The Concept of Failure Represented by the Nisei Characters in John Okada’s 'No-No Boy'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2009 28 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. Historical Background of the Novel

3. The Selected Nisei Characters
3.1 Minor Characters
3.1.1 The Realist: Gary
3.1.2 The Traitor: Taro Yamada
3.1.3 The Impostor: Eto Minato
3.1.4 The Loudmouth: Bull
3.1.5 The Daredevil: Freddie
3.2 Major Characters
3.2.1 The Son of America: Kenji Kanno
3.2.2 The Contemplator: Ichiro Yamada

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

A proverb says: “War does not determine who is right, just who is left”. Left, that is naturally the veterans who managed not to get killed in battle and thus survived their mission. But left, that is also the ones who refused fighting in a war for their country, for whatever the reason. War and its aftermaths clearly do not take a decision on which of the two behaviors is right. It just leaves the involved people opposing each other contrarily – like left and right.

In John Okada’s novel No-No Boy, almost all of its characters are immediately confronted with the previously mentioned discord. Set in the Seattle of 1945, No-No Boy deals with the outer and inner conflicts of a young Japanese American, named Ichiro, who refused the draft by a government, which in his eyes deprived him of his identity as an American. The narration starts with its central character, Ichiro, who had just arrived at a bus station in Seattle and now sees himself confronted with a drastically changed and diverse Japanese American community. By telling the story from Ichiro’s perspective, Okada thereby convinces his audience with an authentic depiction of “a quest for self-identity under extreme circumstances” (Huang, 2006: 152) in this fragmented and torn segment of society.

Like his protagonist, Okada himself was an American-born son of Japanese immigrants, a so-called Nisei, and therefore also got evacuated from his hometown Seattle during the war years. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Okada was in his mid-twenties and, unlike Ichiro in the novel, volunteered in the US Air Force, only to get discharged again directly after the war, in 1946 (see Huang, 2006: 152). Okada therefore can be rated a prime source for rendering a Japanese-American community in Seattle which on the one hand “struggles with and seeks to recover from the disruptive effects of the internment” (Cheung & Peterson 195), and on the other hand has to deal with the repercussions of a more or less forced recruitment. Moreover, during the progress of his book, Okada confronts the topic of racism and segregation in the United States with his “painful, powerful, and nuanced messages” (Huang, 2009: 768) – some of which the United States of the 1950s were not yet ready for.

In a nutshell, No-No Boy very likely is “the first Japanese American novel to explore the relationship of the individual and his ethnic community as well as his country from the perspective of racial politics” (Huang, 2006: 152). Interestingly, despite his status as a “yes-yes boy” for not having refused the draft, Okada chose to achieve this by telling the story of the “empathically imagined […] predicament of a no-no boy” (Huang, 2009: 769) in the form of a bildungsroman.

Along his way to finding himself this “no-no boy“, Ichiro, has to take up challenges and meet a miscellany of various people – of which the majority is Nisei, like Ichiro is. Remarkably, almost all of these different Nisei characters seem to have their very own concept of how to manage their life and improve the circumstances they have to live in. Although the novel does not feature a conclusive ending for Ichiro’s quest, it nonetheless delineates a rather grave picture of things in which all of the figures’ biographies can be read in terms of failure. Briefly speaking, no figure in this novel succeeds to fully reach his or her goals and dreams. In the following, the general situation of Japanese Americans during the war years and its possible effects on the individuals of No-No Boy will be discussed in order to establish a link to their ultimate failure. Furthermore, eight selected figures of the novel will be analyzed in terms of one single character trait which represents his or her attitude in a comprising way – and why each of these behavior patterns is condemned to fail in the end.

2. Historical Background of the Novel

As already mentioned above, all of the different topics that are being treated in No-No Boy, are related to historically true facts. Yet, after the attacks on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese army in 1941, one issue could be figured out as of major importance for the members of the Japanese American community, namely “a problem of phenotypical distinction and the ongoing social construction of race” (Douglas 129).

