Title: No-No Boy
Author: John Okada
Publisher: Washington University Press
Publication Date: 1957
Genre(s): Japanese-American, Adult fiction
December the seventh of the year 1941 was the day when the Japanese bombs fell on Pear Harbor.
After two years in a Japanese internment camp and two more years in jail, Ichiro Yamada is once again a free man. As a Japanese-American, he feels like he is neither of the two; in fact, he’s not really sure who he is at all. After WWII, all was not at peace — some Japanese were still regarded with suspicion and/or anger, especially the no-no boys. The no-no boys, like Ichiro, declined the draft and sat in prison until the end of the war. These men who chose not to fight in a war against their own people were ostracized. Ichiro is lost, and it seems no one can make him whole. His mother is convinced Japan won the war and has delusional fantasies of returning home once again; his father just plays along and gets drunk every night. Ichiro spends his days looking for a job and visiting old friends, trying to find his place in this post-war world. Many people, like Ichiro, are not sure they belong in this new world.
No-No Boy was Okada’s only novel before dying of a heart attack at 47; he died in obscurity. It is told in third-person omniscient, typically focusing on Ichiro and his daily adventures. The novel addresses a lot of topics, but it seems to do so while simultaneously nothing happens. It’s one of those books where the story progresses, but little occurs. The idea of the story is incredibly powerful and interesting — it’s all about identity, especially in Japanese-Americans. Ichiro is half Japanese and half American yet feels like he belongs to neither culture. He comes in contact with a lot of kind people throughout the novel, as well as some not-so-nice ones; it’s a hard journey to find oneself. Though this is more a post-war novel, there is a lot of death and sadness. Does anyone ever truly win a war? I find it hard to describe the plot because, like I said, it’s one of those instances where it feels like there isn’t a lot going on. This is not an exciting novel with lots of action — it’s mostly about Ichiro’s inner monologues and his path to find himself.
Ichiro is a very whiny man. I understand the hardships he faces throughout the novel, but he seems like a depressed teenager — fighting with his parents, getting into trouble with his friends, storming out of the room when he’s upset, and constantly preferring to be sleeping. And I wish he had more of a backbone to stand up to his friends and his mother, geez… I absolutely hated his mother. I sympathized with everyone in this novel, I truly did, but I could not find it in myself to like his mother. Ichiro’s mother reminds me of my own and that made me uncomfortable; she is rude, stubborn, and acts like she’s the best thing since sliced bread. She does not listen to anyone’s opinions and she does not care. The father, on the other hand, I liked. He tried so hard to simultaneously support his wife and show her the truth. He tried to be there for both his sons. He tried to do what was right. He made some poor decisions, but I appreciated his effort and I know he’s a good guy. The only other character I particularly liked was Emi, and possibly Kenji. I mostly disliked people in this book — Freddie, Bull, Taro, Eto…not exactly the best people. They get my sympathy, but nothing else.
Okada was a master of metaphors and similes, I have to give him that. But he also liked run-on sentences and that got annoying. When I read entirely too-long sentences, I feel like I can’t take a breath — it’s overwhelming. Much of his novel was inner monologue featuring run-on sentences and half-page paragraphs. He wasn’t a bad writer, I just wasn’t a fan of his style. And I did like the story, but I wouldn’t read it again. I didn’t really see much of a character arc in Ichiro at all. I could see him maybe start to progress, but I just felt that he didn’t really change much as a character, again perhaps because it seemed like very little happened from page 01 to 251. Even though I had my issues, it was a good read and an important book. It’s certainly an eye-opener to the way people are affected by war.
Favorite Quote(s): “The living have it tough. It’s like a coat rack without pegs, only you think there are. Hang it up, drop, pick it up, hang it up again, drop again…”