The Torn Fabric of Asian-American Identity: John Okada’s No-No Boy

Note: This essay was actually written for my Asian American GE class, a long long time ago. 😉 -K.O.

Google Dictionary straightforwardly defines reality as, “the world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them”, illustrating the dichotomy between the external world independent from one’s internal reality. The mind blurs this divide as it is the bridge that compiles external stimulus and transports them into the internal reality within the thane of one’s mind. The mind’s flawed ability to capture reality is most exaggerated in No-No Boy in Ichiro’s mother, whom refuses to acknowledge Japan’s defeat in World War II. Like a few others within an extremist enclave of Japanese loyalists, Ichiro’s mother borders on insanity as she obdurately clings onto her dream of judgement day, the day an imperial ship will come swoop her off her feet and commend her for her unflinching loyalty to Japan. In contrary, Ichiro’s friend Kenji represents the other polar end to insanity, as he is one who wallows in his base reality. Kenji represents the aftermath of America’s pyrrhic victories as he fights the wars to uphold her ideals. As a Japanese-American veteran, Kenji suffers a living death as gangrene inch by inch consumes his leg, and depression regret after regret consumes his mind. Through Ichiro’s interactions with other characters in the novel, John Okada posits that mental sanity is an active process of coming to terms with one’s torn strands of identity. By interweaving  his mother’s airy dreams with Kenji’s base realities, Ichiro finds his ground as these two disparate worlds delicately coincide at the mental fabric of his horizon.

When Ichiro first meets Kenji, he finds him pensively questioning what his American heroism is worth. Kenji bitterly jokes about how his Oldsmobile was a present from Uncle Sam, and how his recognition within the Japanese American community, in the guise of “a medal, a car, a pension, even an education. Just for packing a rifle,”(55) “wasn’t worth it” (55). Kenji’s nonchalant blazon illustrates the healthy anatomical checklist many in pursuing the American Dream aspire to acquire, materialistic gains and superficial honor at the price of pyrrhic battles. Kenji tells Ichiro that “it’s not important how I lost the leg. What is important are the eleven inches” (56), intimating that his losses and gains in life are not currently what is important because what matters is the brevity of time he has left to live. In Kenji’s eyes, Ichiro is a man whom while doesn’t have the blazon of the American dream, is a physically healthy man around his age, that has the luxury of life ahead of him. It is not until the two meet at Oriental Bar that Kenji comes face to face with his own insanity and depression as he pities Ichiro for regretting his past life. He pejoratively tells Ichiro, “Doesn’t matter. Blame the world, the Japs, the Germans. But not yourself” (67), to which Ichiro responds, “Maybe I ought to” (67). As Kenji watches Ichiro’s regret unravel from his guilt as a No-No boy, he states “Now you’re talking like me,” (67), two Japanese men of the same generation, with different decisions yet the same feeling of regret. This comment illuminates how insanity arises from regretting the base reality of one’s past.

Kenji’s empathy for Ichiro allows him to revisit the impending cause of his depression, as he muses, “When it comes to the last half inch and it starts to hurt, I’ll sell the car and spend the rest of my life here with a drink in my hand, feeling good” (67). Through Ichiro’s interactions with Kenji, Okada illuminates that life itself serves as an internal war upon the battlefield of one’s internal consciousness, this invisible fight that divides air and angels. He illustrates that sanity requires the conquering of one’s past through coming to terms with its losses, as Kenji wins the internal battle through his conversation with Ichiro. Both the discrimination Ichiro faces and Kenji’s lost leg are red badges of courage that shine only brighter through these dire times, as they are further polished with hope, in the rising sun of friendships yet to be made, in the last eleven inches of life, left to live.

Kenji not only represents Japanese American nationalistic pride as a GI-Joe with his silver stars and badges, but also the idealism that all races can harmoniously mix like the melting pot that America as a promised land proffers– the America he fought for, but could not live to see. Before his death, Kenji tells Ichiro to “Drink to wherever it is I’m headed, and don’t let there be any Japs or Chinks or Jews or Poles or Niggers or Frenchies, but only people” (148). He tells Kenji to drink to the reality he has yet to see, a new world with a reality, where “the opposition weakens and wavers. And the one who is Negro or Japanese or Chinese or Jew is further fortified and gladdened with the knowledge that democracy is a democracy in fact for all of them. One has hope, for he has reason to hope, and the quest for completeness seems to be a thing near at hand” (121).

