Shifting Identities: Racial Conflict in No-No Boy

John Okada’s No-No Boy illustrates the racial conflicts between the Japanese-American community and American popular culture as well as differing views on assimilation among Japanese-Americans themselves. Kenji, who suffers from a fatal wound sustained fighting for the U.S. in World War II, represents a sort of embodiment of the tensions between Japanese and American identity. Kenji is mortally wounded fighting for a country that interned members of his family. However, his return in valor from the war enabled him to reconcile with his father. Their close kinship contrasts starkly with the relationship between older and younger Japanese-Americans that is manifested in the internment camps. Kenji also rejects the projected racism evidenced by some of his Japanese and Chinese-American companions. While Kenji will never live up to his father’s image of the ‘ideal’ American dream, he is relatively content with his position at the crossroads of seemingly divergent identities.

There is a clear distinction between Asian and American identity. Okada recognizes that when a “sweet-looking Chinese girl” (2192) is invited by a white boy to the high school prom, “She has risen in the world, or so she thinks, for it is evident in her expression and manner” (2192). While she does not entirely reject her heritage and still acknowledges the other Asian students in the crowd, she “flaunts” her new status. This sense of internalized inferiority places the Asian, and therefore the Japanese, identity below that of the American within the context of upward mobility and economic vitality vis-à-vis the American dream. In this sense, many minorities, including Japanese people, will subvert or reject their own heritage in order to conform to the norm and rise to a more desirable ‘accepted’ position in society.

Okada uses a particular assortment of words and phrases to characterize the Asian-American girl at the prom. Okada uses these literary devices to suggest that the elevated socioeconomic status of her prom date, a white boy, is a hollow and perhaps fleeting example of Asian upward mobility. At the beginning of the paragraph, Okada describes the Chinese girl as “sweet-looking” (2192). This description portrays the Asian-American girl as innocent, and perhaps easily subjected to exploitation by white American males in both her high school and society at large. In many traditional societies, women are highly prized and expected to marry within their ethnic groups. Therefore, there remains a likely stigma amongst older Asian-Americans, whose perspectives Okada analyses later, against a Chinese girl attending prom with a white boy. The possibility for sexuality exploitation and degradation of traditional values could be concerns.

Okada infers that simply attending prom with a white student is not equivalent to rising significantly in society. He writes that, “She has risen in the world, or so she thinks, for it is evident in her expression and manner” (2192). Okada alters the tone of the narrative by including a global perspective. The world is a big place, and for one girl to rise in it solely based on the background of her high school prom date appears marginal and trivial. It is a difficult predicament for the Chinese girl. She is likely aware of the stigma and relative uncommon nature of her interracial prom experience. This could make her feel ashamed. Additionally, however, it is perhaps alluring to contradict her traditional cultural norm and experience something ‘different.’ Okada, with his globalized extrapolation at the beginning of the sentence, perhaps infers that this allure is fool’s gold and the Chinese girl is not truly improving her social position.

Okada is nominally critical of the Chinese girl’s actions at the prom. While he does not directly critique the action of taking a white boy to prom in itself, he is skeptical that her actions reflect a deep understanding of the historical, cultural, and socioeconomic narratives converging with her interracial prom experience. He writes that, “She does not entirely ignore the other Chinese and Japanese at the dance, which would at least be honest, but worse, she flaunts her newly found status in their faces with haughty smiles and overly polite laughs” (2192). With words like ‘haughty,’ Okada establishes a tone that reflects the girl’s arrogance of her cultural background and heritage. In Okada’s eyes, does not concern herself with the ramifications of her actions. In fact, the girl directly removes herself from her community, both on a larger scale and at the prom itself. She ‘flaunts’ her false status in a dishonest nature. The use of the word ‘honest’ cuts through the sentence and casts a dark, if almost cold, tone to the girl’s actions and evokes a sense of communal and cultural betrayal in her choice of prom date.

