The protagonist in John Okada’s No-No Boy

Ichiro: Out of Lockup but Newly Imprisoned in a Cultural Conundrum

The protagonist in John Okada’s No-No Boy, Ichiro, brings to the reader’s consciousness a bitter series of unfair culturally related events resulting from the loss of his ethnic identity. For Ichiro, in place of cultural / racial identity comes a dark new uniqueness, that of a traitor, a heretic, a non-person. Everybody everywhere has a heritage, based on ethnicity and nationality. But Ichiro’s decision to say “No” left him among the unlucky in that regard. His natural right to a legitimate heritage went up in smoke with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This paper presents the thesis that it is now impossible for Ichiro to belong to any culture in the true sense of the word. He finds himself in quicksand surrounded by swirling treacherous waters that threaten to sweep him away to his death if he doesn’t dive in and snuff out his own life first.

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U.S. Executive Order #9066 was — on the surface — a cold, bureaucratic pronouncement. And yet the reality of the order stabbed deeply into the lives of 12,000 incarcerated Japanese-Americans like the white-hot blade of a newly forged knife. And moreover, the youthful individuals of Japanese descent who said “No” on questions 27 and 28 on the Selective Service questionnaire — as did Ichiro Yamada — found themselves first in prison and secondly drifting in a cultural vacuum where identity was illusive and hatefulness dominated the air they breathed.

On page 73 Okada describes the “dead aliveness” that the war and #9066 had brought to Japanese-Americans caught in the claws of a cultural paradox. It is impossible to be both dead and alive, and yet there was Ichiro, his limbo closer to both dead and alive than to either one. For people in Ichiro’s situation, there were “two extremes,” Okada writes (73); the first extreme was “…the Japanese who was more American than most Americans because he had crept to the brink of death for America.” This was the Japanese-American who felt compelled to prove his loyalty was unconditional and at the same time avoid the stigma of cowardice by signing up rather than saying “no” and “no” to those important questions.

The second extreme — and this point is pivotal to the theme of Okada’s book — related to a person “…who was neither Japanese nor American because he had failed to recognize the gift of his birthright when recognition meant everything” (73).

For Ichiro, just released from imprisonment vis-a-vis #9066 and his refusal to take up arms against Japanese of his own ancestry, the world continues to be an ugly place. He may now be free to roam the streets of Seattle rather than be confined behind barbed wire, but he is newly imprisoned within the identity crisis he battles as an everyday event. Racial hatred now seems to jump out at him from every corner of every room; up is suddenly down, smiles hide antipathy and the sun sets in the East. And it is impossible under these circumstances to be American, Japanese, Japanese-American or any other culture; he is branded with a “No” on his forehead the way Hester was branded with an “A” for adultery in the Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne.

Is Ichiro a Japanese-American? Is he a draft-dodging Asian with no guts? Is he a pretender with no cultural roots? What is he and why is he drifting in a sea of confusion and racial antipathy? Perhaps it is the case that being outside the normal definition of cultural identity is the worst possible identity a person can have, especially during times of international crisis, fear, and loathing. War divides people on both sides of the conflict; when culture enters into the mix, polarization takes precedence over reason and grace.

It is interesting and ironic — and yet fully appropriate to the impossibility theme of Okada’s novel — that some of the most piercing rage Ichiro experiences is visited upon him from other Nisei (second generation Japanese-Americans) youth. His own ethic people turn on him. He is embarrassed and haunted by the fact that he is an outcast among his own cultural brethren.

This desire to fit in again, to be thought of as a person who made a decision and now that decision is behind him, haunts Ichiro and is part of why having a new or old identity is an impossible task for Ichiro. The impossibility of his situation is made poignant through characters like Eto Minato, a soldier who said “Yes” to service in the U.S. Armed Forces; Bull, another veteran of WWII; and Taro, Ichiro’s own brother. The fact of Ichiro receiving bitter verbal and physical assaults on his body and his identity indicates an important point in Okada’s book: these individuals have whole-heartedly accepted the twisted social standards established by the dominant Caucasian society.

If your cultural brethren, other Japanese-Americans you own age, have bought into the racism of the white society, and have begun to practice that hatefulness and bigotry, there is nowhere to hide and no shelter is available. Again, it’s impossible now for Ichiro to obtain membership in any particular society. His mother is of no help to his crisis because she is a fanatic Japanese patriot, clinging to the pathetic notion that the Japanese had won the war.

The barroom attackers have their own fears; their fears are symptoms of the fact that on one level they cannot dislodge themselves from Ichiro because of their shared racial and ethnic heritage. That bothers them a lot. On another level, the attackers’ fears lead them to rely on racist slang against their own Japanese-American culture, the same bigoted, mean-spirited racism which members of the European-American culture perpetrate against them. They are left with the fear that they too will be scarred forever by events beyond their control, and the ability to lash out at others like Ichiro, who made a decision and paid the price (he thought) with two years of his life behind bars.

Ichiro on page 76 is drunk, but he is willing to dump his only friend at the bar, the war-injured Kenji, because he feels so isolated, so wholly without substance and identity, and he wants to make a strong point out of his non-person status. “Son-of-bitches. That’s what they are, all of them,” Ichiro tells Kenji at the bar, responding to the meanness he sees in the eyes of the other Nisei in the place.

To Ichiro, they all are son-of-bitches except himself; he says, “Me, I’m not even a son of a bitch. I’m nobody, nothing. Just plain nothing” (76). Ichiro takes this lack of belongingness to another level by offering to walk out of Kenji’s life. “Best thing I can do for you. Forget you, that’s what,” Ichiro asserts to his friend (76). After all, if you are the most hated person in the bar, you are doing your friend a favor by leaving so that friend can’t possible be identified with you.

In fact the bigoted hateful rhetoric has the effect of reducing Ichiro from his humanity as a living breathing man to “it”; “Does it talk?” “Talks Jap I bet.” “It doesn’t look very happy.” (78-79). Woven into the dialogue’s hatefulness there is irony: “That’s a Jap, fellas,” one of the Nisei blurts out. “It’s got legs…and arms too. Just like us” (78). And through all this, Ichiro agrees to follow his brother out of the bar, carrying with him the haze of alcohol saturation and “…a heavy, brooding madness” (78). Madness is indeed a pivotal theme in this novel, reflecting the insanity that war creates and embraces.

In any story whether fiction or non-fiction, when one brother joins a mindless gang of raging racists to launch a physical attack on another brother, readers receive a reality slap in the face. How did this family reach this point of bitterness? A brother does not as a rule of thumb join up with a hateful group of hostile punks to attack his older brother. Unless something terrible has gone wrong, like jealousy over a girlfriend, or money owed and not paid, brothers stand together in ethnicity and familiarity. But order #9066 changed all that. With the motion of his signature on a printed document, the president of the United States sent a sense of belonging rocketing out into space. He sent brother against brother in the name of patriotism and nationalism. He created a situation for a man named Ichiro that was impossible to wriggle out of.

Works Cited

Okada, John. No-No Boy. San Francisco: Combined Asian-American Resources Project,


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