In the same way the Kenji surpasses the internal racism of Japanese towards one another as he extends true friendship to Ichiro, he hopes Ichiro will see it to the end carrying the torch of hope for the day his vision of equality will be fulfilled. In response to Ichiro’s current persecution, Kenji tells him to “Go someplace where there isn’t another Jap within a thousand miles. Marry a white girl or a Negro or an Italian or even a Chinese” (147), to miscegenate as being Japanese presides not, in a land full color. As Kenji leaves earth to transpire into the heavens, he serves as the prism of light and medium for Ichiro’s torch to shine through, a hope that illuminates the world and cloak America with all the diverse colors it has to offer. Although Kenji’s base reality eventually consumes him, his vision provides Ichiro the grounds on what to fight for, as he encounters his mother’s Japanese idealism.

In contrast to how Ichiro’s interactions with Kenji reveal America’s base reality behind its idealism, Ichiro’s mother embodies the heightened ideals as a patriotic loyalist to the land of the rising sun. When Ichiro explains to his mother, “The war is over. Japan lost” (14), she responds, “ ‘You believe that?’, in the tone of an adult asking a child who is no longer a child if he really believed that Santa Claus was real” (14). Okada’s allusion to Santa Claus illustrates the magnanimous scale of how this child-like ignorant propaganda endemically colonizes the minds of Japanese immigrants, from America to Brazil. Okada’s dramatically ironic metaphor furthermore invokes a sense of displacement in the reversal of the parent-child relationship. The author’s conflation of parent-child roles calls attention to the riveting divide between American-born Japanese and their Issei parents. It inverts traditional Asian Confucian model of parental figures through ostensibly providing and properly uprearing their children through education. Ichiro muses how his mother’s unwavering jingoism “was like a weird nightmare. It was like finding out that an incurable strain of insanity pervaded the family, an intangible horror that swayed and taunted beyond the grasp of reaches of fingers,” (15) of how insanity brushes the borders of reality by asserting plausible events that can occur in one’s imaginary world, the one within his mother’s mind. The nature of Ichiro’s mother’s mindset is that of an endemic pathological disease. It is a disease where base reality itself cannot serve as a prophylaxis to contain the mental nation-space she has created in her mind, as she contagiously proselytizes her jingoism to others.

Ichiro bitterly states how mentally, his mother’s imperialistic enforcement of her beliefs onto him is a violent act that has  “killed me with her meanness and hatred and I hope she’s happy because I’ll never know the meaning of it again” (13). This instance divulges Ichiro’s sense of desolation, not only experiencing physical internment for his No-No Boy status due to his answers derived from his mother’s national ideas, but also the mental isolation within that comes at the price for his mother’s patriotism of her homeland. Like Kenji, Ichiro is a person whom experiences the brunt for ideals that a nation upholds yet does not willingly observe. He invokes the realm of folklore, a world revolving around mean curses to emphasize the antediluvian views of his mother. Okada’s violent language, the one of killing to characterize Ichiro’s interactions with his mother intimates the active battlefield of one’s internal reality. Here, the oscillations of his mother’s mental states and her Manichean way of thinking– the mental state of exuberance and glee of a child believing in Santa Clause, immensely sours into a realm of mean curses, with no middle ground of negotiation in between; this black and white thinking of either you are a good son and support Japan or you don’t foreshadows her later downfall into oblivion as she lacks the negative capability to find the middle ground in between. As Ichiro tries to come to terms with his past act of treason, his mind fights back against this foreign pathogen originating from the nation-space of his mother’s mind, this ferocious madness from a country he has never known that threatens to destroy his own.

