Saturday, March 17, 2007

This Way To Japantown: Nisei Experience in John Okada's "No-No Boy" and Milton Murayama's "All I Is Asking For Is My Body"

We Americans have short historical memories. For many Japanese-Americans, the American dream has been an utter nightmare. Many Americans recall the cruelly unjust internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two, but few are aware of the dreadful Third World slave labor conditions under which Japanese (and other Asian) immigrants suffered while working in Hawaiian plantations in the first half of the twentieth century.

When I took a class in “American Immigrant Literature” as a graduate student in Queens College’s English department, I was asked to write a paper in April 1994 on the immigrant literature of my choice. After having written so much about Japan, I thought it would be interesting to also write about the Japanese-American experience, and I chose the two foremost classics of the Japanese-American experience, John Okada's No-No Boy and Milton Murayama's All I Is Asking For Is My Body.

My mother was living in Berkeley, California in December 1941 after Pearl Harbor when Japanese-Americans were given only 24 hours to pack up their belongings, sell their homes and businesses, and move en masse to bleak detention camps and an uncertain future. My mother was close friends with several Nisei whose lives were permanently shattered by the Internment, and she never got over how unfair she thought it was. I grew up on stories about the gross injustice done to these “24-hour people,” as they were known in the Japanese-American community.

And when I was growing up, the Internment wasn’t an abstraction. During my childhood in Arden, Delaware, the owner of the Arden General Store was a California Nisei who’d been interned, and my mother was amazed by the fact that she never once heard him speak bitterly about the United States. Perhaps he was hurt too deeply.

After I moved to New York in 1987, I met an elderly Japanese-American accountant who was another one of the "24-hour people," and he was very bitter. He kept a copy of the famous 24-hour advance notice that was posted everywhere on the West Coast hanging on the wall of his office as a constant reminder of the indignities that he and his family had suffered, and the damned thing stared out at you from his institutional-green wall like a poster of Big Brother.

He had never forgiven the United States, and as I learned after listening him talk about his lost years behind barbed wire, he never would.

We here in America like to think we’re very far removed from the barbarism of Nazi Germany and feudal Third World poverty and oppression. But if we read between the lines of American history (like the protagonist of Lu Xun’s towering 1918 Chinese classic, Diary of a Madman), we can see that in many ways, under artful disguises, it’s happened here.

This Way To Japantown: Nisei Experience in John Okada's No-No Boy and Milton Murayama's All I Is Asking For Is My Body

According to most literary critics, the two most important novels dealing with the Nisei (second-generation Japanese-American) experience are John Okada's No-No Boy (1957) and Milton Murayama's All I Asking For Is My Body (1975). After many long years of neglect, these works are being praised for the light they shed on a corner of the American experience that has hitherto been totally ignored. Both books share great similarities; they both deal with the second-generation Japanese-American experience and the peculiar conflicts that arise from being Nisei in America. Both novels clearly aspire, in the Naturalistic tradition of Frank Norris, of being "the Great Japanese-American Novel," the definitive literary summation of what it is like to be Nisei in the United States. However, these books prove that there exists no monolithic "Nisei experience" in the United States.

John Okada

No-No Boy deals with the paradigmatic conflict of the Nisei experience in America: the terrible mass internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps in the western United States and its moral consequences. But one might think a "typical" Nisei novel would take place in California, the home of the majority of the interned Japanese-Americans (something on the order of the 1973 nonfiction internment classic Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston). Atypically, No-No Boy is set in the Pacific Northwest, specifically in the then relatively humdrum city of Seattle, Washington—not in the teeming metropoli of Los Angeles or San Francisco, where one would think the "big" Nisei novel would take place.

All I Asking For Is My Body is set in a wholly different universe altogether. It is the story of a people who come pretty close to fitting the description of Franz Fanon's "the wretched of the earth." It centers around the Oyamas, a Japanese-American family that slaves in a Hawaiian sugar plantation in the Thirties and Forties, surviving in grim living conditions that more than one observer has compared to a concentration camp. (Ronald Takaki writes movingly in his Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii 1835-1920 about the terrible living conditions suffered by these Asian immigrants.) (1) Where No-No Boy focuses on the moral dilemma of middle-class Japanese-Americans in the aftermath of the Internment, All I Asking For Is My Body focuses on people who hardly seem to be living in the United States at all; the Third World, maybe, but nowhere that Thornton Wilder has been to.

