No-No Boy and What It Means to Be American

Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered? 
Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?  

No-No Boy follows the post-war lives of two young Seattleites: Ichiro Yamada and Kenji Kanno.  Published in 1957, John Okada’s only novel takes a raw cross section of Japanese-American society and examines it through the eyes of these characters who made very different choices.

When called to the draft, Ichiro followed his mother’s guidance and answered “no” to both “loyalty questions,” resulting in imprisonment.  After two years, he is released from prison to a community which abhors him for his decision, almost as much as he hates himself.  Kenji, on the other hand, volunteered for combat, with the hesitant support of his father.  He returns to Seattle as a hero, yet carrying an infected wound that is eating away at his life.

This was a tough book to get through because it is dark, ugly, and depressing.  There are endless descriptions of hatred and bitterness among family members, friends, and strangers.  Nearly every character is conscious of a hideous silence in their lives and attempts to fill it with noise like alcohol, foul language, and random hookups.  Bleak is an understatement; I was almost compelled not to finish it.

Still, you’re haunted by the impression it rings true.  Okada lived through the events he described; he was a student at the UW when his family was sent to an internment camp in Idaho and, like Kenji, he went on to serve in the U.S. military, translating commands to surrender (p. 256).  Each character is so vividly painted, they must have some origin in real life – even, maybe, Ichiro’s mother, whose belief in Japanese victory drives her insane.

The best parts of the book are Ichiro’s internal monologues, where he wonders whether society will ever forgive him for being a “no-no boy” and allow him to live a normal life; whether the Japanese-American community will recover from its divisions; whether one day all he will see is “people” and not different races mistreating each other.  He alternates between despair and hope.

. . . in time there will again be a place for me. I will buy a home and love my family and I will walk down the street holding my son’s hand . . . it will not matter about the past, for time will have erased it from our memories and there will be only joy and sorrow and sickness, which is the way things should be. (p. 52)

It is hard to give No-No Boy a rating.  It’s truly a unique novel, being (as far as I know) the first of its kind and maybe the only novel on this particular aspect of the Japenese-American experience in WWII.  There’s some moments of true brilliance, leading me to think Okada could have become a famous 20th-century author.  However, apart from the overwhelmingly grim atmosphere, I found the ending to be disappointing.  There were one or two potential plot twists that never came to fruition, so Ichiro’s character arc made little progress in the end.  I’ll settle on a middle-of-the-road rating: 3 stars.

When We Were Orphans – A Study in "Meh"

It’s London in the 1930s, and Christopher Banks has what most people want: his dream job.  After a childhood of playing detective with his best friend Akira, Christopher grew up to be one of England’s leading private investigators, highly sought after both professionally and socially.  In spite of his success, he can’t forget the life he left behind him in Shanghai, nor the fact that his parents remain missing there and unaccounted for.  Christopher’s greatest hope is to go back to Shanghai to find them, even if it means returning to a war zone.  It turns out, however, that new relationships – including his love for a lonely socialite – make committing to his past the hardest case to solve.

This book could not have had a more promising premise.  I’ve raved about the nuances of Empire of the Sun (another story about an English boy in Shanghai), and I know Ishiguro can be incredibly subtle.  I also love a good mystery with a Sherlock Holmesian character.  Put all three together and what could possibly go wrong?  After hoping I’d be able to disagree with Ishiguro’s own comment, that it’s “not his best book,” ultimately I had to go with the consensus on When We Were Orphans (2000). 

While Ishiguro does not dwell on my #2 historical fiction pet peeve – in-your-face exposition – I’m afraid my #1 pet peeve is here, and that is anachronisms.

For example: Christopher’s voice.  There is something very post-war about Christopher’s voice, and I don’t mean word choice.  (The word choice is stereotypical but tolerable.)  Rather, the problem is his whole outlook and attitude.  Christopher is a strangely placid character, from his first run-ins with the irritating Sarah Hemmings to his later handling of his personal investigation.  This serenity does not translate to cool-headedness, however; he behaves irrationally when push comes to shove, even in the middle of a battlefield.  Additionally, his sense of morality has a modern tone to it, which seems unlikely coming from someone who was close to his strongly religious mother.  None of this makes sense, and I feel like I’m watching some 21st-century time traveler going through the motions of being Christopher, as opposed to an actual person with character integrity.

As for Sarah – well, she epitomizes the cringe-worthy female protagonist.  I’ll say no more.

The plot starts out extremely well.  We get flashbacks of Christopher’s youth, most importantly of his friendship with Akira – a boy torn between his Japanese culture and his life in International Shanghai.  We also get a glimpse of Christopher’s mother, a fierce yet kind Victorian woman with strong Christian values.  (It’s easy to trace the parallel between Christopher’s altruistic career choices and his mother’s campaign against the opium trade.  He’s simply carrying on the work she started, but in a different sphere.)  Furthermore, we find half of his clues are just memories – foggy, unreliable memories.  This is a fantastic conflict because it’s one we all encounter at some point.

This solid beginning is gradually replaced with a let-down, first by Christopher becoming aggravating, then finally by the resolution to the core mystery.  I won’t divulge spoilers, but the “solution” is horribly sensational and not particularly believable.  It reads like the first draft, or the first idea out of a brainstorming session…  I felt like Ishiguro could have done much better if he’d given it more time, and I’m puzzled that his editor approved it.

Is there anyone I would recommend this to?  Unfortunately, no.  There’s some morally questionable elements which I’ve alluded to, and if that didn’t bother you, the characterization and plot twists are so unlikely, you won’t be able to suspend enough disbelief.  1.5 stars is generous.  If you’re new to Ishiguro’s work, start with The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World, or A Pale View of Hills instead.