to him, and that he homogenizes all of his Japanese students (Okada 51). Following an impersonal and generic conversation where the professor urges him to go back to school because Ichiro hasn’t changed as much as he believes, Ichiro muses that “It was all wrong… It was seeing without meeting, talking without hearing, smiling without feeling” (Okada 52).

This quote articulates Ichiro’s emotions toward all of his interactions in the first couple chapters of No-No Boy; they permeate with feelings of not only loneliness, but also complete emptiness. When the professor greets Ichiro with a list of Japanese names while lying about remembering him, another connection from a former life completely fades away, revealing his insignificance. While it is never stated in the text, depression and alienation radiate from all of his thoughts.

Following the conversation, Ichiro agonizes over whose fault the failed conversation was, saying that he “reduces conversations to the inconsequential because Brown is of that life which [he has] forfeited and, forfeiting it, [has] lost the right to see and hear and become excited over things which are of that wonderful past” (Okada 52). Ichiro’s thoughts reflect a deep guilt and self- deprecation, shattering the model minority myth following World War II. Japanese men did not only feel alienated from American society, but also had real depression and mental health issues due to the trauma inflicted upon them simply due to their race. Okada’s point of view honors this perspective and brings it to life, creating an unflinchingly realistic point of view.

Van Gogh - Trauernder alter Mann.jpeg

Works Cited

Okada, John. No-No Boy. University of Washington Press, 2014.

Distraction and Distraction and Distraction: Something’s Always Moving on Jackson Street

More than ever, I feel like I lack the ability to focus. I’m always jostling my leg up and down, I’m always gnawing on the end of my pens, I’m always doodling into the margins of my notebooks. There’s always something to keep me occupied.

It seems that I am not the only one who needs the constant bustle of background distraction. In his novel No-No Boy, John Okada continually narrates the stream of his characters’ background actions, emphasizing the undercurrent of anxiety and avoidance that runs through the work.

When Ichiro first returns home and speaks with his father, he watches his father make tea, drink it, then immediately rise to rinse the cup. Ichiro identifies this restless series of actions, stating “He’d never realized how nervous a man his father was. The old man had been constantly doing something every minute since he had come” (Okada 10). By associating constant action with nervousness, Okada builds a connection between them.

Ichiro too commits one of these minor actions: smoking. Immediately after expressing his frustration with his father’s need for distraction, he smokes one cigarette, then “Using the butt of the first cigarette, Ichiro lit another” (Okada 11). This action fills the background of Ichiro’s conversation with his father and the following conversation with his mother. Later, Ichiro retreats to his bedroom where, unable to sit in silence, lies in bed “fighting with his burden, lighting one cigarette after another” (Okada 12). Ichiro’s drive for minor action persists through the text. Later, as he ponders his mother, “he crushed the stub of a cigarette into an ash tray filled with many other stubs and reached for the package to get another” (Okada 17), and even later, when talking to Freddie, he “walked over to the window and lit a cigarette” (Okada 44). Okada’s reference to the repetitive nature of Ichiro’s smoking transforms it into a habitual action, always used as a background distraction to an important thought or interaction. By juxtaposing continually smoking to Ichiro’s uncomfortable moments, Okada links the reference of repetitive minor activity to avoidance.

The need for occupation affects not only Ichiro and his father, but many other characters as well. Freddie also smokes; Kenji drives; Taro plays solitaire. All take up a minor action to keep themselves active.

The repetitive appearance of background motion in the text suggests an anxious undercurrent present in each character. By emphasizing the background, Okada makes clear that no one can sit still. The past remains ever present, forcing the characters to seek distraction.

Okada, John. No-No Boy. 1957. U of Washington P, 2014.

“Tense” as in Anger or “Tense” as in Grammar?: Questions of Tense in Relation to Identity in John Okada’s No-No Boy

 

Road Sign with “Past” and “Present” Grammar Tenses

Huh, I thought this novel was written in third person narration? Wait, why are we now switching back and forth between past and present tense? When reading John Okada’s No-No Boy (1957), close readers have to do several double takes to notice the subtle changes Okada slips into his work. Revolving around Ichiro Yamada, a Japanese-American who is adjusting back to life in Seattle after two years in prison, No-No Boy occurs after the Japanese bombings of Pearl Harbor. Ichiro responds “no” twice to a US survey asking him to swear allegiance to the United States, making him a “no-no boy.” An extensive paragraph, spanning all of page 16 and half of the next, begins with a shift from third person narration to first person point of view without a stylistic or punctuational distinction noting this change in perspective. However, it is the constant shift from past to present tense that develops Ichiro’s stream of consciousness, a narrative style emerging in response to a conversation Ichiro has with his mother regarding identity and their connection to Japan, a concept Ichiro is constantly contemplating after his double “no” declaration.