Playwright Frank Chin has dubbed John Okada "the greatest Asian American writer who ever wrote," (2) and it is not hard to see why. For what it lacks in elegance of literary style and plausibility of plotting, No-No Boy more than makes up for with moral forthrightness and a fearless drive to attack social, racial, and political issues head on. Okada jumps right in by making his protagonist a classic Melvillian isolato; he's a "no-no boy," a Nisei conscientious objector who chose a prison sentence rather than serve in the Army of the hated United States government that locked up every Nisei it could locate on the West Coast.

"John Okada was not [a] No-No Boy. He served in WWII hanging out over an airplane over Japanese-held islands asking their occupants in their own language to give up." (3) But just as Mark Twain suffered guilt feelings for years for not having participated in the Civil War, so Okada tried to make up for his own uneasiness at not having made the Great Refusal by creating in his protagonist, Ichiro, someone who, in Herman Melville's words, declared "No!" in thunder.

Significantly, he employs a narrative framing device in his "Preface" where he introduces a character whose background sounds suspiciously like his own:

Two years later a good Japanese-American who had volunteered for the army sat smoking in the belly of a B-24 on his way back to Guam from a reconnaissance flight to Japan. His job was to listen through his earphones, which were attached to a high-frequency set, and jot down air-ground messages spoken by Japanese-Japanese in Japanese planes and in Japanese radio shacks. (4)

This nameless "good Japanese-American" falls into a conversation with another airman, a "blond giant from Nebraska," who innocently asks the Nisei where his family is living now. After the Nisei tells the Nebraskan about the Internment, the Nebraskan reacts with shock, disbelief (he has to be told twice) and outrage; he cannot believe the Nisei is fighting for the country that has imprisoned his family and his people: "'They could kiss my ass,' said the lieutenant from Nebraska.'" (5) This is the typical reaction of an average (Anglo-Saxon) American, and Okada spends the rest of the novel exploring the reasons why the "good Japanese-American" (himself) said yes to the Army and why others like Ichiro were compelled to say no.

Okada finds the answers in the Japanese family structure, the ties of tradition that still bind the Nisei to Japanese society, and the maltreatment the Japanese have suffered at the hands of American society. In the homecoming chapter that opens the formal action of the novel, Ichiro returns home from prison to confront his family and resolve the reasons why he chose prison over military service. We learn he places the blame for his decision largely on the shoulders of his mother, who represents the weight of Japanese tradition.

His mother is the classic unassimilated immigrant; she still clings to the old country, dreams of returning to Japan, and continues to hold Japan and everything Japanese in the highest esteem. It was she as the upholder of cultural tradition who urged Ichiro not to serve in the army. One of the signal beliefs of Japanese culture is that all people of Japanese heritage are in reality members of the same family—the Yamato clan—and so for Ichiro's mother, a dyed-in-the-wool nationalist, to have her son kill fellow Japanese (Pearl Harbor be damned) would be tantamount to fratricide.

Once again, Ansel Adams captures the beauty and majesty of the Old West

On his return home, after she tells him how proud of him she is for having spit in Uncle Sam's eye, Ichiro thinks: "It was her way of saying that she had made him what he was and that the thing in him which made him say no to the judge and go to prison for two years was the growth of a seed planted by the mother tree..." (6)

Granted, Ichiro is a burned-out case when we meet him for the first time, but by placing the responsibility for his decision not to cooperate with the government solely on his mother, Okada is robbing his novel of a powerful dramatic possibility; namely, the elucidation of Ichiro's rage against American society and his radical alienation from it. Why can't Ichiro's refusal stem from the fact that he just goddamn hates American society for ripping himself, his family, and everyone he knows out of their homes on twenty-four hours' notice, robbing them of all their possessions, and throwing them into charming places like Tule Lake (a California internment camp noted for its bleakness)? Wouldn't that be reason enough for his refusal?

There are several possible reasons for this narrative stratagem on Okada's part. One is that from the outside, it might seem like an easy thing to shake your fist in the jailer's face, but in reality, Ichiro may have been so overwhelmed by the crushing force of American society, as manifested in the Internment, that his capacity for rage had become numbed. After two years in a concentration camp, the fight may have gone out of him, and when confronted with a real moral dilemma—two years in the Army or two years in the slam?—the best he could muster in terms of resistance was to fall back on his mother's adherence to Japan. Okada may have modeled Ichiro on resisters he knew whose rebellion was quiet rather than dramatic; Ichiro may resemble Bartleby the Scrivener more than Captain Ahab, but that does not mean that his quiet, "No, I would prefer not to," does not carry as much weight as Ahab shaking his fist at the heavens and crying, "I would strike the sun if it did insult me!"

