Yomiuri Japan News

Original review of the 1957 publication of No-No Boy

Yomiuri Japan News
May 12, 1957

Interesting Insight Into Nisei Thinking

The Japanese-Americans have always been a sort of a “lost-generation” looking for an identity.

The outbreak of World War II threw them all into American-style concentration camps out of which the majority either volunteered or were drafted into the US armed services.

The nisei fought heroically as the 442nd Regimental Combat Team to prove that they were “good Americans.” But after the war, many found that the battle had just been joined.

“No-No Boy,” a first novel by a promising nisei novelist, John Okada, of Seattle, Washington, and Detroit, Michigan, tells the story of a nonconformist, a conscientious objector who refused to be drafted.

In language, and subject material, the novel follows the postwar pattern–but it often stoops to soap-box oratory on the subject of racial discrimination.

The Japanese-Americans found their place in American society by virtue of their valor in battle but they found that it was only as a minority–along with the other hyphenated Americans.

An instance of the preaching is apparent in the following passages: “He drove aimlessly, torturing himself repeatedly with the questions which plagued his mind and confused it to the point of madness. Was there no answer to the bigotry and meanness and sameness and ugliness of people? One hears the voice of the Negro or Japanese or Chinese or Jew, a clear and ball-like intonation of the common struggle for recognition as a complete human being and there is a sense of unity and purpose which inspires one to hope and optimism. One encounters obstacles, but the wedge of the persecuted is not without patience and intelligence and humility. And the one who is the Negro or Japanese or Chinese or Jew is further fortified and gladdened with the knowledge that the democracy which is America is on his side and, therefore, only time is needed before the democracy is a democracy in fact for all of them.”

At other times, the characters in “No-No Boy” wax bitter:

“Go some place where there isn’t another Jap within a thousand miles. Marry a white girl or a Negro or an Italian or even a Chinese. Anything but a Japanese. After a few generations of that, you’ve got the thing beat. Am I making sense?”

“It’s a fine dream, but you’re not the first.”

Okada lards his nisei novel with a lot of the scutbutt that traveled through the relocation camps. Like:

“And he remembered that a week after Kenji had gone to a camp in Mississippi, the neighbor’s son, an American soldier since before Pearl Harbor, had come to see his family which was in a camp enclosed by wire fencing and had guards who were American soldiers like himself. And he had been present when the soldier bitterly spoke of how all he did was dump garbage and wash dishes and take care of the latrines. And the soldier swore and ranted and could hardly make himself speak of the time when the president named Roosevelt had come to the camp in Kansas and all the American soldiers in camp who were Japanese had been herded into a warehouse and guarded by other American soldier with machine guns until the president named Roosevelt had departed.

Ichiro Yamada, known as “Itchy,” is the nisei protagonist in the book who has just returned after two years in the federal penitentiary.

He makes the acquaintance of the nisei “types” in Seattle after the war. Kenji Kano, the maimed war veteran, who gets “a medal, a car, a pension, even an education. Just for packing a rifle.” But Kenji’s final reward is a slow death.

The town bully is named “Bull,” a swarthy Japanese, dressed in a pale-blue suit that failed to conceal his “short legs and awkward body” who “spoke loudly and roughly, creating the commotion he intended.”

The only women in the novel, except for Ichiro’s mother, who ends her demented life as a suicide in a bathtub, is “Emi,” whose husband is in Germany and refuses to come home, “with her heavy breasts, rich black hair and long legs, strong and shapely.”

One wonders why the Japanese-American society is filled with such bitterness when they have inherited the heritage of America, This is the adjustment of many minority groups. It’s no worse than Saroyan’s Armenians, Steinbeck’s Mexicans and Faulkner or Tennessee Williams’ “southern trash.”

Many nisei who sought an identity, gave up the land of their birth, and returned to Japan before the war. They had their tribulations, their period of adjustment during the war as they tried to fit themselves into a society that was ruled by kempeis and the brutal sergeants.

But these Japanese-Americans, who dropped the second half of their hyphenated nomenclature, served in Japanese intelligence corps, as front-line combat reporters, as voice interceptors in submarines and as staff interpreters during the surrender ceremonies.

Few of these individuals will admit any regrets, if they have any, at this late stage.

However, their Japanese-American cousins still are in a period of adjustment in their search for identity. It is warming to realize that a writer like John Okada, himself a combat veteran in the Pacific, has the guts to write of an unpleasant segment in his own society.

The “conchies” among the nisei were probably few and far between. But they emerged from the conflict of emotions and of heredity-loyalty to their often misguided parents and to a country which had refused to accept them for what they were.

“No-No Boys” is not a great book. It is an interesting first novel. Noteworthy in approach, it provides an interesting insight into the thinking of the Japanese-Americans.

Published by Charles E. Tuttle Company, and printed in Japan by the Kenkyusha Press, book design and typography is by M. Weatherly.

–John Fujii

The history and literature of Japanese American resistance to wartime incarceration