Places: No-No Boy

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1957

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical realism

Time of work: Shortly after the end of World War II

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Seattle

*Seattle. No-No BoyPacific Northwest city in Washington State that is hometown to Ichiro Yamada. Described realistically and with a keen eye for detail, Seattle’s Japan townstruggles to come back to life after most of its residents return from internment camps after World War II. Rising above the harbor, with Jackson Street as its central thoroughfare, this district lies between the city’s Fifth and Twelfth Avenues, and borders Chinatown.

Through the eyes of Ichiro, readers learn of the changes that political upheavals bring to his old neighborhood. Before the eviction and internment of its Japanese and Japanese American residents in 1942, the neighborhood was home to a community that harbored strong ties to the land and culture of their ancestors: Japan. After the war, the returning residents struggle with the influx of African Americans, and the effects of a pleasure-seeking, relatively affluent postwar society that turns clothing stores into pool parlors. There, young Japanese American men who have fought in the U.S. Army participate in the raucous nightlife, feeling they have earned their place in American society. They despise those who–like Ichiro–did not fight. Yet Ichiro remains skeptical whether this place will really accept these men.

Ozaki’s grocery store

Ozaki’s grocery store. Seattle store run by Ichiro’s parents. A familiar feature of prewar Japan town, the operation is a cramped and marginal enterprise. Separated from the small shop by a curtain, the family’s living quarters are in the back. Four people share a kitchen, a bathroom, and one bedroom. With its typical bell to alert the family to each entering customer, the grocery is a place indicative of the fate of so many Japanese immigrants.

Instead of striking it rich quickly and returning to Japan as they had hoped to do when they came to America, Ichiro’s parents find themselves living in a place they still consider alien territory after thirty-five years. With frugality and persistence, they have made a modest living while their children have grown up and adopted American ways. The wartime internment, however, serves as brutal reminder that the place of one’s birth may turn against one. To Ichiro, the family grocery store represents both the cultural insularity of his parents’ generation and their meek acceptance of America’s social and economic order. While his mother believes the Japanese will eventually win the war, she nevertheless works hard to keep her store afloat. She commits suicide after realizing that Japan has lost the war.

Akimoto’s apartment

Akimoto’s apartment. Run-down home of Fred Akimoto, another “no-no boy” who is carrying on an affair with his married neighbor, a young plump Japanese American mother. Fred’s shabby apartment mirrors his mental torment at being ostracized by his fellow Japanese Americans for having refused to enlist in the army. His affair with the woman next door reflects the nihilistic recklessness that ultimately leads to his death.

*University of Washington

*University of Washington. Because Ichiro has refused to fight for the United States, he believes he has no right to return to this idyllic Seattle campus. His departure after visiting his old professor is described in terms that invite an allusion to Adam’s banishment from the Garden of Eden, with Ichiro passing his expulsion on himself.

Club Oriental

Club Oriental. Nightclub on King Street in Seattle’s Chinatown that serves a Japanese American clientele, some of whom bring white girlfriends. The intended harmony of the place is destroyed when the club becomes flashpoint for the tensions generated by the majority of Japanese Americans, who feel that their army service has earned them a place in American society. They hate those like Ichiro who refused to serve, and the club sees violent altercations.

Emi’s house

Emi’s house. Home of a young married woman with whom Ichiro has an affair, located south of Seattle. Since Emi’s husband refuses to leave the army and prefers to stay in Germany, she lives alone and invites Ichiro to share her bed. Emi’s house represents a comforting shelter that Ichiro continually denies to himself.

Kumasaka house

Kumasaka house. Home owned by a Japanese American family. In Ichiro’s eyes, buying a home in Seattle makes the Kumasakas Americanized. Unlike Ichiro’s mother, the Kumasakas have let go of the dream of returning to Japan and embraced America as their own–the land for which their son Bob dies in the war.

*Portland

*Portland. Oregon city to which Ichiro goes to see his friend Kenji, who is dying from a war wound. While he is there, he refuses a job offer because he feels guilty about taking the place of a Japanese American man who fought in the war. However, Kenji tells him that soon the United States will not honor these veterans and again discriminate against them. Before Kenji dies, Ichiro follows his advice by returning to Seattle to make his peace with himself, the city, and the United States.

BibliographyKim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982. An excellent study of Asian American literature, which contains a sound analysis of No-No Boy that emphasizes the disintegrating influence of racism on the Japanese American community and psyche.McDonald, Dorothy Ritsuko. “After Imprisonment: Ichiro’s Search for Redemption in No-No Boy.” Melus 6, no. 3 (Fall, 1979): 19-26. Traces Ichiro’s psychological journey from guilt and alienation to peace and self-acceptance.Sato, Gayle K. Fujita. “Momotaro’s Exile: John Okada’s No-No Boy.” In Reading the Literatures of Asian America, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. Draws on the Japanese mythic tale “Momotaro” in arguing that No-No Boy affirms Japanese American identity by rejecting everything Japanese. Concludes that Japanese culture is portrayed almost entirely in negative terms.Yeh, William. “To Belong or Not to Belong: The Liminality of John Okada’s No-No-Boy.” Amerasia Journal 19, no. 1 (1993): 121-134. Argues that both the novel’s central character and historical context represent a state of “betweenness.”
Categories: Places