On the other hand, Okada's burial of Ichiro's rage may have been a reasoned, practical, commercial strategy. He may well have been aware that No-No Boy was going to a near-impossible sell anyway—in 1957, who in the hell wanted to read a novel about an interned Nisei who commits near treason by refusing to serve his beloved country? Who would feel sorry for him? 1957 was the height of the American Imperium, and back then if you refused to serve your country, you received treatment that today is largely reserved for the likes of Jeffrey Daumer. (Let's not forget that 1957 was the year American society crushed the rebellious spirit of rock-and-roll by drafting Elvis Presley into the army and declaring, See, we own his ass too. [7])

Considering the racial politics of the day, Okada may have decided that it would be the utter kiss of death for No-No Boy if he made its protagonist a Japanese-American war resister who still nursed a burning fury for white America in his heart. As it was, the only publisher he could find was Charles Tuttle, a renowned publisher of Japanocentric books; Tuttle himself was a former Occupationnaire.

Ichiro spends the rest of the novel in a stricken Wanderjahr, playing off the other characters in an effort to resolve his inner conflicts about his national loyalty and to quell his suffocating depression. His family is of no help; his father is an ineffectual but well-meaning drunk, and his stubborn mother, who begins the book by insisting that Japan never lost the war, slides deeper and deeper into dementia until she commits suicide at the end of the novel. (Ichiro makes much of how her hate has poisoned the family, and in this way she very much resembles the hate-riddled black mother of John A. Williams' underrecognized 1961 novel Sissy; in both books, the mother's hatred of white America stands in the way of her children’s ability to function in mainstream American society.)

His younger brother Taro is angry and resentful of the shame Ichiro has brought to the family—Taro sees his brother (with his mother) as just another example of how the Japanese past is corroding their family's chances of succeeding in America—and Taro ends up joining the Army in an attempt to make up for Ichiro's "disgrace." Thus Taro solves the problem of assimilating into American society by not saying no, but a resounding yes.

Ichiro encounters other characters who are, in varying degrees, alternate versions of himself: Nisei men who either, like himself, said no, or who said yes, all of whom had to pay a price for their divided national loyalties. His friend Freddie, a fellow "no-no boy," spends his days in idle, useless rebellion, living the life of an irritating troublemaker and fringe juvenile delinquent; looking at him, Ichiro can see what road not to take. He also encounters the Kumasaka family, whose son said yes to the Army and paid for his obedience with his life; he was killed in action, another baleful choice.

By far the most interesting "double" Ichiro encounters is Kenji Kanno, the crippled war veteran who is slowly dying of gangrenous poisoning. One senses that Kenji is possibly a version of Ichiro if he had gone to war and been "luckier" than the Kumasaka's son. Okada makes it explicit that they are spiritual twins; America by its demands has converted them both into specimens of the living dead:

So they sat silently through the next drink, one already dead but still alive and contemplating fifty or sixty more years of dead aliveness, and the other, living and dying slowly. They were two extremes, the Japanese who was more American than most Americans because he had crept to the brink of death for America, and the other who was neither Japanese nor American because he had failed to recognize the gift of his birthright when recognition meant everything. (8)

Paradoxically it is Kenji who, while dying, passes on the torch of life and hope to Ichiro. He not only offers his friendship and companionship while everyone else in the community is ostracizing him; most importantly, he also instigates a love affair between Ichiro and the beautiful Emi, whose husband Ralph remains in the Army because his brother Mike (another "no-no boy") chose to repatriate to Japan rather than remain in Tule Lake. It is this love affair with Emi that finally brings Ichiro out of his emotional shell and enables him to see a future for himself.

In the moral schema of the novel, Kenji's eventual death in a hospital bed gives Ichiro the permission to live. He goes on to hunt for a job and encounters a kindly white man, Mr. Carrick, who offers him a job full aware of his conscientious objector status and who shows genuine contrition for the Internment. The character of Mr. Carrick is there not only to show that not all Americans are made in the image of Earl Warren (who as Governor of California was instrumental in the Internment), but also to prove that the racial attitudes borne of wartime hysteria are not graven in stone and will be subject to change over time.

