Aggressive Regionalism: Texts
16. John Okada, No-No Boy
John Okada, No-No Boy (1957; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979), 1-11.
Two weeks after his twenty-fifth birthday, Ichiro got off a bus at Second and Main in Seattle. He had been gone four years, two in camp and two in prison.
Walking down the Street that autumn morning with a small, black suitcase, he felt like an intruder in a world to which he had no claim. It was just enough that he should feel this way, for, of his own free will, he had stood before the judge and said that he would not go in the army. At the time there was no other choice for him. That was when he was twenty-three, a man of twenty-three. Now, two years older, he was even more of a man.
Christ, he thought to himself, just a goddamn kid is all I was. Didn’t know enough to wipe my own nose. What the hell have I done? What am I doing back here? Best thing I can do would be to kill some son of a bitch and head back to prison.
He walked toward the railroad depot where the tower with the clocks on all four sides was. It was a dirty looking tower of ancient brick. It was a dirty city. Dirtier, certainly, than it had a right to be after only four years.
Waiting for the light to change to green, he looked around at the people standing at the bus stop. A couple of men in suits, half a dozen women who failed to arouse him even after prolonged good behavior, and a young Japanese with a lunch bucket. Ichiro studied him, searching in his mind for the name that went with
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the round, pimply face and the short-cropped hair. The pimples were gone and the face had hardened, but the hair was still cropped. The fellow wore green, army-fatigue trousers and an Eisenhower jacket—Eto Minato. The name came to him at the same time as did the horrible significance of the army clothes. In panic, he started to step off the curb. It was too late. He had been seen.
“Itchy!” That was his nickname.
Trying to escape, Ichiro urged his legs frenziedly across the street.
“Hey, Itchy!” The caller’s footsteps ran toward him.
An arm was placed across his back. Ichiro stopped and faced the other Japanese. He tried to smile, but could not. There was no way out now.
“I’m Eto. Remember?” Eto smiled and extended his palm. Reluctantly, Ichiro lifted his own hand and let the other shake it.
The round face with the round eyes peered at him through silver-rimmed spectacles. “What the hell! It’s been a long time, but not that long. How’ve you been? What’s doing?”
“Well . . . that is, I’m . . .”
“Last time must have been before Pearl Harbor. God, it’s been quite a while, hasn’t it? Three, no, closer to four years, I guess. Lotsa Japs coming back to the Coast. Lotsa Japs in Seattle. You’ll see ‘em around. Japs are funny that way. Gotta have their rice and saké and other Japs. Stupid, I say. The smart ones went to Chicago and New York and lotsa places back east, but there’s still plenty coming back out this way.” Eto drew cigarettes from his breast pocket and held out the package. “No? Well, I’ll have one. Got the habit in the army. Just got out a short while back. Rough time, but I made it. Didn’t get out in time to make the quarter, but I’m planning to go to school. How long you been
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Ichiro touched his toe to the suitcase. “Just got in. Haven’t been home yet.”
“When’d you get discharged?”
A car grinding its gears started down the street. He wished he were in it. “I . . . that is . . . I never was in.”
Eto slapped him good-naturedly on the arm. “No need to look so sour. So you weren’t in. So what? Been in camp all this time?”
“No.” He made an effort to be free of Eto with his questions. He felt as if he were in a small room whose walls were slowly closing in on him. “It’s been a long time, I know, but I’m really anxious to see the folks.”
“What the hell. Let’s have a drink. On me. I don’t give a damn if I’m late to work. As for your folks, you’ll see them soon enough. You drink, don’t you?”
“Yeah, but not now.”
“Ahh.” Eto was disappointed. He shifted his lunch box from under one arm to the other.
“I’ve really got to be going.”
The round face wasn’t smiling any more. It was thoughtful. The eyes confronted Ichiro with indecision which changed slowly to enlightenment and then to suspicion. He remembered. He knew.
The friendliness was gone as he said: “No-no boy, huh?”
Ichiro wanted to say yes. He wanted to return the look of despising hatred and say simply yes, but it was too much to say. The walls had closed in and were crushing all the unspoken words back down into his stomach. He shook his head once, not wanting to evade the eyes but finding it impossible to meet them. Out of his big weakness the little ones were branching, and the eyes he didn’t have the courage to face were ever present. If it would have helped to gouge out his own eyes, he would have done so long ago. The hate-churned
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eyes with the stamp of unrelenting condemnation were his cross and he had driven the nails with his own hands.
“Rotten bastard. Shit on you.” Eto coughed up a mouthful of sputum and rolled his words around it: “Rotten, no-good bastard.”
Surprisingly, Ichiro felt relieved. Eto’s anger seemed to serve as a release to his own naked tensions. As he stooped to lift the suitcase a wet wad splattered over his hand and dropped onto the black leather. The legs of his accuser were in front of him. God in a pair of green fatigues, U.S. Army style. They were the legs of the jury that had passed sentence upon him. Beseech me, they seemed to say, throw your arms about me and bury your head between my knees and seek pardon for your great sin.
