No-No Boy a novel by John Okada

I like this book. I discovered No-No Boy by John Okada?at Naropa SWP a few years ago and finally got to read it. I am so glad I did.

While John Okada’s novel could be read for its historical perspective on the internment of Japanese-Americans and their experiences post-WWII, it was not written as a historical novel. No-No Boy was published just over a decade after the end of the war and is a vibrant, fresh exploration of the complex issues of identity (ethnic/cultural/racial/national).

As Frank Chin writes in the afterword, Okada shows the “identity crisis” to be both totally real and absolutely fake. Ichiro, the main character of the novel, is caught in the cracks between allowed, accepted, and foreclosed identities. Ichiro regrets his decision to refuse military service. Initially, he envies the other young men who decided to join the military, because they are American and have proven it through their service to the government.

Ichiro’s friend, Kenji, has returned an American hero, a disabled Veteran. Even the loss of a leg does not seem too high a price to be able to prove, once and for all, that you are American. But identity is not something one proves. You either are or you aren’t. Although, you can become, you are constantly becoming without definitive proof. You can’t prove it because the cost of continually having to show proof is too great.

Okada’s characters embody different aspects of Ichiro’s struggle, which is to live with himself and find his place in the community. His parents are unable to accept the reality of Japan’s defeat. His friend, Kenji, is unable to live as an American hero. Freddie, another no-no boy, is equally unable to live as a pariah. Mr. Carrick is a white American liberal, who sincerely regrets the governments treatment of Ichiro’s family during the war but is unable to set things right. Emi is a young Japanese woman abandoned by her husband as he continues to re-enlist in the US Army.

With this cast of characters, Okada portrays the reality and illusion of identity; each one is caught in his own struggle for identity, becoming a symbol of himself. This is the ultimate paradox of the “identity crisis”.

No-No Boy was well ahead of its time and remains so. I read it looking for insight into the experience of others who find themselves outside the dominant social order. Okada is unflinching and serious in his portrayal of the intersection of identity. The book was written more than half a century ago, and the players might have changed, but its still the same game.

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