Homeless At Home
The beginning of large scale Asian immigration into the United States started around the 1850’s, but their reception was unlike that of fellow white immigrants, instead they faced huge quantities of racism, lower wages and a lack of belonging. The latter of these struggles will be illustrated here as a sense of homelessness among Asians in America, which will be defined within the essay. The 1957 limited release of John Okada’s book No-No Boy will be used to diagram the lack of home many Asians felt, even when America was their home country, and through it will be a window into the struggles they underwent, specifically those of Japanese Americans just after WWII and the nationwide internment imposed upon them in America.
No-No Boy begins with the main character Ichiro’s return home from a two year sentence in prison for refusing his draft into the army during WWII. He returns to hatred from fellow Japanese who had served among the hatred of other races; he returns to a family shattered by the internment and a lack of national identity; he returns to a new home, a small store cramped with poverty, which he can scarcely call home. For Ichiro there is no home, not physically or mentally. Ichiro is representative of many Japanese Americans at the time, and the Asian American experience in this country for many years.
A close reading of one quote from the book will take primary focus in this essay, as it details this idea of homelessness better than any other. The focused of the quote is not literal though, it is metaphorical and nightmarish. Rather than describing something that happened to Ichiro, it is instead a description of what is happening inside of him.
From [a] sublime depth, a stranger awakens to strain his eyes into focus on the walls of a strange room. Where am I? he asks himself. There is a fleeting sound of lonely panic as he juggles into order the heavy, sleep-laden pieces of his mind’s puzzle. He is frightened because the bed is not his own. (Okada 39)
Looking closely at the words used, the quote begins with “from a sublime depth.” Sublime here means coming from a place of great awe, but scientifically it can also relate to a substance changing state from solid directly to gas, or visa-versa. This requires intense conditions to support the metamorphosis, and metaphorically it implies the encroaching forces put on Ichiro’s world. As the many challenges are put on him, he becomes a lost spirit without anything solid to hold him down. The next idea we are given is of a stranger waking. Strange is repeated twice in this one sentence to give it emphasis—stranger in a strange room. Ichiro is just that, a stranger in his country which has forsaken him, in his family which has lost its unity, and in his own life which has lost purpose. This is seen in the next line when he asks himself “Where am I?”. Being lost which he is clearly feeling in this fantasy, reflects his outer self as lost as well. The next sentence is filled with words that describe that loss of self: “fleeting”; “panic”; “juggles”; “sleep-laden”; and “pieces of his mind’s puzzle”. These are all great descriptions of the confusion in his mind and senses; the feeling of blurry sleep burdened eyes; sound quickly vanishing; the disorientation of the brain like an unfinished puzzle. Ichiro can find no place in the world, the last sentence here shows his fear of that: “frightened”…”because the bed is not his own”. The “bed” deserves very specific attention. Beds are where we sleep, where we are able to relax, heal and restore our health and strength. Beds are most associated with home, they are private, in our living space, in our rooms, they are the sacred space to be shared with loved ones, with a wife, with a child, with a brother or sister. When this sentences says a “bed” not his own, what it is saying is that he has no home. To be in the bed of someone else is to be in the home of someone else as well. The words used in this sentence very clearly map out Ichiro’s homelessness on a mental level.
Why Ichiro is homeless in America is a big question. The answer is a number of factors, all stemming from his ethnicity. Racism is the simple answer, it’s cause and effect. External and internal racism is the longer answer. Though Japanese internment plays very heavily into Ichiro’s life, we must a look little further back to see that even before WWII most Asian Americans did not feel at home in America.
Here is a brief look at Asian immigration into this country over the hundred years of 1850-1950 relying the history book by Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore. Of course some Asians had entered the country before 1850, but this is around the time period when immigration became large scale. Immigrants included Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Indian, Korean, among many others Asians, but to a lesser degree. Their stay here shifted back and forth between wanted importation, and intense hatred and deportation. Their labor was cheap, good for business owners, bad for other laborers. Laws passed by the US government tell the story. In 1882 the first race exclusion act was created: the Chinese Exclusion Act (14). This was followed by extensions of the exclusion act to other Asian races, systematically creating wage competition among various Asian immigrants (29). It is also necessary to note that the majority of Asian immigrates were male, thus creating a family, another sense of home, was much more difficult, and that anti-miscegenation laws abounded until 1948 when the California Supreme Court ruled against them (405). In 1913 California passes the Alien Land Law (203) barring non US citizens from owning land, this spread to many other western states (206), “In fact, the state’s image as projected by politicians in the 1920 vote on the alien land law was ‘keep California White'” (390). Since Asian immigrants were not eligible for the same citizenship and naturalization laws that white immigrants were allowed, owning land to build a home upon became an impossibility which is best highlighted by the Ozawa case in 1922, where he was denied citizenship because “he was not white” (208). More specific to this essay, in 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, Roosevelt signed Executive order #9066, which allowed the internment of Japanese Americans throughout the country. It is important to note that the other two major axis forces in WWII, the Italian and Germans, did not face the same racial prejudices as the Japanese (391-92). It was not until 1965 that the US government amended the Immigration and Nationality Act to remove national-origin quotas for those allowed to immigrate into the US. These laws, among many others, show that the US has had a long standing history of attempting to keep Asians from settling in this country, and making a home here.