After 9/11, extremist commentator Michele Malkin wrote a book praising the Internment

The plot winds down with a series of increasingly melodramatic incidents; Kenji dies of gangrene, Ichiro's mother drowns herself in the bathtub after finally accepting Japan lost the war, Ichiro gets jumped in an alley following an altercation in a bar, and Freddie dies in car crash after a bar fight. It is as though after having made his point, Okada doesn't know what to do except clear the stage through violent death in the tradition of Jacobean drama.

All due respect for him as a writer—and No-No Boy is remarkable for its approach to its controversial subject matter—but often his style is clunky, his plotting forced, and all in all, as a piece of serious postwar American literature, No-No Boy suffers badly when placed in comparison with a major work of mainstream fiction like The Deer Park by Norman Mailer, published two years previously in 1955. However, in all fairness to John Okada, there might be an obvious cultural reason for this flaw, namely, the poor English that was handed down to the Nisei of his generation and the difficulty Nisei children had juggling English at school with Japanese at home. Franklin S. Odo alludes to this in his "Afterword" to All I Asking For Is My Body. (9)

Although the Internment never directly impinges on them, the Oyama family of All I Asking For Is My Body are in a prison as surely as Ichiro was in No-No Boy, the prison of grinding poverty. Through his narrator, Kiyoshi, Milton Murayama describes it vividly through the politics of shit:

The place was so country they used newspaper for toilet paper, and each outhouse building was partitioned into four toilets.... There were a half a dozen rows of outhouses and the ditches under them were flushed downhill to a big concrete irrigation ditch which ran around the lower boundary of the camp, and sooner or later, shit, newspaper and all ended up in the furrows of the fields below. The plantation had built pigpens along the four-foot-high kukai ditch, and rented them to the workers. Every family kept pigs.

The house we moved into, No. 173, was the last house on "Pig Pen Avenue" and next to the pigpens and the ditch, and when the wind stopped blowing or when the warm kona wind blew from the south, our house smelled both like an outhouse and a pigpen. Worse yet, the family debt was now over $6,000, and the average plantation pay for forty-eight hours a week was $25 a month for adults. There was no sick pay, no holiday pay though you got off Christmas, New Year's, and one day during the County Fair in October. (10)

James Dole, feudal owner of the gigantic and brutal Dole pineapple plantation

"'Ray Stannard Baker called this the last surviving vestige of feudalism in the United States,'" says Mr. Snook, a leftist teacher who tries to wake up the plantation children to their terrible exploitation. "'He was absolutely right. The plantation divides and rules, and you the exploited are perfectly happy to be divided and ruled.'" (11)

Kiyoshi and his rebellious older brother Toshio are oppressed not only by white America, represented by the plantation system, but also by the rigid Japanese family structure and by traditional Japanese obeisance to authority. When Mr. Snook asks his class what are the primary virtues, one Nisei boy parrots the prototypical Japanese virtues: "'The best are filial piety, patience, knowing your place, loyalty, knowing your duty, hard work, guts.'" (12) Kiyoshi enumerates: "The Japanese had this special spirit called Yamato damashi [national soul], and they had more patience, perseverance, reserve, sense of duty, frugality, filial piety, and industry than any other race." (13)

Naturally, these qualities make for ideal, passive plantation workers. Despite their poverty and the notoriously patriarchal nature of Japanese society, Kiyoshi and Toshio have parents who are far from dictatorial or abusive: "Many fathers were miniature emperors, they took everything for granted, they didn't even say 'Thank you." But father was different, and he never crowded me like Tosh or mother, not openly anyway." (14)

However, a tyrant does tower over Kiyoshi and Toshio, and that is the $6,000 debt that their parents inherited from Kiyoshi's paternal grandfather. Mr. Oyama is a feckless businessman who has placed his entire family in indentured servitude in order to pay off his towering debts. He refuses to declare bankruptcy, and thereby free his family from this burden of debt, so that he can "save face" with his creditors. As he grows into manhood, Toshio is constantly yelling at his parents about the unfairness of this, that he and his brother Kiyoshi are doomed for slave in the plantation for the rest of their lives just so grandfather can save face. In an impassioned outburst that explains the book's title, he screams at his parents:

"Shit, all I asking for is my body. I doan wanna die on the plantation like those other dumb dodoes. Sometimes I get so mad I wanna kill them, know what I mean?" (15)

Grandfather's debt is a striking example of how authority can be abused in the Japanese family and social system, the dead hand of the past reaching out to strangle the future. It is under this mountain of debt that the entire family toils for the entirety of the book, until at the end, when Kiyoshi joins the army after Pearl Harbor and wins over $6,000 in a crap game, thereby freeing his family from the suffocating weight of tradition. It is significant that Kiyoshi has to join the army to do this; he has to leave home, become independent, and become assimilated, and by exercising his self-reliance in the crap game (he schematizes the odds [16]), he is able to wipe the slate of the past (the Japanese past) clean, and thereby become an American.

