No-No Boy – The Second Time Around
Recently I read John Okada’s novel, No-No Boy, for the second time — you see, it’s been 32 years, to be exact, since I read this classic of Asian American literature, and I frankly wondered what new things it might reveal on a second reading.
I’m happy to report that, while I definitely enjoyed the book again as a ‘good read,’ I was reminded that No-No Boy is essentially the story of Ichiro Yamada who refused to serve in the U.S. army when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour — and for saying ´no’, Ichiro was interned for two years and jailed for two years. That’s the simple version of Ichiro’s story as it opens with his release back into ‘civilization’ and his hometown of Seattle, Washington, at the ripe age of 25.
“He was Ichiro who had said no to the judge and had thereby turned his back on the army and the country and the world and his own self.” [p: 40] Or “… that being American is a terribly incomplete thing if one´s face is not white and one´s parents are Japanese of the country Japan which attacked America.” [p:54]
These two small excerpts reveal that Okada’s novel has always been more than a condemnation of the internment of Japanese Americans — it’s Okada’s bittersweet love letter written to America; by the way, you can readily replace the word ‘America’ with ‘Canada’ and still retain the meaning of his words.
This time, a major truth leapt out of the pages — You have to understand the times you’re talking about.
So often these days — and I do think it’s a good thing — many Yonsei and younger family members protest that they wouldn’t allow themselves to be interned, ever! They would resist, organize, and refuse to co-operate with the RCMP and the local police standing large and loud in the front door — Really?
Let’s remember: there were the resistors (the ‘ganbari’) who ended up in Angler, northern Ontario. Among the ‘ganbari’ interned were those who simply asked the government to keep our families together, and not break them apart — which is, of course, what the government did.
In this year 2015, let’s look at two parallel examples — ‘police carding’ in Toronto, and the ‘kettling’ measures used to incarcerate crowds of passersby during the G-20 summit protests.
Question — How much resistance to these repressive actions was there? People got jailed by the police.
How is this all that different from the widespread sudden loss of individual freedom (the internment) Japanese Canadians went through during WW2? Pack up and go.
Here’s another question — How much of a say do Japanese Canadians really have in their lives? For that matter, what say do most Canadians really have over their lives? The government, the police, the RCMP, we do what they say.
No-No Boy also got me thinking about the War Measures Act which put us into the camps and how it was used again by Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau during the Quebec Crisis in 1970 and is still in the books. The War Measures Act allows the federal government to freely incarcerate any citizens suspected of any acts of treason during a time of war. Suspected. Incarceration without judge and trial.
And let’s remember — in the days right before WW2, JCs could not vote. They went to school and jobs with other Canadians, but at the end of the day, they largely returned to their Japanese Canadian homes.
So on a surface level, JCs lived an accepted and ‘acceptable’ existence in Canadian society; whereas, in reality, they lived a segregated (‘separate but equal’) life, a marginalized life. Or, to look at things from a very different angle, and to paraphrase the great African American bass player, composer, social activist, difficult band leader, engaging biographer (Beneath the Underdog), the uniquely creative and ‘real’, Charles Mingus: ‘If I were white, I’d know what it means to be free.’
But to return to No-No Boy: it’s the aftermath of the internment and our hero, Ichiro Yamada, returns to the daily life of his Seattle neighbourhood and his parent’s humble corner store. (The unadorned street descriptions made me visualize Richards Street, Cordova and Powell, in Vancouver.)
Along the way, Ichiro meets several acquaintances from the old neighbourhood, among them, Kenji Kanno, Ichiro’s one true friend and brave ally whose right leg is useless from serving in the army, but Kenji harbours no bad feelings towards Ichiro for not ‘serving’ and gladly drives Ichiro around to neighbourhood bars — Club Oriental and even the Trianon — in his sleek Oldsmobile. It’s also Kenji who brings together Ichiro and the beautiful Japanese American woman Emi, who is frankly available to love another Japanese man because her Nisei husband, Ralph, is still stationed in Germany and increasingly seems more wed to the war and being a soldier than being wed to her. Emi is waiting for him and in another sense is not waiting for him.
Ichiro stays over with Emi in her one-bedroom house, and the next morning Emi serves, fictionallyspeaking, as a contrasting voice of opinion when she says to Kenji, “You’re bitter and you’ve no right to be.” [p: 91] Emi has her own view of America. After breakfast, Ichiro and Kenji leave Emi and her house.
What a poignant, gut-filled moment in the story of Ichiro Yamada, the pilloried ‘no-no’ boy who originally followed the dictates of his mother and refused to enlist in the U.S. army, only to discover that his mother — but not his father — was one of those Japanese nationals who still firmly believed that Japan won the war.
And what a revealing moment is this love story of Ichiro and Emi — rather than living happily ever after, they don’t become a couple, there’s no storybook ending, and Ichiro continues on alone. This is the way of Okada’s novel.
And because No-No Boy ends the way it started, with Ichiro living, observing, and narrating in a heightened mental and emotional state, I’ve not spoiled anything. You see, there’s really no solution for Ichiro Yamada’s psychological stress and general malaise right after the internment and the two year jail term he served. As a Japanese American, he already served, and America is still a work-in-progress.
“… the trouble was inside of him and time would not soften that.” [p: 52]
Ichiro quietly yearns to be a part of America, his birthplace, but at the same time he self-identifies as a Nisei and he doesn’t turn away from what he sees. So far, Japanese Canadian fictional writing has not intertwined these two major strands of a Nisei identity, but Okada’s novel has.
To find these two parts of a Japanese American identity working away in a novel is a good thing. There’s a lot of feeling and mood in this novel and it’s rendered in a language that made me think of the American novelist, Theodore Dreiser. I don’t think their writing’s the same. I’m saying there’s a large scale to their stories and the language it’s written in grows more effective the more it’s repeated.
In a dramatic scene — close to the end of the book — Ichiro literally slips away down an alley as the police arrive at the sudden street incident that’s erupted. Although Ichiro’s innocent, his quick avoidance and justifiable fear of the powers-that-be, ‘the cops’, is surely born and bred of his internment experience as well as a hard-won mistrust of the police who we’re always taught, are empowered by society to keep order and to keep us safe.
“He walked alone, thinking, searching, thinking and probing, and, in the darkness of the alley of the community that was a tiny bit of America he chased that faint and elusive insinuation of promise as it continued to take shape in mind and heart.” [p: 251]
No-No Boy is not about being passive, confused, silent, or Asian. Like a nerve chart, it registers Ichiro’s human and lonely struggle to find his true self in the large and often confusing post-internment world of America.
I’ve previously suggested that No-No Boy is also the story of Japanese Canadians. After this second reading, I know this is true.
by John Okada
University of Washington Press edition first published in 1979
Copyright © 1976 by Dorothy Okada
University of Washington Press
(Note: I’ve read that as early as 1957, the original hardcover and paperback editions were published by Charles E. Tuttle in Rutland, Vermont, and Tokyo, Japan.)