“I’ll piss on you next time,” said Eto vehemently.
He turned as he lifted his suitcase off the ground and hurried away from the legs and the eyes from which no escape was possible.
Jackson Street started at the waterfront and stretched past two train depots and up the hill all the way to the lake, where the houses were bigger and cleaner and had garages with late-model cars in them. For Ichiro, Jackson Street signified that section of the city immediately beyond the railroad tracks between Fifth and Twelfth Avenues. That was the section which used to be pretty much Japanese town. It was adjacent to Chinatown and most of the gambling and prostitution and drinking seemed to favor the area.
Like the dirty clock tower of the depot, the filth of Jackson Street had increased. Ichiro paused momentarily at an alley and peered down the passage formed by the walls of two sagging buildings. There had been a door there at one time, a back door to a movie house that only charged a nickel. A nickel was a lot of money
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when he had been seven or nine or eleven. He wanted to go into the alley to see if the door was still there.
Being on Jackson Street with its familiar store fronts and taverns and restaurants, which were somehow different because the war had left its mark on them, was like trying to find one’s way out of a dream that seemed real most of the time but wasn’t really real because it was still only a dream. The war had wrought violent changes upon the people, and the people, in turn, working hard and living hard and earning a lot of money and spending it on whatever was available, had distorted the profile of Jackson Street. The street had about it an air of carnival without quite succeeding at becoming one. A shooting gallery stood where once had been a clothing store; fish and chips had replaced a jewelry shop; and a bunch of Negroes were horsing around raucously in front of a pool parlor. Everything looked older and dirtier and shabbier.
He walked past the pool parlor, picking his way gingerly among the Negroes, of whom there had been only a few at one time and of whom there seemed to be nothing but now. They were smoking and shouting and cussing and carousing and the sidewalk was slimy with their spittle.
His pace quickened automatically, but curiosity or fear or indignation of whatever it was made him glance back at the white teeth framed in a leering dark brown which was almost black.
“Go back to Tokyo, boy.” Persecution in the drawl of the persecuted.
The white teeth and brown-black leers picked up the cue and jugged to the rhythmical chanting of “Jap-boy, To-ki-yo; Jap-boy, To-ki-yo . . .”
Friggin’ niggers, he uttered savagely to himself and, from the same place deep down inside where tolerance
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for the Negroes and Jews and the Mexicans and the Chinese and the too short and too fat and too ugly abided because he was Japanese and knew what it was like better than did those who were white and average and middle class and good Democrats or liberal Republicans, the hate which was unrelenting and terrifying seethed up.
Then he was home. It was a hole in the wall with groceries crammed in orderly confusion on not enough shelving, into not enough space. He knew what it would be like even before he stepped in. His father had described the place to him in a letter, composed in simple Japanese characters because otherwise Ichiro could not have read it. The letter had been purposely repetitive and painstakingly detailed so that Ichiro should not have any difficulty finding the place. The grocery store was the same one the Ozakis had operated for many years. That’s all his father had had to say. Come to the grocery store which was once the store of the Ozakis. The Japanese characters, written simply so that he could read them, covered pages of directions as if he were a foreigner coming to the city for the first time.
Thinking about the letter made him so mad that he forgot about the Negroes. He opened the door just as he had a thousand times when they had lived farther down the block and he used to go to the Ozakis’ for a loaf of bread or a jar of pickled scallions, and the bell tinkled just as he knew it would. All the grocery stores he ever knew had bells which tinkled when one opened the door and the familiar sound softened his inner turmoil.
“Ichiro?” The short, round man who came through the curtains at the back of the store uttered the name preciously as might an old woman. “Ya, Ichiro, you have come home. How good that you have come home!” The gently spoken Japanese which he had not
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heard for so long sounded strange. He would hear a great deal of it now that he was home, for his parents, like most of the old Japanese, spoke virtually no English. On the other hand, the children, like Ichiro, spoke almost no Japanese. Thus they communicated, the old speaking Japanese with an occasional badly mispronounced word or two of English; and the young, with the exception of a simple word or phrase of Japanese which came fairly effortlessly to the lips, resorted almost constantly to the tongue the parents avoided.
The father bounced silently over the wood flooring in slippered feet toward his son. Fondly, delicately, he placed a pudgy hand on Ichiro’s elbow and looked up at his son who was Japanese but who had been big enough for football and tall enough for basketball in high school. He pushed the elbow and Ichiro led the way into the back, where there was a kitchen, a bathroom, and one bedroom. He looked around the bedroom and felt like puking. It was neat and clean and scrubbed. His mother would have seen to that. It was just the idea of everybody sleeping in the one room. He wondered if his folks still pounded flesh.
He backed out of the bedroom and slumped down on a stool. “Where’s Ma?”
“Mama is gone to the bakery.” The father kept his beaming eyes on his son who was big and tall. He shut off the flow of water and shifted the metal teapot to the stove.
“Bread,” his father said in reply, “bread for the store.”
“Don’t they deliver?”
“Ya, they deliver.” He ran a damp rag over the table, which was spotlessly clean.
