The Novel No-No Boy by John Okada

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The paper is a book report of the novel No-No Boy by John Okada. This is the only novel written by the author, which was published in 1957. It depicts the aftermaths of the Second World War for Japanese Americans and consequences of the main character’s decision not to join the US army. However, the question remains open: who is the biggest traitor: people who renounce their country of origin or the ones who choose to remember it and not associate the government with the cultural heritage. The whole political situation does not leave an option but to betray. One way or another, people betray either their own moral principles or conscience or their close people; either their country of origin or the government of the country they live in. The main character just tries to be loyal to basic human values in this mayhem. Thus, there is a moral search of main characters, the author himself and the whole nation at the background of social and historical events of the Second World War and the social position of Japanese Americans in the USA.

Key words:

novel No-No Boy, John Okada, aftermaths of the Second World War; inner turmoil; to betray; moral search; social and historical events; Japanese Americans.

Book Report: The Novel No-No Boy by John Okada

The novel No-No Boy was published in 1957 and remained unnoticed till 1970 due to its controversial, complicated themes and painfully honest and deep reflections of historical events. The novel was written by John Okada, a Japanese-American author, who was born in Seattle. He was a young student when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. These tragic events led to ostracism of the Japanese who lived in the USA. Okada’s family was sent to relocation camp as well as many other families. He was released but in exchange had to serve in the US Army as a Japanese translator. These events were depicted in the novel No-No Boy. The main character, Ichiro Yamada, a 25-year-old man, however, made a choice that differed from the author’. Thus, the novel is a combination of historical events, reflection of their effect on single individuals and the whole Japanese nation; it questions moral standards and depicts philosophical searches not only of the character but the author himself.

The novel depicts the aftermaths of the Second World War. Its main character, Ichiro Yamada, whose parents moved to the United States even before his birth, was sent by Americans to relocation camp together with his family when the Second World War started. After two years of imprisonment Ichiro was given a chance for freedom in exchange for the enlistment in the US army. But he made his choice answering “No’ to governmental questions, whether he was ready to enlist in the US army and fight against Japan and whether he was ready to forswear his relation and commitment to Japan.

This crucial choice prolongs his incarceration in federal prison for two more years. The story unfolds when the main character returns to Seattle and deals with consequences of his decision, his national identity crisis, troubled relations with parents, remorse and inner turmoil.

There are many characters in the book that represent different attitude towards the war and national issues and, correspondingly, different types of choice and behavior. We can see a fuller picture of what was going on in the world and in people’s consciousness through these characters. Ichido’s mother, for instance, considers herself to be true Japanese and still has faith to return to Japan. She refuses to have any connection to anything American, despite the fact that they have lived there for twenty five years, and believes that Japan will win the war. No proves or factual evidence can make her open her eyes and embrace the reality. Ichido’s father fails to dispel the illusion and drowns his pain in alcohol.

His parents represent the Issei generation, the first one to immigrate to the United States and the one who could associate only with the country of origin. Is it a real loyalty and patriotism, or ingratitude to the country that welcomed you and gave you new home? We can see on the example of Ichido’s mother that this perverted patriotism led to unwillingness to live a happy live with healthy relationships and inability to see things as they are; and eventually it ruined her relationships with her husband and son, made the latter go through painful moral suffering and led her to suicide. Is it really impossible to be loyal to the country of origin, but adapt to a new home without being ostracized and betraying one’s own national values? This question will be raised repeatedly by the author over the course of the novel.

There is another character, Freddie, who, like Ichido himself, refused to join the US army but, unlike Ichido, does not seem to go through any kind of doubts or moral suffering because of his choice, at least on the conscious level. After release he just drinks and has fun. Though, it is not indicated clearly, whether this character escapes from the reality or hides his disgust or inner uncertainty behind such way of life, we can see another crippled human being. Freddie’s life ends tragically: he is killed in a fight with Bull. Thus, there is another lost soul and another victim of racial hatred.

Bull himself represents the other extreme of national identity crisis. He desires to become true American so passionately, that hates everything and everybody connected with Japan and is willing to break any connection with the country of his origin. Bull is a veteran, who served in the US army fighting against Japan. He is an angry man, who wants to be accepted by American society so much, but is also in a shaky position. Even his participation in the war did not turn him into a pure citizen of America. Thus, he is neither Japanese nor American – a person with no nationality or definite social position; so, he ends up being a frustrated, tired, morally crippled man who takes his anger out on ‘’no-no boys’’, such as Ichido.

