“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.