The experience of the Chinese girl at the prom with a white boy has profound implications for young minority women. Traditionally, white men in positions of power sexually exploited and violently abused minority women. While these women, perhaps in some cases, established close relationships with these men, they historically did not appear to elevate their socioeconomic status as a result. It was, by and large, a depersonalizing relation and false narrative. In Okada’s America, these lines were perhaps more subverted, as white men enjoyed less explicit power over young minority women then in the past. However, they still appear to exercise their privilege and damage minority communities. Therefore, from Okada’s perspective, the Chinese girl at the prom with the white boy is a cultural travesty.

Kenji’s family’s status represents the consummate American dream that is beginning to unravel. Kenji’s father has adopted a number of characteristics that could be described as typically ‘American.’ He refers to Kenji as “Ken,” and Kenji refers to his father as “Pop.” When Kenji inquires his father as to whether he is happy, the father responds that he is, saying that “‘Hana and Tom have splendid jobs, and Eddie is in college and making more money in a part-time job that I did for all of us’” (2183). However, the father’s splintering American dream is physically embodied by Kenji’s war injury. Kenji’s injury prevents him from achieving the upward mobility that the father ascribes to the realization of the American dream. When Kenji winces in pain, “the father screwed his face as if the pain were in himself” (2184). For the father, Kenji’s pain elicits “sorrow.” The injury is a concrete reminder that Kenji, even though he is a decorated war hero, will not be able to obtain the economic independence that is key to the American dream.

Kenji’s father will never realize his own vision of the American dream. When he first immigrated to the United States, he hoped to make a fortune and then return to his village in Japan. He says that, “‘I came to America to become a rich man so that I could go back to the village in Japan and be somebody’” (2184). The father’s mission in America was meant to be temporal. However, Kenji’s debilitating injury was sustained, in his father’s mind, in defense of the permanence of Japanese-American life. Kenji went to war not just to defend the United States, but also “to fight for the abundance and happiness that pervaded a Japanese household in America” (2184). However, his involvement in the war only brought further tragedy and sorrow onto his Japanese-American home and family. Kenji’s pursuit of the American dream prevents him from ever realizing the self-sufficiency that is so crucial to achieving it.

Kenji’s wound represents the fleeting nature of the American dream to Japanese-Americans. For Kenji, his wound was incurred serving in the United States army. While his father could have forbid Kenji from serving, he elected not to, against some of his own consternations regarding the notion of Kenji fighting against his fellow Japanese people. Kenji’s father questions if he had asserted his own concrete Japanese identity over a more muddled Japanese-American one, whether Kenji would not be suffering his injury. Kenji, however, considers that “Things are they should be” (2186). For Kenji, there is a tacit acceptance that the American dream is just beyond his grasp. For his father, however, there is a deep regret that his reluctance to assert his Japanese identity may have cost his son his mobility and happiness, if not his life.

There remains racial conflict within the Japanese-American community. Internment highlighted a growing divide between the old and young within the Japanese-American community. Okada writes that at camp dances frequented by young people, “Always before, [the older people] had found something to say about the decadent ways of an amoral nation” (2187). In the beginning, it was difficult for older Japanese-Americans, mostly immigrants, to reconcile their traditional cultures with their children’s embrace of American cultural ‘modernity.’ However, after some time within the confines of the internment camps, “they watched longer than usual and searched longingly to recognize their own daughter, whom they knew was at the dance but who was only an unrecognizable shadow among the other shadows” (2187). The use of the word “shadow” elicits of sense of almost phantom anonymity. The younger generations are assimilating into American culture and distancing themselves from the traditional Japanese culture of their parents.

Some Asian Americans can only assert their American identities by attacking those who they consider to be inferior. This perpetuates the system of racial discrimination and injustice established by white Americans at the ‘top’ of the social ladder. When Kenji visits his Chinese acquaintance Eng’s store, two African-American boys and one Japanese boy cause some commotion. A Japanese customer comments that, “‘Them ignorant cotton pickers make me sick. You let one in and before you know it, the place will be black as night’” (2192). This blatant expression of racism projects the inward inferiority the Japanese man feels onto the easy target of the young black boys. Kenji laments this display of racism as perpetuating the white establishment’s discriminatory system that oppresses all minorities.