Does his choice to eliminate his Japanese part require cruelty and brutality? If he had really fought for some values or to protect America, he would not have chased after young boys who did nothing wrong but refused to fight. Ironically, Bull’s appearance and even the way of dressing is far more Japanese than American. One cannot just eradicate a part from himself; sooner or later it will come out. Bull can not bear the burden of moral torments and disgust to himself. Thus, he feels ashamed of being himself and brings it outside.

We can see different attitude towards Ichido’s decision not to join the army and forswear his allegiance to the emperor. Bull and other Nisei veterans ostracize him; his younger brother Taro, who craves to become American and cut Japanese roots off, despises him. The author shows us how national issues and historical events make people lose their humanity and break off with their families and friends. Ichido himself is left almost all alone – his brother despises him, and he ,in his turn, blames the mother for his identity crisis and the father for his weakness; his former friend Eto turns away from him. Ichido and alike are constantly mocked, beaten, chased by everybody- Nisei veterans, Americans, Japanese Americans of younger generations, even by representatives of other national minorities. Peculiarities of physical appearance also play a huge role there, as representatives of other defeated countries - Italians and Germans - could assimilate and were not exposed to such exclusion.

Among all the cruelty, hatred, and extremes there are two most conscious and humane characters - Ichido and Kenji. Despite the fact that they made diametrically opposite decisions (Kenji chose to join the US army), they both preserve the ability to question their own decisions and values, imposed standards and both of them try to understand what is the right thing to do. Kenji is a veteran, who lost his leg in the war, and eventually dies of the complications due to injuries. Both of them have something to be proud of – Kenji protected peaceful citizens as a soldier, and Ichido stood his ground and was not afraid of exclusion. Ironically, neither of them feels satisfied with his choice. Ichiro wants to change places with Kenji, even agreeing to accept injuries and disability; and Kenji respects Ichiro for the courage to follow his moral principles and go to prison for them. Both of them are brave as they made their own choices for their own reasons but not out of selfishness or vain chase after national recognition. They managed to keep their friendly relations and ability to doubt and search the truth.

Ichido himself carries a heavy burden of self-flagellating for his choice, as well as for his family and country. Primarily, he wants to adapt to America but without renunciation his roots and his cultural heritage. Later on, he begins to regret his decision and blame his mother for not teaching him to be proud of being American. He punishes himself rejecting the job offer, pushing away Emi, the woman he develops strong feelings for and even shares the blame for Japanese government crimes against humanity (Hiroshima and Nagasaki, particularly). We see that if Ichido feels blameful, he still subconsciously considers himself to be a part of Japanese people. He is not ready to cut off his Japanese part and he realizes that he will never be “pure American” due to many factors: his national awareness, his origins, his skin and face.

Thus, he is a person with no motherland and no nation. His way of self-discovery reveals a deep, insightful, kind and good-natured person who does not accept any kind of violence, extremism or eradication. While his choice may seem to be morally questionable for some readers, I saw a person with vivid mind, kind heart and high level of self-awareness who dares to be an individual and would rather inflict the pain on nobody but himself. Isn’t it a sign of strong and free spirit – to question everything, including his own choices, but eventually come to terms with his past and with his own nature? Ichido finds strength to forgive himself, his mother and is determined to go forward to a happy, peaceful life despite all the hatred, prejudice and discrimination. He finally embraces his good and kind nature and is ready to live according to his own moral standards.


The main character finally experiences catharsis and though there are no definite answers or fairy-tale happy ending, there is hope and peace. Fates of the main characters and the author himself may seem similar, except that the author made a different choice. Thus, the author reflects on his own destiny through his novel and the characters, he wonders what could have happened and whether he had made the right choice back then

The main themes of the novel are the following: national discrimination, aftermaths of the War, social bigotry and hatred, moral turmoil and search of truth and justice in this cruel world. The author does not make a definite estimate for Ichido’s action and does not put any labels or take any sides. He goes further and deeper in the search of utter morality, kindness and humanity. Is it possible to keep clear objective vision and treat people for who they are as humans but not representatives of social or racial groups? These are the main questions raised by John Okada in his novel No-No Boy.