When Your Background Is the Crime

Above (Issue I/2019)

“I came to America to become a rich man so that I could go back to the village in Japan and be somebody. I was greedy and ambitious and proud. I was not a good man or an intelligent one, but a young fool. And you have paid for it.” 

These are the words of a father sitting with his son while the son dies, bit by bit – quite literally. War wounds the son received during the fight against fascist Japan refuse to heal and doctors have had to amputate his leg gradually, until finally Kenji Kanno succumbs to an infection in the stump.

This character, in his mid-twenties, is one of three protagonists in John Okada’s masterful novel, No-No Boy, who will perish by the end of the story. Even though, according to one of the other characters, his friend Ichiro Yamada, Kanno had done everything right. In contrast to Yamada, he had served America and established a basis for his future, one that he would never live to enjoy.

We don’t know a lot about the fate of Japanese Americans. After the attack on Pearl Harbour, the then-president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, made it possible to intern all of the Japanese Americans living on the US’ West coast in camps. The male prisoners were supposed to register for military service and go to fight in the war against the land of their forefathers - but because he refused to fight for America against Japan Ichiro remained in the internment camp for four years.

However, at the same time that he didn’t serve in the military, he also refused to support Japan. For this reason, he is the “no-no boy” of the title, who returns to civilian life in the US after the war, to try to start again somehow.

Okada’s omniscient narrator describes the experiences and impressions that Ichiro’s family, friends and acquaintances have in the days after his return from the camp. In the process, the dilemma faced by Japanese Americans is dissected. How is Ichiro supposed to tell future prospective employers about his lack of patriotism? There is no other, greater lie that can conceal this great mistake.

Okada’s virtuoso novel, wonderfully translated into German by Susann Urban, uses language that is both clear and evocative. The New York Times compared No-No Boy with works by James Baldwin. Just like Baldwin, Okada is focused on existential human questions.

A despairing Ichiro accuses his parents’ generation of having ruined a life in America for him and his counterparts because, even after 35 years in the USA, the parents still felt, saw and thought as though they had never left their homeland – and they expected the same of their children.

While Ichiko’s fanatical mother keeps waiting for a Japanese victory, his father drinks in order to make his ugly reality more beautiful.

Time to get out of here, Ichiko thinks, and sets out on a journey during which he gets to know Kanno, someone who chose a completely different path. It is only then that Ichiko realises that there is no absolutely right way, and no absolutely wrong way, for his generation. Through Kenji, Ichiko gets to know Emi, a young woman whose husband went to war twice rather than remain with her. They become close, Emi becomes a confidante. She explains why being a Japanese migrant in America is a burden: “We’re American and …we’re Japanese and sometimes the two don’t mix. It’s all right to be German and American or Italian and American or Russian and American but, as things turned out, it wasn’t all right to be Japanese and American. You had to be one or the other.”

Seeking one’s identity in a foreign land is the theme in another book too, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. But while Okada looks at the Japanese in America, Lee writes about being a foreigner in Japan.

Lee, an American author who was born in South Korea, describes what it is like to have one or more identities in a story spanning several generations. Unlike Okada, Lee doesn’t just look at several days in the lives of her characters, she traces the lives of four generations of a South Korean family from 1910 until 1989 in three books.

The first book looks at Japan’s colonisation of the Koreas. We get to know the hard working Yangjin who bears a daughter, Sunja, together with Hoomie, who was “born with a cleft palate and a twisted foot”. As a young girl, Sunja meets the fish trader, Koh Hansu, who approaches her as a brother but eventually impregnates her. But Hansu already has a family in Japan so Sunja must break with him so she doesn’t bring shame on her family. Baek Isak, a Christian pastor, takes pity on Sunja and marries her, shortly before she gives birth to the son she and Hansu made.

The novel then follows the family to Japan where they attempt to start a new life. Two further generations of the family are born and much of the story revolves around the question of whether the Japan-born sons of a South Korean family can live a normal life there. At this stage the book, translated into German by Susanne Höbel, becomes a “great Korean novel”. In it, the collective experiences Koreans in Japan have had, including discrimination and persecution, combine with tales of individual fates to become an enthralling epic.

Alcoholism, prostitution, abuse and death abound but there is also emancipation and ambition (the disreputable business of pachinko machines, the Japanese version of the slot machine, plays a particular role here) all contribute to the twists and turns in this fascinating tale.

“In Japan, you're either a rich Korean or a poor Korean, and if you are a rich Korean, there's a pachinko parlour in your background somewhere," the boss of Solomon, whose parents were born and grew up in Japan, says.

The unavoidable aura around Japanese South Koreans is the red thread drawn through all of the characters’ stories. It doesn’t matter whether they have provided a service and tried to integrate, their ancestry is like a bad smell that clings. Here, they are traitors to their homeland and there they are ugly, stinking foreigners. As Sunja’s son, Mosazu puts it: “In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am”.

The book was a finalist in the National Book Awards in the US in 2017, most likely because the author, Lee, manages successfully to portray the difficult lives and everyday battles of Japanese South Koreans in all their variety. This is not what you would describe as high art but it is a damn fine, engaging and instructive work.

As different as the two books are in their conception and storytelling, they offer similarly universal and contemporary tales. They not only fill in some of the blank spots in our knowledge of these situations, they also show what it means to be in possession of different identities inside oneself, and to never feel truly at home anywhere.

This existential question is one shared by millions of people worldwide. If there is something we can learn from both books it is this: Those who wander far from home do have the capacity to finally belong to the societies and culture in which they end up. 

No-No Boy. By John Okada. Translated from the English by Susann Urban. German publisher: Büchergilde Gutenberg, Frankfurt/Main, 2018.

Pachinko (published as Ein Einfaches Leben in German). By Min Jin Lee. Translated from the English by Susanne Höbel. German publisher: dtv, Munich, 2018.

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