While it can be posited that insanity exists not as two extremist ends of distorted reality, but rather a state of feeling, Okada dismisses this notion as a fallacy. Ichiro’s interactions with individuals in mental states of insanity coexists with the spectra of feeling from happiness to sorrow. This illustrates that feelings themselves do not dictate a mental state of insanity but are rather ancillary products or symptoms of that characterize it. For instance, Ichiro illustrates that happiness by itself, a feeling, bears no causation between sanity or insanity as he while he reflects he is not as irrational as “those who wait for the ship from Japan with baggage ready, the hundreds who do are freer and happier and fuller than I” (75). Insanity is also not the sense of fulfillment as in Kenji whom experiences depression from the unfulfilling sense of regret resides just on the other end of insanity. Though deduction, Okada rationally depicts that insanity is an empirically observable phenomenon of a departure from external reality. In these aforementioned instances with Kenji and Ichiro’s mother, it occurs when one is unable to resolve the conflicting internal world and weave a connection with the external one, isolated in psychological isolations, metaphorically represented in forms of Kenji’s hospitals, Ichiro’s prisons, or his mother’s homelands. When Ichiro’s father reads his aunt’s letter from Japan that begs for assistance due to the nation’s defeat in  the war, “Forgive me, Kin-chan but the suffering of my children is the reason I must write in this shameless river. Please, if you can, and I know not that you can, for there have been no answers to many letters which brother and uncle and cousin have written, but if you can, just a little will be of such great comfort to us–“, she instantaneously cuts him off stating, “Not true. I won’t listen,” (99). Okada emphasizes how tragic situation illustrates how one’s psychological isolation in obdurately upholding an idealistic notion also isolates those others around as well. The inability for Kin-chan to rationalize and be open to new views that does not positively firm her own proves illustrates how madness is an extreme state of one’s inability to compromise with lands in other minds. Insanity exists as a self-limiting inability for one to grow their horizons, to venture out and charter the uncharted seas of thought that lies beyond the past nation-space of one’s own mind.

Ichiro’s self-reflection on his reality that analyze and question why such polarizing views exist allows him to find the middle ground to sanity as he comes to terms with both his American and Japanese halves. Ichiro’s internal battles in striving to discern why his own brother’s views diverge from his own allows him to come to resolve his No-No boy status. In his internal monologue, Ichiro addresses Taro as  “my brother who is not my brother,” (75) complicating he pithy aphorism that individuals are the products of their environment as both Ichiro and Taro come from the same family. The statement illustrates that not only the external environment but a force much greater rooted in the diverging views of their Japanese American identity. In his apostrophe address to Taro, Ichiro also questions why he currently cannot forgive himself for this difference in beliefs, for being a No-No boy,

“I have made a mistake and I know it with all the anguish in my soul. I have suffered for it and will suffer still more. Is it not just then that, for my suffering and repentance, I be given another chance. One steals and goes to prison and comes out a free man with his debt paid. Why is it my freedom, I feel more imprisoned in the wrongness of myself and the thing I did when I was in prison?” (75).

Through Ichiro’s deep-rooted guilt, Okada again emphasizes how insanity is not only a psychological internment exists not only as a perpetuation and impingement of one’s ideals onto others, but also of one’s adamancy in one’s own beliefs, like Kin-chan. However, Okada also proffers that the firstly to overcome insanity is the self-awareness of a feeling, which in case is Ichiro’s suffering, and the secondly the questioning of why this feeling exists. Like the prolific disease that consumes both his mother and Kenji, Ichiro too experiences a consuming regret that eats away at his soul– the regret of treason, for living his mother’s values as a No-No boy and thus, betraying America. However, unlike Kenji or his mother whom do not reflect on their feelings and thus why their views are formed, they are not aware of their own psychological internments to break free. Through the cognizance of his own madness depicted in this stream of consciousness, Ichiro’s interaction with himself allows him to confront and resolve the tectonic divide in his split Japanese American identity that other characters in the novel are not seen to do.

Emi, a war veteran’s widow, and Mr. Carrick, an engineer with a plow, are two politically moderate individuals that represent the middle ground that spans the fault line between Japanese and American nationalism. They are individuals whom while simultaneously upholding the values of America also extend empathy to the Japanese victims like Ichrio whom are byproducts of the war. It is through interactions with these politically moderate individuals whom represent the American middle-class emphasis on hope that Ichiro crescively molds his own unique sense of nationalism between madness and reality. It is not Kenji’s Oldsmobile or the front counter of his mother’s canned food grocery that Ichiro but rather the blank garden of Emi’s farm, and in Mr. Carrick’s backyard with his snowplow that first glimpses hope, as the sun peeps above the darkness of the horizon. When Ichiro first meets Emi, she criticizes him for being hopeless. She asks,

“Are you blind? Deaf? Dumb? Helpless? You’re young, healthy, and supposedly intelligent. Then be intelligent. Admit your mistake and do something about it. Anything. It doesn’t matter what you do. This is a big country with a big heart. There’s room for all kinds of people. Maybe what you’ve done doesn’t make you one of the better ones, but that doesn’t make you one of the worst either” (88).