Okada is offering a version of America that is changing but also struggling with conflicting identities. In particular, Okada is interested in the descendants of recent immigrants to the U.S. who must now reconcile their American identities with their heritage. Okada writes that “the young Japanese hates the not-so-young Japanese who is more Japanese than himself, and the not-so-young, in turn, hates the hold Japanese who is all Japanese, and, therefore, even more Japanese than he” (2193). For Okada, these shifting and multifaceted identities will come to formulate a more modern and dynamic notion of American identity moving forward.

Tearing Down and Building Up: The Dismantlement and Reconstruction of Identity in John Okada’s No-No Boy

Frank Chin’s gripping afterword to the novel No-No Boy emphasizes the crucial influence of John Okada’s literary pursuits in his own life as an Asian-American writer. In a world where words had formerly danced across the pages of books to the sole tune of white authors, Okada helped create an identity for Chin and other “yellow writers.” Unlike Chin, who defines his own career in terms of another’s, the main character of the novel denounces the part of himself vestigial of his mother and instead seeks an identity that embodies the direct antithesis of all she represents. Prior to the war and his fateful decision to refuse the American draft, Ichiro Yamada proves to be a malleable young man, falling victim to the biting impact of his zealous mother. In his hatred and despair following a two-year prison sentence, Ichiro expels the parts of himself tainted by his mother’s harsh conditioning. With the goal of reconstructing his broken identity, he models his new self against the opaque and pessimistic perspective implanted in him by his mother. Ichiro’s subsequent optimism and self-completion can thus only arise out of the death of his mother. Ichiro’s time spent in prison continues to haunt him after his release, as the relentless harassment from all facets of society only propagates his feelings of guilt and shame. Consequently, Ichiro evaluates himself and questions his motives for refusing the draft in the first place. The root of the problem, he decides, lies in his mother and her stifling presence in his life. Her extreme conservation of Japanese ideals and complete rejection of the Americanization of both herself and her family are impressed upon Ichiro at a very early age. Ultimately, this foreign belief system is accepted and integrated into his own identity. Thus, the anguish inherent in being a “no-no boy” could be attributed to that part of him which was not his own; It was her way of saying that she had made him what he was and that the thing in him which made him say no to the judge and go to prison for two years was the growth of a seed planted by the mother tree … (Okada 11)Despite the discovery of a scapegoat for his deep shame, Ichiro continues to suffer as a result of his refusal to enter the war. Although the part of him responsible for his decision was decidedly not native, it was part of him nonetheless. Consequently, Ichiro grows to hate this part of his identity. He vocalizes this disgust in response to his mother’s denial of her own insanity, as she claims those who think her crazy instead envy her strength: To the hands which had come forever between them [Ichiro] continued to shriek: “Not your strength, crazy woman, crazy mother of mine. Not your strength, but your madness which I have taken. Look at me!” He gripped his wrists and wrenched them away from her face. “I’m as crazy as you are. See in the mirror the madness of the mother which is the madness of the son. See. See! (Okada 43)Ichiro’s hatred for his mother poses a serious problem as it causes a hatred for himself as well. The solution for him is to dispel the values and beliefs of his mother and replace them with new components modeled after all the things she is not and refuses to let her son become. Until Ichiro can rebuild himself, however, he is left with a barren identity. Not only does he blame his mother for the emotional angst and psychological torment he has endured as a direct result of refusing to enter the draft, but he also attributes to her the cavernous holes in his identity: Ma is the rock that’s always hammering, pounding, pounding, in her unobtrusive, determined, fanatical way until there’s nothing to call one’s self … It was she who opened my mouth and made my lips move to sound the words which got me two years in prison and an emptiness that is more empty and frightening than the caverns of hell. (Okada 12) Through rejecting his mother’s values, and thus the source of his own self-hatred, Ichiro proceeds to the next stage of his rebirth — but not without the toils