Japanese and American Flags

After establishing a change in point of view, Okada transitions into a change in tense to distinguish Ichiro’s conflicting identity. When describing his life and heritage before World War II, Ichiro uses the past tense. He positively proclaims, “we were Japanese with Japanese feelings and Japanese pride and Japanese thoughts because it was all right then to be Japanese” (Okada 16).  In the past, Ichiro felt a sense of “pride” in relation to his heritage. He says his people were allowed to “think all the things that Japanese do even if we lived in America” (Okada 16). During this time, Ichiro accepted his heritage because it was nothing to be ashamed of. Even though his family lived in a country different from their ancestry, it was not an attribute that needed to be hidden as Japan was not seen as an immediate threat during this time.

Further along in the paragraph, Okada continues to use the past tense; but, Ichiro’s thoughts become sullen as he acknowledges a shift that occurs as the narrative moves closer to the events of Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, Ichiro states, “I was only half Japanese” in reference to his upbringing in America (Okada 16). A divide between cultures and identities arises in this moment. On one hand, Ichiro was raised “among Americans in American streets and houses” and it is only a matter of time before he embraced this side of himself (Okada 16). However, his connection to his mother and her love for Japan becomes a setback Ichiro must confront. Before, Ichiro never had to acknowledge these conflicting aspects of his identity considering being Japanese was all he ever knew.

Yet, it is the transition into the present tense that solidifies Ichiro’s lack of a place in society. He asserts, “I am not your son and I am not Japanese and I am not American” (Okada 16). The reader first hears Ichiro’s first person narration following a conversation with his mother. In spite of his inability to establish an identity, once again Ichiro turns his rage towards his mother. He declares, “I blame you and I blame myself and I blame the world” (Okada 17). While he cannot pinpoint one culture to identity with, Ichiro has no problem identifying his feeling of hatred towards a variety of sources. Having these feelings in the present tense shows the ongoing presence of anger even when the war is over. This is a feeling still inherent in many Japanese Americans today, which Okada identifies through Ichiro.

Identity Crisis, featuring a concerned, questioning tomato.

No matter how far away one moves from the events of Pearl Harbor, it does not make confronting the realities of the treatment of Japanese any easier. Whether one confronts this issue from the past or present tense, Ichiro grapples with both, perhaps anger is the only definitive answer when faced with the absurd challenge of having to choose an identity. Ichiro is forced to make a choice. In his decision to say “no,” Ichiro severs a part of his past identity and sacrifices a potential future.  In the present, Ichiro has to live with the consequences of his decision. B2. 

Works Cited

Okada, John. No-No Boy. University of Washington Press, 2014.

A Mile a Minute: Stream of Consciousness in “No-No Boy”

jumbled text surrounding the word

Sometimes, with so much going on around me, I forget to breathe. It is not human nature to stepback and evaluate our surroundings. Rather, often we overthink and circle round and round in our heads to try to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Just as my own thoughts are sometimes messy and jumbled, reading John Okada’s No-No Boy is a chaotic experience. While some parts read like a conventional novel, much of the first three chapters is made up of rambling, interminable paragraphs that lack proper punctuation. These paragraphs, which read like a stream of consciousness, pop up each time Ichiro tries to grapple with his identity; as American, as Japanese, as both or perhaps as neither.

In one particular instance, after visiting with his friend Freddie, a “no-no boy” like himself, Ichiro embarks upon one of these long-winded inner dialogues. After wondering for ten lines how his decision not to serve in the United States military will affect his life, he comes to the conclusion that eventually people will forget that he is a “no-no boy”. “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” (Okada 48). Ichiro goes on to decide, in another ten-line mess, that someday there will indeed be a place for him in the United States, only to decide in the next paragraph that the whole matter is hopeless.

Drawing of a figure with much going on in their mind.