Emi invokes Ichiro’s five senses– his empirical values as a scientist to try to appeal to him logically. That while his past and failed mistakes may not be the best, like a scientific failure, there is still much to be garnered from the experience to learn. She explains that America is a big country and a big heart, that no magnanimity in words can ever encompass, that no one experience or interaction should shade the rest of them all. Her appeal to Ichiro is a realist one; she neither idolizes Ichiro’s past like his mother does for being a No-No boy, laments on it as Kenji’s very pro-bono American colleagues. This is her carpe diem to him, to make the most out of his future, to recall his past contentment in college as an engineer, as unlike Kenji, there is a place in this big America where he will find home in making use of his faculties. Emi’s conversation comes back later in the novel as an integrated element after Ichiro takes her advice via job hunting. She responds to Ichiro’s rejection of one of his first promising job offers, “It’s good that you found out things aren’t as hopeless as you thought. This Mr. Carrick you speak of sounds like the kind of American that Americans always profess themselves to be,” (151), illustrating how America tends to uphold values it does not always observe, of how in this false advertisement of a foreign land, one is even more estranged because it is not what one anticipated. Mr. Carrick, in contrast to the hostility Ichiro was used to, “was someone who cared. (137). He apologized, “I am sorry, Ichiro. Sorry for you and for the causes behind the reasons which made you do what you did. It wasn’t our fault, really” and it is here, that Ichiro “glimsped the real nature of the country against which he had almost fully turned his back, and saw that its mistake was no less forgivable than his own” (138). America is a land, formed under the statue of liberty as a promise of open doors to exiled immigrants but fails to welcome those within its own borders. It is a land idealized by those far from away but within its own borders, arises new cliches– ‘Affectation of candor is common enough’, ‘Fashion is always and accoutrement to custom’. However through all these vast sweeping generalizations and the hostility he has grown accustomed to, Ichiro finds a seed of hope in his dark madness of hopelessness. From Emi’s gentle push, Ichiro’s his feet finally fly and take root into foreign soil, freshly softened plowed from Mr. Carrick’s unexpected kindness that he finds home.

Ichiro’s immigrant experience of finding hope, is like finding a new colorful thread that interweaves within the fabric of life itself. His experience is just one in the ocean, whom strive to carve out a safe space within a hostile land, balancing the tectonic divide between a country he has never known an ocean away and the weight of the current land he treads on. He is a fabric, ripped asunder, by the shear force of tug-o-war between between the cultural framework of his Japanese values that do not apply on a foreign soil. Though Ichiro’s interactions with Kenji, a GI-Joe with an Oldsmobile, his mother, a woman with an emancipated boyish body, whom thrives off of ham and canned food, and finally with individuals whom embrace both worlds of both Japan and America, out of individuals whom see him for who he is, as something old and something new, Ichiro carves out his own idenity. It is in seeing himself through the eyes of Emi that Ichiro is able to resolve the worlds of both his past crime of treason with his present, through the view of himself through Emi’s eyes whom sees her ex-husband Ralph, and the future one in Ichiro, through the views of Mr. Carrick whom sees his neighbors Taradas and a future coworker in Ichiro, he resolves two disparate halves in weaving the mental fabric of his horizon. It is in these characters that seemingly do not fit either tectonic piece of Ichiro’s mind that serve as the furrowing stitches that bridge their gaps– Emi with her Asiatic looks yet long legs comparable to American blondes, Mr. Carrick with both his lucky yen and snowplow, that Ichiro finds the America that Kenji was fighting for. An America, built upon the “one in a million” people that upholds the values that it observes. While cultures, from Japanese kimonos, to African-print textiles, Mexican tamiamis, and Chinese Cheongsams represent the external recordings of memories left behind, America’s fabric is a mental one sown upon the thane of memories in an individual’s mind. It’s color the shades of Little Ethiopia, Chinatown, Japantown. America is not a nation found on one phenotypical race or custom, but one unified by the ideologies of the mind, a land of the exiled struggling to find a place called home. It is a land, where only the open mindedness of allowing the kindness of others to stitch up the hole in one’s hearts when one cannot, that the fabric of one’s mind is healed, and a nation, a homeland is born.