Critic Edward A. Shaw has written: "The title indicates the dutiful bondage of culture and economics in which the rebellious sons struggle and mature. The irony is that it is fighting, war, and gambling that ultimately free the family and the two boys from the cultural, social, and economic bondage." (17) But the irony is not that great. History may have accidentally freed them, but the "fighting, war, and gambling" Shaw mentions are really byproducts of Kiyoshi's and Toshio's newfound American self-reliance. In scenes reminiscent of From Here to Eternity, both boys pursue boxing as a means out of the plantation ghetto; by channeling their aggression, they are learning to become independent and warring to free themselves from the suffocating social constraints that envelope them.

Kiyoshi's gambling at the end of the book is hardly a matter of luck; he figures the odds, he takes chances, and most importantly, he learns to rely on himself and his own instincts. This is all in contradiction to the enumerated list of Japanese virtues mentioned above, all of which entail obedience to the group rather than confidence in oneself as an individual.

As a work of literature, All I Asking For Is My Body is certainly more satisfying than No-No Boy. Where Okada is constantly wandering off into Wolfean diatribes about "the nature of America," Murayama is content to stick to the facts and recollect the details of his astonishing childhood. In the process he has fashioned a piece of writing that reads like a cross between The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Children of Sanchez. By not writing directly about his experience, Okada falls back on melodramatic plotting tricks. In fairness to Okada, he is trying to write a Big Picture novel; but Murayama achieves a greater success by aiming for a tighter focus and by polishing his literary gems.

From what can be gathered from Lawson Fusao Inada's introduction and Frank Chin's afterword, John Okada led an unhappy, frustrated life; he died of a heart attack at age 47, possibly induced by stress and artistic frustration. Perhaps that was the price he paid for being a pioneer of Nisei literature. Murayama, by contrast, seems much happier and published a prequel to All I Asking For Is My Body, entitled Five Years On a Rock, in 1994, followed by Plantation Boy in 1998. At this writing (2007), he is still alive, at age 83. Both men are contemporaries; Okada published No-No Boy in 1957, and Murayama first published his work in 1959. Both men, interestingly enough, earned advanced degrees at Columbia.

Both writers created landmark works of Nisei literature, both excellent stabs at "the Great Japanese-American Novel." As can be seen, however, there is no single "Nisei experience"; it can be as varied as much as a crowded Seattle grocery store differs from a foetid Hawaiian sugar plantation. But in both books, we are shown the terrible price paid by the protagonists for satisfying the unreasonable demands of two very conformist cultures, the Japanese and the American, while being torn asunder by recent history, and one senses that that price was paid by the authors themselves as well.


1. See Ronald Takaki, Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii 1835-1920 (Honolulu, 1983).

2. Frank Chin, "Afterword" to No-No Boy by John Okada (Seattle, 1976), p. 253. All page references are from the University of Washington Press paperback edition.

3. Ibid., p. 256.

4. John Okada, No-No Boy, p. x.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., p. 11.

7. In 1977, on hearing the news that Elvis Presley had just died, John Lennon replied: "Elvis died the day he went in the army."

8. Ibid., p. 73.

9. Franklin S. Odo, "Afterword" to All I Asking For Is My Body by Milton Murayama (Honolulu, 1988), p. 106. All page references are from the University of Hawaii Press paperback edition.

10. Murayama, p. 29.

11. Ibid., p. 33.

12. Ibid., p. 35.

13. Ibid., p. 65.

14. Ibid., p. 90.

15. Ibid., p. 48.

16. He draws up a table on pp. 99-100.

17. Quoted on the backflap copy of the University of Hawaii paperback edition.


Murayama, Milton. All I Asking For Is My Body. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988.

Okada, John. No-No Boy. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976.

Takaki, Ronald. Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii 1835-1920 . Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983.

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