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no-no-boy.jpg“No-no boys” were Japanese American young men who, after being drafted to enter the US military during WWII, answered “no” to two questions about their willingness to serve. They were imprisoned until the end of the war and then resumed their rights as US citizens. Further context is important. These young men were drafted out of concentration camps where they and all West Coast area residents of Japanese descent lived until the end of the war. They had been driven out of their homes, usually had to forfeit their possessions and almost every other aspect of their lives to live in conditions which were, in many ways, comparable to criminal imprisonment. The author himself experienced the internment, which the no-no boy of his novel endured, though unlike him Okada entered the military and flew reconnaissance missions during WWII.
Okada’s novel focuses on the story of one no-no boy, Ichiro, who returns home from his imprisonment two years after the war ends. As the novel’s history was described in a foreword by novelist Ruth Ozeki, “The No-No Boy” was first ignored or shunned, but in the mid-1970s (just a few years after Okada died of a heart attack at age 47) a copy was chanced upon and appreciated by the late Asian American studies scholar, Jeffrey Chan. Chan and colleagues helped move it toward becoming, as is described by its current publisher, the University of Washington Press, one of the “classics of Asian-American literature.”
Throughout the novel Ichiro struggles emotionally as he tries to understand the familial aspects of his conflicted decision not to serve. From early in the story, he is shown as believing this decision destroyed any chance for a happy future. He struggles with the destructive belief that he does not deserve the rights of other Americans or even anyone’s respect. Especially since the Vietnam War, Ichiro’s decision, if not universally respected in the United States, would seem much more honorable by many. However, the idea that his refusal would be seen as justified by some even then, with patriotic feeling running high, is acknowledged by Okada in his preface. There he shares an episode of having told of his own family’s “removal” to an officer (“a blond Nebraska giant”) on his reconnaissance plane. “Hell’s bells,” he [the lieutenant] exclaimed, ”if they’d done that to me, I wouldn’t be sitting in the belly of a broken down B-24 going back to Guam from a reconnaissance mission to Japan...they could kiss my ass” (pp XXVI – XXVII). Perhaps this fellow was illustrating the privilege a white non-immigrant may have taken for granted.
That said, the novel shows many situationally specific as well as universal aspects of the effects of war, racial prejudice and immigrant experience. One remarkable example in the novel is that of Ichiro’s mother who, two years after the end of the war, still maintains and defends the delusional belief that Japan has won. However, the excerpt shared here contains a discussion of relative suffering between two characters, one with a grievous physical wound and the other tormented by what might be called dysfunctional guilt, shame or “moral injury,” or from another perspective, dishonor (all problems of psychological and social distress). Unpacking the terminology that best describes the distress is for another time. For now, let’s allow Okada’s dialogue to speak for itself:
“Let’s talk about something else,” said Kenji and drove faster until they were out of the park and once again headed toward Jackson Street. They didn’t talk, because there was nothing to say. For a brief moment Ichiro felt a strange exhilaration. He had been envying Kenji with his new Oldsmobile, which was fixed to be driven with a right leg that wasn’t there anymore, because that leg had been amputated in a field hospital, which meant that Kenji was a veteran of the Army of America and had every right to laugh and love and hope, because one could do that even if one of his legs were gone. But a leg that was eating itself away until it would consume the man himself in a matter of a few years was something else, for hobbling toward death on a cane and one good leg seemed far more disastrous than having both legs and an emptiness that might conceivably still be filled.
He gripped his knees with his hands, squeezed the hard soundness of the bony flesh and muscles, and fought off the sadness which seemed only to have deepened after the moment of relief. Kenji had two years maybe a lifetime if the thing that was chewing away at him suddenly stopped. But he, Ichiro, had stopped living two years ago.
I’ll change with you Kenji he thought. Give me the stump which gives you the right to hold your head high. Give me the eleven inches which are beginning to hurt again and bring ever closer the fear of approaching death, and give me with it the fulness of yourself which is also yours because you were man enough to wish the thing which destroyed your leg, and perhaps, you with it but, at the same time, made it so that you can put your one good foot in the dirt of America, and know that the wet coolness of it is yours beyond a single doubt.
“I like you, Ichiro,” said Kenji, breaking the silence.
Ichiro smiled, a little embarrassed.  “I could not say the same about you,” he said.
“We’ve both got big problems, bigger than most people. That ought to mean something.”
“Whose is bigger?”
“I was thinking all the time we were silent and I decided that, were it possible, I might very well trade with you.”
“For the eleven inches or for the seven or eight that’ll be left after the next time?”
“Even the two inches.”
“Oh.” They were getting close to Ichiro’s home and Kenji took his time as if reluctant to part with his friend.
Soon, however, they were in front of a grocery store.
“Well?” asked Ichiro, opening the door.
“Mine is bigger than yours in a way and, then again, yours is bigger than mine.”
“Thanks for the lift,” he said and climbed out onto the sidewalk.
“I’ll pick you up tonight if you got nothing better to do,” said Kenji.
“That’ll be fine.”
pp. 58 – 59
Okada, J. (1976/2014) The No-No Boy. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
I wish to acknowledge Major General (ret.) James Mukoyama for his helpful review of this column.