Although the insidious assault on Pearl Harbor brought along a new quality in the United States’ policy of racial segregation, it had continually been there from the moment when the first Japanese set his foot on American soil to stay there. As these Japanese migrants, called ‘Issei’, “were […] relatively well educated” (Kim 122) they quickly demanded equal pay and treatment already at the beginning of the 20th century. Consequently, they easily qualified for inheriting the anti-Asian sentiments from the comparably obedient Chinese. The corrosive stereotype of “the aggressive, cunning, and conspiratorial Japanese requiring more active dominant efforts to keep them in their place” (Kim 123) arose, never to be fully erased from people’s minds again. Now, with the exceptional, but still rather comfortable situation of the United States being at war with several distant countries in Europe, the Japanese attacks on American territory brought with them a new quality to the mere thought of being at war: the war theaters had come right to America’s doorstep. Accordingly, to reassure their citizens, and show their competence in dealing with the circumstances, the authorities needed a scapegoat which could be easily sacrificed in an act of populism. Conveniently enough, one group of people virtually obtruded itself to become the government’s ethnic minority of ill repute it had been looking for: the Japanese Americans. The ensuing reaction by the US government can be considered a farce: all residents of Japanese heritage who lived in one of the states along the west coast got “taken into custody […] to avoid danger to the security of the state” (Sakai 229) and its people. A visualization of the goings-on was provided by Okada himself: he used the image of a snowball which can be understood “as an effective metaphor for American war hysteria and hostility; white, cold, and ‘big enough’” (Lim 37) to uproot more than 110,000 people.

The euphemism ‘relocation’ which was officially used by the US government to label the proceedings, in actual fact meant nothing but an ethnic cleansing. People who had been living and working in the United States for more than thirty or forty years got rounded up and deported to the hinterlands without trial or charge. Thus by signing the so-called ‘Executive Order 9066’ in February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made himself responsible of “violating numerous Constitutional rights” (Yogi, 1996: 63). In doing so, the officials clearly did not distinguish between the individuals’ citizenship statuses, as mentioned by Douglas: “in the internment’s logic, familial descent and kinship relations are understood to trump birthright citizenship and national belonging” (131). This can be seen best in a statement by government official Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt who administered the internment program:

I don't want any of them [persons of Japanese ancestry] here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty. The west coast contains too many vital installations essential to the defense of the country to allow any Japanese on this coast. [...] The danger of the Japanese was, and is now […] espionage and sabotage. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty. [...] But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map. (cf. Korematsu v. United States)

As a matter of fact, this wording had left little scope for interpretation: together with the other Japanese Americans, even the Issei veterans who had fought for the United States in World War One became victim of this general suspicion. And so did the American born Nisei who had never even had the chance of coming closer in contact with Japanese culture than through their parents’ narrations. As opposed to this, most immigrants of German or Italian descent who logically should have embodied an equivalent potential hazard were left alone and only bothered on a case-by-case basis (see Douglas 133).

Another dilemma, which exclusively affected the 21,000 Nisei men at the age for military draft, was two questions in the so-called ‘loyalty questionnaire’ (cf. Huang, 2009: 769). The questionnaire, which in total contained 33 questions, was designed by the government to investigate and record the camp dwellers’ whole life. The questions which made the issue especially problematic for the young men were questions 27 and 28 which in fact “forced [them] to choose between enlisting or going to prison” (Douglas 131):

27: ‘Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?’ and 28: ‘Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and foreswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any foreign government, power or organization?’ (cf. Weglyn 136)

Only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers were allowed which made it impossible for the interviewees “to voice their complex reactions to these questions” (Yogi, 1996: 63). Although the vast majority of respondents answered ‘yes’ to the two questions (cf. Cheung & Peterson 196), a multitude of reasons militated against the affirmation. Most of these possible causes to respond negatively are presented in the novel when Ichiro reminisces about the court trial. In this scene, each of the defendants tries his luck in convincing the judge that his reasons for not joining the armed forces are most legitimate. However, none of the “no-no boys”, as they derogatively were called by the veterans, succeeds as “draft resistance constitutes a criminal offence against the State just like tax evasion, extortion and drunk driving” (Sakai 244). Consequently, they all get sentenced to spending the rest of the war in jail – a fate which was shared by all “no-no boys”.

The impact this glaring injustice made on the Japanese American communities and their members is almost immeasurable. Apart from the enormous material loss most of the families had to suffer from, the internment experience “forced all Japanese Americans to consider what their racial identity really meant” (Kim 134). For some the questioning of their loyalty to the United States “resulted in a fierce embracing of a thoroughly American identity” (Yogi, 1997: 132). Those who did so interpreted the circumstances as the first opportunity in Japanese American history to prove their allegiance to the country by fighting for it (see Kim 133). The other extreme logically meant a return to the Japanese heritage due to the “bitter disillusionment over what were perceived the empty rhetorical promises of American equality and justice” (Yogi, 1997: 132). To protest against their inappropriate treatment some Issei even went as far as to get repatriated and eventually returned to Japan. Finally, when the war was over, most of the interned Japanese Americans came back to the places they had lived in before the deportation. The old communities got re-established, yet, the problems they had to face were new: “internal struggles […] between a diasporic Japanese and a Japanese-American identity” (Lim 38) had been unknown before Pearl Harbor and were now to be overcome. The division of the community members was caused by the veterans’ conviction that the “no-no boys” betrayed them and the whole community by overtly showing the nation their – and hence the community’s – disloyalty (Yogi, 1996: 64). The “no-no boys” therefore had to endure hostilities and “physical violence from yes-yes boys, many of whom are former friends” (Cheung & Petersen 199).