and struggles that accompany his brazenness. For years, the identity designed and imposed by his mother served as Ichiro’s primary source of self concept. Upon eliminating her from his life, Ichiro falls into downward spiral of severe marginalization. He and other second generation Japanese Americans, or Nisei, feel isolated from both the Issei generation of their parents as well as the greater American population. Ichiro cannot fill either role; he is neither Japanese nor American. Previously, Ichiro had defined himself as his mother’s son and a mirror image of her ideals. The moment he breaks free is the moment his identity darkens into infinite nothingness: I am only half of me and the half that remains is American by law … But it is not enough to be American only in the eyes of the law and it is not enough to be only half of an American and know that it is an empty half. I am not your son and I am not Japanese and I am not American. (Okada 16) With the eradication of his mother’s past influences, Ichiro successfully tears down the remnants of his old self and prepares for the arduous process of reconstruction. His lack of identity creates emotional trauma and raises the ontological question of where he belongs. It also provides him a blank canvas on which he will paint his new life. Lost, with no mold to find shape, Ichiro submits to the ever present malevolence he feels toward his mother. His former role as his mother’s son — and the embodiment of her ideals — changes to the role of a separatist who represents the direct opposite of her restricted outlook on life. This change of definition comes to the forefront when Ichiro first meets Emi and attempts to relay his identity to her in non-contemporary terms. “I’ve ruined my life and I want to know what made me do it,” he tells her. “I’m not sick like them. I’m not crazy like Ma is or your father was. But I must have been.” (Okada 91)Gaps in Ichiro’s self-definition stem from the intrinsic ambiguities that lie in descriptions of this kind. Because of the oppressive nature of his mother and his inability to develop into his own person during childhood, Ichiro has a keen sense of who he was and no longer wants to be. Still, he lacks a clear vision of his present self. He cannot seem to articulate his own personality, but rather he is able to affirm those attributes for which he is not. For Ichiro, defining himself in terms of negative assertions is both a limited and ineffective means of reconstructing his lost identity. Knowing that he is “not sick” and “not crazy” tells little of Ichiro’s character, and furthermore creates a rather incomplete sense of self. Ironically, the death of Ichiro’s mother is the one catalytic event that allows him to complete his rebirth. With the suicide of his mother Ichiro no longer has a base from which to ascertain what he is not; he must instead look to the outside world and establish his identity from a much broader vantage point. This new revelatory perspective on life and the results of a violent bar fight at the end of the novel leave Ichiro enlightened instead of disillusioned. No longer envisioning himself as “not [his mother’s] son,” Ichiro seeks solace in an outside world which has proven unkind. Nonetheless, he continues to kindle a “glimmer of hope” (Okada 250): He walked along, thinking, searching, thinking and probing, and, in the darkness of the alley of the community that was a tiny bit of America, he chased that faint and elusive insinuation of promise as it continued to take shape in mind and heart. (Okada 251)The “promise” to which Ichiro alludes is the newfound sense of freedom he experiences as a direct results of his mother’s death. Throughout the majority of his young life, Ichiro had been shackled by the oppression of his mother in one way or another. During his childhood and through his refusal to enlist in the military, Ichiro’s identity revolved around her value system. In the period of time following his incarceration, he repeatedly defines himself as “not [his mother’s] son.” Her death prompts the final stage of Ichiro’s journey of self-discovery as it forces him out of his isolated existence and into American culture. Ultimately, Ichiro’s destruction and subsequent reconstruction of identity reflects the change in his approach to life from pessimism to optimism. The “glimmer of hope” as cited at the end of the novel provides a stark contrast to the desolate viewpoint he had previously held. Although the new definition of Ichiro is still far from complete, he has become more whole by integrating the fundamental American values of optimism and idealism into his life. Through his newfound perspective, Ichiro has finally found a place in mainstream American society in a small yet substantial way.