(Photo by Eliot Kamenitz)
By DELIA TOMINO NAKAYAMA
Why does John Okada’s “No-No Boy,” published in 1957, resonate with me, a Hapa Yonsei living in New Orleans, in 2016? So much that I felt compelled to travel to Seattle for a two-hour event on March 12 (go to www.sugiyamaproject.org for details), of which an hour was dedicated to discussing Okada’s life and work.
I stayed at the International Youth Hostel on South King Street in the Chinatown International District and slept in an upper bunk bed that looked out of a window onto a view of the clock tower that is mentioned in the first page of the book. I met with documentarian Frank Abe, who is working on a book about Okada’s work and life. I walked the streets, smelling the wet, drizzly air, the same air Okada knew.
I ate dim sum every morning at Dim Sum King, introduced to me by Bettie Luke of the Wing Luke Museum, the only pan-Asian American museum in the country.
I learned of the deep histories of the respective buildings that house the Panama Hotel, the Wing Luke Museum and the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington (go to www.panamahotel.net, www.wingluke.org, www.jcccw.org for more information). Indeed, there is much to be said for stepping into the physical locations where lives were led – in addition to reading about and discussing them.
Such experiences are of wordless value, and not easily quantifiable.
John Okada’s “No-No Boy” resonates with me because the main character, Ichiro Yamada, felt alone in a world that did not appreciate nor acknowledge his struggle. Being a California Hapa Yonsei (and one who chooses to maintain her ethnic identity) in New Orleans is endowed with its own unique struggles, unknown to most. I left the Bay Area in 2003, in search of a different reality, one where my Hapaness would not be an “issue”; where perhaps I might find some sense of belonging.
For despite what many people may declare in a persuasive and celebratory fashion, Haafus have yet to be unconditionally and completely embraced and accepted in Japanese American culture, even at this late date of 2016.
It’s usually a non-verbal distance; nothing is said outright. But the message is clear: “You are not one of us.” Through the averting of eyes and the lack of “Hello’s,” one is often made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.
And it is understandable. To see a mixed-race face is to see a face that symbolizes the loss of one’s culture. A face that does not reflect back a shared experience indicates “something else” is going on with the person who belongs to that face. Something that is unrelatable to the mainstream, historical Japanese American experience.
Indeed, I was not raised in a Japanese American community, and did not grow up learning JA ways. I worked in S.F. Japantown for a year, to try and recoup some of what was missing. I’ve also been to Japan three times, twice with my family and once by myself — and to be honest, it was in Japan where I found resonation despite how markedly different life is there.
But still, as many Japanese Americans know, one cannot really go back home to Japan. When there, we are spoken to in Japanese and the look of confusion and disappointment we are met with if and when we cannot respond in our mother tongue can be heartbreaking. Shame impregnates the air.
“How can you not know your language?” and “How could you be so careless?” are the questions that seem to be asked of us, silently and potently. This barrier (among others) often deters us as Japanese Americans from making pilgrimages back to the motherland, and again, understandably so.
So, realistically, living in Japan is not at least a typical option for most Japanese Americans. There are some — and perhaps many — that do make the transition and find their peace with never being truly Japanese, but being Japanese “enough” to function and be a part of society there. But on the whole, most Japanese Americans would not consider moving to Japan and living there.
Living in Japan has been a dream of mine since I was in my late twenties. Twenty years later, the dream still flickers hopefully, although seems less plausible as the years collect. I’ve reached a point of acceptance and do not yearn, although I often muse, “Still, one day…”
The difficulty of returning to Japan coupled with the glaring obviousness of never being thoroughly integrated into Japanese American culture leaves me, at least, in a cultural quandary. But it is Ichiro’s struggle that soothes me. The achingly honest machinations revealed in Ichiro’s private monologues validate my own inner battles. He did not merely notice racism, classism, sexism etc., but felt their sting.
In his exile, he was stripped of the comforting cultural stronghold of an “us” vs. “them” mentality that often pervades any specific culture. Ichiro was not racist, nor unpatriotic. He was truly seeking to find the good in all Americans and he was questing with integrity for the truth, even if it was ugly. He was not willing to shy away from the obvious or the nuanced.
As a visibly Asian Hapa living in New Orleans, I’ve experienced my own share of racism. The Asian population here is minimal, save for a large and extremely resilient post-war Vietnamese community far from where I live, in New Orleans East. And if subtle or blatant racism does not burn disquietingly, the lack of Nikkei and/or Asian culture echoes hollow… I moved to New Orleans to pursue creative inspirations – but one needs more, sometimes… The flipside is that I have been forced to examine my own racism towards African and European Americans – and critical introspection is of immeasurable value, and required “homework” as a conscious member of any society.
While in Seattle, I “asked” our earnest ancestor John Okada for advice. The response was simple: “Keep writing, and do not avoid angst.” Knowing that he struggled, wrote well, and gave voice to anyone who feels like an outsider or who notices what others may simply ignore or “bleep” over is of infinite comfort to me. His words travel beyond the grave and though it is a loss that his further writings were abandoned, we do have “No-No Boy”: a national treasure.
The book has been criticized for Ichiro’s confusion, and for incorrect representation, as Ichiro was actually a draft resister (learn more about draft resisters here: www.resisters.com), and not a no-no boy. The narrative reflects a period in Japanese American history that Was very confusing and bitingly representative of the Japanese American psyche at that time. Perhaps Okada wanted to pose questions and encourage research rather than neatly tie everything up? Perhaps he wanted to inspire discussion and debate by purposefully misrepresenting? One cannot quibble with the title’s searing profundity.
Initially, I was critical of Ichiro’s nationalistic mother being depicted as mentally ill, and the suggestion that loving and missing Japan meant one was wrong and/or crazy. But on separate occasions, playwright Ken Narasaki and Frank Abe illuminated (in different ways) that her character most likely symbolizes the tragedy and insanity of war, which makes utmost sense.
I reviewed Ken Narasaki’s theatrical interpretation of the book in the fall of 2014 after visiting NYC and at