Ichiro: Out of Lockup but Newly Imprisoned in a Cultural Conundrum

The protagonist in John Okada's No-No Boy, Ichiro, brings to the reader's consciousness a bitter series of unfair culturally related events resulting from the loss of his ethnic identity. For Ichiro, in place of cultural / racial identity comes a dark new uniqueness, that of a traitor, a heretic, a non-person. Everybody everywhere has a heritage, based on ethnicity and nationality. But Ichiro's decision to say "No" left him among the unlucky in that regard. His natural right to a legitimate heritage went up in smoke with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This paper presents the thesis that it is now impossible for Ichiro to belong to any culture in the true sense of the word. He finds himself in quicksand surrounded by swirling treacherous waters that threaten to sweep him away to his death if he doesn't dive in and snuff out his own life first.

U.S. Executive Order #9066 was -- on the surface -- a cold, bureaucratic pronouncement. And yet the reality of the order stabbed deeply into the lives of 12,000 incarcerated Japanese-Americans like the white-hot blade of a newly forged knife. And moreover, the youthful individuals of Japanese descent who said "No" on questions 27 and 28 on the Selective Service questionnaire -- as did Ichiro Yamada -- found themselves first in prison and secondly drifting in a cultural vacuum where identity was illusive and hatefulness dominated the air they breathed.

On page 73 Okada describes the "dead aliveness" that the war and #9066 had brought to Japanese-Americans caught in the claws of a cultural paradox. It is impossible to be both dead and alive, and yet there was Ichiro, his limbo closer to both dead and alive than to either one. For people in Ichiro's situation, there were "two extremes," Okada writes (73); the first extreme was "…the Japanese who was more American than most Americans because he had crept to the brink of death for America." This was the Japanese-American who felt compelled to prove his loyalty was unconditional and at the same time avoid the stigma of cowardice by signing up rather than saying "no" and "no" to those important questions.

The second extreme -- and this point is pivotal to the theme of Okada's book -- related to a person "…who was neither Japanese nor American because he had failed to recognize the gift of his birthright when recognition meant everything" (73).

For Ichiro, just released from imprisonment vis-a-vis #9066 and his refusal to take up arms against Japanese of his own ancestry, the world continues to be an ugly place. He may now be free to roam the streets of Seattle rather than be confined behind barbed wire, but he is newly imprisoned within the identity crisis he battles as an everyday event. Racial hatred now seems to jump out at him from every corner of every room; up is suddenly down, smiles hide antipathy and the sun sets in the East. And it is impossible under these circumstances to be American, Japanese, Japanese-American or any other culture; he is branded with a "No" on his forehead the way Hester was branded with an "A" for adultery in the Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne.

Is Ichiro a Japanese-American? Is he a draft-dodging Asian with no guts? Is he a pretender with no cultural roots? What is he and why is he drifting in a sea of confusion and racial antipathy? Perhaps it is the case that being outside the normal definition of cultural identity is the worst possible identity a person can have, especially during times of international crisis, fear, and loathing. War divides people on both sides of the conflict; when culture enters into the mix, polarization takes precedence over reason and grace.

It is interesting and ironic -- and yet fully appropriate to the impossibility theme of Okada's novel -- that some of the most piercing rage Ichiro experiences is visited upon him from other Nisei (second generation Japanese-Americans) youth. His own ethic people turn on him. He is embarrassed and haunted by the fact that he is an outcast among his own cultural brethren.

This desire to fit in again, to be thought of as a person who made…