The entire debate flowing through Ichiro’s head lasts almost a full page and the paragraph does not break. It is full of run on sentences, and feels incredibly chaotic. This chaos, however, gives the reader the ability to feel Ichiro’s inner turmoil.The number of adjectives he gives to America, the number of times he chooses to say the words America and Japanese, and the lack of breaks within the dialogue, show how fast Ichiro’s brain is working to understand what is happening to him. At the same time, they express his deep-rooted anxiety in his identity or lack thereof.

Access to Ichiro’s thoughts does not just tell the reader what is going on, it also allows them to empathize and gives them a lens through which they can see the narrative of the “no-no boy”. B2.

Works Cited

Okada, John. No-No Boy. University of Washington Press, 2014.

Blog Post #2: No-No Brakes

You don’t need a period to end a sentence.

Well, alright, technically you do. But in the reality of the literary world, there are many other devices that can be used to simulate the use of a period without actually using one. For example, D. H. Lawrence’s work “The Elephant Is Slow To Mate” uses numerous line and stanza breaks to force the reader’s eye to slow, similar to the titular elephant’s mating speed.

A Japanese bullet train zooms over a bridge.

 

John Okada’s No-No Boy, on the other hand, reads like a Japanese bullet train.

<— Click on it.

 

But it does so with a purpose. Rather than speeding along to compensate for having nothing interesting to say, Okada establishes this frenzied pace to both help the reader insert themselves into the mind of main character Ichiro Yamada and to characterize him as a neurotic person who exhausts himself for every moment he spends inside his own head.

One of the best examples of this pacing technique in motion (no pun intended) is a section of the novel’s third chapter, where Yamada thinks over his experiences with the American educational system:

“To be a student in America studying engineering was a beautiful life. Where was the slide rule, he asked himself, where was the shaft of exacting and thrilling discovery when I had needed it most? If only I had pictured it and felt it in my hands, I might well have made the right decision, for the seeing and feeling of it would have pushed out the bitterness with the greenness of the grass on campus and the hardness of the chairs in the airy classrooms with the blackboards stretched wall-to-wall behind the professor, and the books and the sandwiches and the bus rides coming and going.”

(Okada 49)

Whew. Take a deep breath. Now, I’ve got a few questions for you.

  1. Did you notice the perspective shift?

That’s the most immediate goal of this rapid-acceleration flow of consciousness style:  This quickly-paced design refuses to allow the reader enough time to understand they’re being shoved into Yamada’s mind. The shift occurs during the above quote’s second sentence, where Okada writes, “…he asked himself, where was the shaft of exacting and thrilling discovery when I had needed it most” (Okada 49, My Bolding).  But there’s no time to halt and question perspectives, because, by the next sentence, the reader is blitzing through Yamada’s mental stream at the same rate as the character himself.

2. Did you like that long sentence? Do you want to read more of them?

These ‘dips into Yamada’s mind’ happen at multiple points during the novel, and serve to aid in his characterization. Hyper-extended lines like these can be exhausting, so Okada spaces them out to make the read more enjoyable. But there’s a catch: Yamada doesn’t get these breaks from his own mind. He’s in there 24/7, and every time we’re forced to join him, we get a brief reminder of how exhausting his thought process is. By imagining the numerous instances of these worry-rants and regret-rants Yamada pushes upon himself, the character’s harsh reactions to certain actions by other characters become more understandable.

By forcing the reader into Yamada’s mind, Okada places them in a position to understand the emotional exhaustion that often results in aggressive reactions towards those around him. Since Yamada’s struggle is very much internal, this process is nearly invisible to other characters, who see Yamada only as a high-strung individual. This further contributes to a reader’s ability to associate themselves with the character and to understand the disconnect between the reality of his emotions and how they are perceived by the outside world.

Works Cited

Lawrence, D. H. “The Elephant Is Slow to Mate.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 4 Sept. 2018, www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/elephant-slow-mate.

Okada, John. No-No Boy. University of Washington Press, 2014.

Blog Prompt #2: John Okada’s No-No Boy

Blog Post #2 Due: Wed 9/19, 8:30am // Comment #2 Due: Wed 9/19, 11:59pm

Cover of John Okada's novel, No-No BoyIntroduce and describe one specific aspect of the novel’s point of view / narrative style (from chapters 1-3) that you find especially effective or powerful. Provide a quote that illustrates this aspect of the text and offer a detailed close reading that illuminates why it is effective / powerful.