After looking at Asian immigration history it is clear that while many Asian Americans did make their home here, they did not necessarily feel at home here. This is excluding example of personal racism which are not illustrated here yet, but it should be realized that many did face great quantities of it. For Japanese Americans during WWII and our example of the book No-No Boy, this time period was especially difficult. Their lack of home in all the senses we are talking about here exemplifies, almost to martyrdom, the Asian American experience at the time.
The Japanese internment plays very heavily into No-No Boy. When this happened families were taken out of their homes and split up. Some were shipped back to Japan, some were sent to the internment camps which sometimes left them separated within. Some Japanese were drafted into the US military, a proof that they were American not Japanese, but many could not bring themselves to join the military so they were thrown into prison for draft dodging. These men were nicknamed “no-no boys.” But joining the military was no easy feat for many Japanese, despite the possible death it could bring, it also might have meant going to war with family back in Japan. Joining the military also meant serving a country that in most cases had not served them. In the preface of No-No Boy there is a good example of this. A man was drafted into the army out of an internment camp where he and his split up family resided. “[He] had stood before the judge and said let my father out of that other camp and come back to my mother who is an old woman but misses him enough to want to sleep with him and I’ll try on the uniform. The judge said he couldn’t do that and the friend said he wouldn’t be drafted and they sent him to the federal prison” (xi). This example is not one of fair treatment, it is not the freedom Americans are encouraged to fight for, it is not what one deserves from the government of their home country. Here we also see the symbolism of a bed again, mother and father not allowed to sleep together, not allowed to share a bed. This is a very clear example of a lack of the qualities of a home that the first quote illustrates.
To take this a little further we will look at a famous American, Yuri Kochiyama, who died recently at an old age. Her voice is still seen by many as strong and influencing. She was a prominent activist in the racial struggles in this country. Yuri Kochiyama was put into an internment camp like most Japanese who were not drafted or imprisoned. Her voice is especially important as she dedicated her life to be an activist for civil rights. Seeing a link between the African American segregation and the treatment of Japanese during WWII, she worked closely with them, and even jumped on stage when Malcolm X was shot and cradled his head as he died. Her father was one of the first taken by the FBI on December 7th, 1941, the same day Pearl Harbor was bombed, and he died a few hours after his release (Kochiyama). Of the early internment she recounts, “The Japanese Americans, and even the Isseis–first generation, who could not become Americans–they were so American. [..] And yet the hysteria about, the suspicion of Japanese people was very, very strong. […] By the end of the day, I think, all the Japanese people were calling their friends to say ‘did anyone come to your home and take your father or mother?'” (Kochiyama 32:55). Living under a reality that the government can and did come into the houses of Japanese and take people’s mothers and fathers away, and later take them–nearly all Japanese, certainly destroys another important factor of having a home. That is security. To be able to lock your doors and feel safe inside your home. For nearly one hundred percent of Japanese, and Japanese Americans, in the country at that time, there was no sense of security in the places they referred to as home. This real life account emphasizes the “lonely panic” and fear of the highlighted quote.
In looking at Internment the question arises: How was this allowed to happen? The answer is it was a product of racism. Personal racism is how Americans turned a blind eye to the internment of their fellow humans, and countrymen. Before Ichiro can even make it home he is confronted on the cold street by a group of African Americans, they shout racial slurs at him: “‘Go back to Tokyo, boy.’ Persecution in the drawl of the persecuted. The white teeth and brown-black leers picked up the cue and jigged to the rhythmical chanting of ‘Jap-Boy, To-ki-yo; Jap-Boy, To-ki-yo…'” (Okada 5). Ronald Takaki notes, “The term ‘Jap’ was so commonplace it was even used unwittingly.” And, “Racist curses repeatedly stung their ears: ‘Jap Go Home,’ ‘Goddamn Jap!’ ‘Yellow Jap!’ ‘Dirty Jap!’ Ugly graffiti assaulted their eyes at railroad stations and in toilets: ‘Japs Go Away!’ ‘Fire the Japs!’ […] ‘Japs, we do not want you’ (Takaki 181). Verbally assaulted like this, it is hard to imagine the Japanese were seen as equals, for they clearly were not. This kind of racism did not spring up overnight either, it has been present in America since Asians began immigrating. When trying to build a sense of home, this is clearly not the foundation which one finds a place of belonging.
Returning to Ichiro’s nightmare, awaking as a stranger and asking where am I? This become not only a major theme for the book, that is Ichiro’s sense of homelessness, but also a theme for many Asian Americans in this country, throughout history. Takaki give us an account of a Japanese woman who gets pregnant while interned, she says, “I told my husband, ‘This is crazy. You realized there’s no future for us and what are we having kids for?'” (396). Indeed America was rarely the kind of place for Asian American immigrants to raise their children, or give them opportunity. Home is a safe place where families live and sleep. It is where one emerges into the world in the morning, and where one retires at night. It is something one strives to build for their family, both literally as an owned house, and mentally as a comfortable setting where all can let their guard down and feel protected. None of these places existed for Japanese in America during WWII, or for the majority of Asians in this country since they began arriving. For the Asian American, finding a home in this society is no easy task. An overarching sense of homelessness in the search for belonging, has been a keynote struggle for Asians of all decent in this country for far too long.
Kochiyama, Yuri. Interview with Democracy Now. Democracy Now. 2 June 2014. Broadcast. http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2014/6/2/yuri_kochiyama_on_her_internment_inw
Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. New York: Back Bay Books, 1989. Print.
Okada, John. No-No Boy. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976. Print.