“What the hell is she doing at the bakery then?”
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“It is good business, Ichiro.” He was at the cupboard, fussing with the tea cups and saucers and cookies. “The truck comes in the morning. We take enough for the morning business. For the afternoon, we get soft, fresh bread. Mama goes to the bakery.”
Ichiro tried to think of a bakery nearby and couldn’t. There was a big Wonder Bread bakery way up on Nineteenth, where a nickel used to buy a bagful of day-old stuff. That was thirteen and a half blocks, all uphill. He knew the distance by heart because he’d walked it twice every day to go to grade school, which was a half-block beyond the bakery or fourteen blocks from home.
The water on the stove began to boil and the old man flipped the lid on the pot and tossed in a pinch of leaves. “Wonder Bread.”
“Is that the one on Nineteenth?”
“How much do you make on bread?”
"Let's see," he said pouring the tea, "Oh, three, four cents. Depends."
"How many loaves does Ma get?"
“Ten or twelve. Depends.”
Ten loaves at three or four cents’ profit added up to thirty or forty cents. He compromised at thirty-five cents and asked the next question: “The bus, how much is it?”
“Oh, let’s see.” He sipped the tea noisily, sucking it through his teeth in well regulated gulps. “Let’s see. Fifteen cents for one time. Tokens are two for twenty-five cents. That is twelve and one-half cents.”
Twenty-five cents for bus fare to get ten loaves of bread which turned a profit of thirty-five cents. It would take easily an hour to make the trip up and back. He didn’t mean to shout, but he shouted: “Christ, Pa, what else do you give away?”
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His father peered over the teacup with a look of innocent surprise.
It made him madder. “Figure it out. Just figure it out. Say you made thirty-five cents on ten loaves. You take a bus up and back and there’s twenty-five cents shot. That leaves ten cents. On top of that, there’s an hour wasted. What are you running a business for? Your health?
Slup went the tea through his teeth, slup, slup, slup. “Mama walks.” He sat there looking at his son like a benevolent Buddha.
Ichiro lifted the cup to his lips and let the liquid burn down his throat. His father had said “Mama walks” and that made things right with the world. The overwhelming simplicity of the explanation threatened to evoke silly giggles which, if permitted to escape, might lead to hysterics. He clenched his fists and subdued them.
At the opposite end of the table the father had slupped the last of his tea and was already taking the few steps to the sink to rinse out the cup.
“Goddammit, Pa, sit down!” He’d never realized how nervous a man his father was. The old man had constantly been doing something every minute since he had come. It didn’t figure. Here he was, round and fat and cheerful-looking and, yet, he was going incessantly as though his trousers were crawling with ants.
“Ya, Ichiro, I forget you have just come home. We should talk.” He resumed his seat at the table and busied his fingers with a box of matches.
Ichiro stepped out of the kitchen, spotted the cigarettes behind the cash register, and returned with a pack of Camels. Lighting a match, the old man held it between his fingers and waited until the son opened the package and put a cigarette in his mouth. By then the match was threatening to sear his fingers. He dropped
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it hastily and stole a sheepish glance at Ichiro, who reached for the box and struck his own match.
“Ichiro.” There was a timorousness in the father’s voice. Or was it apology?
“Was it very hard?”
“No. It was fun.” The sarcasm didn’t take.
“You are sorry?” He was waddling over rocky ground on a pitch-black night and he didn’t like it one bit.
“I’m okay, Pa. It’s finished. Done and finished. No use talking about it.”
“True,” said the old man too heartily. “it is done and there is no use to talk.” The bell tinkled and he leaped from the chair and fled out of the kitchen.
Using the butt of his first cigarette, Ichiro lit another. He heard his father’s voice in the store.
“Mama. Ichiro. Ichiro is here.”
The sharp, lifeless tone of his mother’s words flipped through the silence and he knew that she hadn’t changed.
“The bread must be put out.”
In other homes mother and fathers and sons and daughters rushed into hungry arms after week-end separations to find assurance in crushing embraces and loving kisses. The last time he saw his mother was over two years ago. He waited, seeing in the sounds of the rustling waxed paper the stiff, angular figure of the woman stacking the bread on the rack in neat, precise piles.
His father came back into the kitchen with a little less bounce and began to wash the cups. She came through the curtains and a few minutes after, a small, flat-chested, shapeless woman who wore her hair pulled back into a tight bun. Hers was the awkward, skinny body of a thirteen-year-old which had dried and toughened through the many years following but which had devel-
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oped no further. He wondered how the two of them had ever gotten together long enough to have two sons.
“I am proud that you are back,” she said. “I am proud to call you my son.”
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 and that she was the mother who had put this thing in her son and that everything that had been done and said was exactly as it should have been and that that was what made him her son because no other would have made her feel the pride that was in her breast.
He looked at his mother and swallowed with difficulty the bitterness that threatened to destroy the last fragment of understanding for the woman who was his mother and still a stranger because, in truth, he could not know what it was to be a Japanese who breathed the air of America and yet had never lifted a foot from the land that was Japan.
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