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.