Aside from the above mentioned issues which mainly were problems of the Japanese American community as a whole, No-No Boy also treats the intergenerational conflict between Issei and Nisei. The predominantly conservative and Japan-oriented Issei in most cases could not even understand their children when being addressed in English (cf. Douglas 128). The younger generation in return hardly spoke any Japanese for the very simple reason that they were American-born and American educated (cf. Kim 129) and therefore naturally perceived America as their home country. To put it in a nutshell, the Niseis’ dilemma originated from being “caught between the America of their parents’ dreams and the realities of the color bar” (Kim 129).

Combined with an entertaining and compelling plot, without any doubt “Okada is worth reading as a social history” (Chan, et al. 215). The characters which are going to be analyzed and discussed in the following all get affected by the political and historical circumstances that have just been outlined. It is the manifoldness of issues and the different ways of each character’s coping with these issues which make No-No Boy such an interesting book to peruse.

3. The Selected Nisei Characters

The one thing which makes a novel worth reading is – apart from its plot – the different figures that appear in the story. It is the elaborateness of the characters which decides whether a narration will be perceived as being authentic or not. As according to Kim “[m]ost of Okada’s characters are not fully developed” (156). Surprisingly, this does not mean a constraint for the novel’s credibility but it actually is a sophisticated way of depicting the Japanese American community in deep nuance. Okada accomplishes this by making each of the characters the representative for a certain fragment of the post-internment Nikkei society. Because of the fact that “No-No Boy […] is peopled mainly by men” (Xu 62), all of the subsequently analyzed characters are going to be young Nisei men. Further on, due to the novel’s topicality, they all are either “no-no boys” or veterans, except for Taro who at the time of draft had been too young for the army. This decision of the past, to either join the armed forces or refuse the draft, has a wide influence on each of the characters’ social status and thus their possibilities of acting inside the Japanese American community. Regardless of whether veteran or not, the Japanese Americans as an ethnic group still were treated with resentment by the “white America”. Accordingly, No-No Boy “highlights through [its] protagonists the limited number of imagoes possible for Japanese Americans to adopt in the late 1940s and early 1950s” (Cheung & Peterson 204).

Despite the fact that categorizing the novel’s figures in terms of their “no-no boy” or “yes-yes boy” status would make sense, the distinction will be drawn in accord with their influence on the main character, Ichiro. As “the narrative voice oscillates between the narrator and Ichiro” (Sakai 245) throughout the plot, Ichiro’s exposed position in the novel can be easily comprehended. Thus, the minor and the major characters’ concepts of life and in what way each of them fills out Ichiro (cf. Kim 156) is going to be examined. Finally, as the main objective of this paper is to determine the individuals’ failures, the way in which the actual outcomes of the novel contradict the characters’ initial intentions will be shown.

3.1 Minor Characters

Like almost every novel, No-No Boy features a number of different figures. These figures naturally can be distinguished according to their actual time of appearance in the text or their importance for the progress of plot. Understandably enough, the minor characters’ importance and time on stage is comparably little. As Huang states, these figures are “relatively brief, undeveloped snapshots of different characters who represent different reactions to and viewpoints on” (2009: 769) the main character’s development. Furthermore, a minor character’s function is “to illuminate the major characters” (Di Yanni 60). In the case of No-No Boy this major character is Ichiro whose quest for self-discovery, as already mentioned, gets reflected in the different minor characters of the novel. Usually these figures are “static and unchanging” (Di Yanni 60) which means that their behavior and convictions remain the same from beginning to the end of the novel. Due to these characters’ constancy of their internal beliefs, Ichiro’s view of life gets queried by those complementary opinions again and again throughout the plot. In the following, four selected minor characters will on the one hand be analyzed in terms of their interactions with as well as their influence on Ichiro and – if necessary – the other protagonists. On the other hand, each of the four characters again represents his own attitude towards the Japanese American community and the overall political circumstances. These concepts of coping with the situation and thus altering their lives for the better will be the second aim of focus in this investigation – and why all of these attempts can be interpreted as failures.



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University of Augsburg – New English Literatures and Cultural Studies
Japanese-American Literature Nisei Ichiro No-No Boy Failure Ethnic Literature John Okada




Title: The Concept of Failure Represented by the Nisei Characters in  John Okada’s 'No-No Boy'