Original review of the 1957 publication of No-No Boy
June 2, 1957
“No-No Boy” by John Okada. 308 pages. Charles E. Tuttle, Company, Tokyo, Y540.
Ichiro was physically strong, “big enough for football and tall enough for basketball,” and if he had said “Yes. O.K.” when he was called into the American Army, he might have returned a hero like his friend Kenji. Instead, he said “No-No,” and spent four years in detention camps and prisons.
The story of Ichiro begins with is release from prison and his return to the life of a Japanese-American in anti-Jap. America. “He finds,” as the jacket flap says, “misunderstanding and kindness, vituperation and praise, love and hate and violence.”
His father, whom he can neither admire nor hate, and his mother, whom he hates bitterly, run a tiny store. They, “like most of the old Japanese, spoke virtually no English. On the other hand, the children, like Ichiro, spoke almost no Japanese.” Part of Ichiro’s problem stems, therefore, from his parents inability or unwillingness to adjust themselves to their adopted country.
He slams out his parents tiny store, to find his old friends, to see adjustment, and to look for a job. But, “she’s killed me with her meanness and hatred,” he says of his mother, “and I hope she’s happy because I’ll never know the meaning of it again.”
His old friends either spit on him, or sympathize. The world seemed to spit on him and “all he could feel was that the world was full of hatred.” However, at least three people were good to him, Emi, Mr. Carrick, and Kenji, “three people who had given a little of themselves to him because they liked him.”
Emi, indeed, gave more of herself than the circumstances, or Ichiro, demanded. Waiting for her overseas husband, her hospitality went beyond beer and pretzels. In bed with the lights out their conversation surely was ingenious as what followed was not. The comedy of this intermezzo is unintentional.
Good Mr. Carrick offered Ichiro a good job with a future. Just why he refused it is not clear and not in character, but it suits the plot… or better, it suits the purposes and the problems which determine the plot. This is a problem book, and the problem might disappear if Ichiro accepted good Mr. Carrick’s good offer.
Kenji, the third sympathizer, is the finest character, the only real one, in the book. He has returned from the wars with hero’s medals, but only one leg. He is still losing the stump leg bit by bit, until with last inches he loses his life.
Kenji and Ichiro “were two extremes, the Japanese who was more American than most Americans because he had crept to the brink of death for America, and the other who was neither Japanese nor American because he had failed to recognize the gift of his birthright when recognition meant everything.”
This is a story with a purpose, a purpose so insisted upon, and so repeatedly, that it overwhelms the plot and the characters. The style and tone of the book range from slangy coarseness to sonorous nobleness, from barking invectives to resonant self pathos.
It is better not to blame it for what it is not: literature. As a “novel of burning sincerity and significance” it is less a novel than a tractate. It is a narrative tractate of significance and burning sincerity.