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In John Okadas No-No Boy, it is made clear that the author is drawing from personal experience in order to create the structure for his novel. It is his only tale, one of anger, apathy, self-hatred, and discrimination of Japanese-Americans living in a World War II time period. Throughout the novel, these people experience conflict when asked by the country they call home to take up arms against the country of their heritage. It is when a community should be brought together that they drives themselves apart. These elements make Okada's No-No Boy a tale that is deeply ambivalent about American democracy.
By having No-No Boy take place in a Japanese community, Okada is able to define the differences in custom and law, which highlights any abuse given to someone. Okada is also able to show how other non-American races can be just as unpleasant to one another as the Americans are to them. A good example of this was when some black men taunted Ichiro, the main protaginist, upon his return from jail. They did this by calling him a "Jap-boy" and to"Go back to Tokyo" (Okada, 4). Ironic, since these men would also be having difficulties with racism at that time, but can still fit in to the societal norm by mocking those worse off than them. They symbolize the disloyalty and ideology of the American system, especially when it came to a giving a helping hand to Japanese-Americans at a time that was hard for them.
Okada makes it clear that someone of a different race, regardless of what it may be, will be given more obstacles to overcome in a place like America. Foreigners experienced with discrimination in American culture will notice that Okada's novel is akin to reality in it's depiction of immigrants in the land. It shows how they wish to be accepted as citizens with few differences from the rest of the general population. In the simplistic diction of No-No Boy, Okada gives a broad perspective on the lives and emotions of Japanese-Americans during that time period. He breaks downthe dissimilarities amongst several types of Japanese-Americans. There were Japanese-Americans that went to war in an attempt to prove their loyalty to America, represented in the novel as Kenji Kanno, an injured war veteran. The Japanese-Americans that made the decision to not go to war are represented by Ichiro, and Freddie Akimoto, one of Ichiro's friends.
Ichiro is a Nisei, or second-generation Japanese. He is sent to jail for two years for answering "No" to two questions that basically asked him to join the army and relinquish his Japanese ties. Ichiro hates himself, and this is emphasized by the grief and lament he feels at his actions, that put him in a "prison which he had carved out of his own stupidity [that] granted neither paroles nor pardons...a prison of forever" (Okada, 40). Ichiro seems to accept the notion that for him, freedom is just a word. He knows that he is not American, despite his desire to be one. He accepts no alleviation, no reprieve at being released from prison. Rather, he is engulfed by anguish. Ichiro's conflicts mirror the American democracy's
Freddie does have some differences from Ichiro that are central to his character. Where Ichiro can't help but feel bitter about his state of affairs, Freddie doesn't. He chooses to be angry at the American government and democracy for what it's done to him. There are various instances where he almost seems to be against the world, thinking that he's the only one who cares about his people. Ichiro even comments to Freddie, "...you're out to lick the system singlehanded" (Okada 242). Freddie's ill-fated demise at the end of the novel is symbolic in that it shows what happens when one tries to fight the system alone and fails.
With Kenji, Okada treats him as an example of the repercussions of total loyalty and the cost of becoming American through a trial by war. Kenji's cynical nature and skepticism shine through when debating the acceptance of foreigners into the American culture. To him, it is paradoxical for Japanese-Americans to gain anything when they must either swear complete loyalty to the American Government or be imprisoned. Even his injury serves as an example of American policy. In the same way it is continually chopped up to keep a lethal infection at bay, so to did the American policy treat the Japanese-Americans as an unwanted pestilence by ridding of them through any legal means possible.
Okada also shows the perspective of the Issei, or first generation Japan-born Japanese-American, with a devotion to Japan. Despite being aware that Japan did not win the war, they are unable to accept it. To anyone who thinks otherwise and tries to convince them to see reason, these particular Issei show pure antipathy. One such character in this novel fulfilling this role happens to be Ichiro's mother, whose name is never revealed so as to generalize her character as a symbol of this type of person. Ichiro's mother is a fierce nationalist who feels that any Japanese that fought in the war for the United States Army, or even began to adjust to an American lifestyle, are dead to her. More importantly, they are dead to Japan. It is almost as though these people, because they "deserted" their Japanese roots, never even existed to her. She represents the feeling of betrayal felt from the Americans when they learned of the No-No Boys that would not serve the army.
The advantage to having all these people and their experiences in the novel is that Okada manages to keep the reader fully alert and aware of what is going on. In the novel, there is more conflict amongst the Japanese-Americans than between the Americans and Japanese-Americans. Bringing all these factors into play, the novel showcases the many contradictions of American democracy and it's treatment of the Japanese-Americans. The dysfunctional characters and their conflicts of interest are allegory to the clashes within their government, and how it betrayed them to their fate. Ichiro even points this out early on in the book: "It's because we're American and because we're Japanese and sometimes the two don't mix...you had to be one or the other" (Okada, 9). The analogousness of that black and white mentality is what clashes with the melting pot nature of the United States of America, and successfuly displays the ambivalence of American democracy.