The Buddha in the Attic

  • Julie Otsuka
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • 129 pp.

This novella captures in prose poem form the immigrant experience of Japanese picture brides in California.

Reviewed by Alice Stephens

In the late 19th century, Japanese laborers were recruited to work the sugar plantations of Hawaii, and some of them made their way to the mainland as cheap labor for the farms and burgeoning cities of the West, particularly California. In 1907, the so-called “Gentleman's Agreement” between Japan and an increasingly xenophobic United States curtailed further immigration of Japanese laborers, but allowed for their children and wives to continue to come to America. Until 1924, when the Immigration Act excluded entry to the Japanese, and all Asians, on racial grounds, many of these laborers used matchmaking services to bring over young women from Japan as “picture brides,” sight unseen and already married before leaving for America by a simple entry into the koseki, or Japanese family registry.

The Buddha in the Attic is a tessellation of the fragments of these women’s stories. Pieced together, the novel comprises a gorgeous mosaic of the hopes and dreams that propelled so many immigrants across an ocean to an unknown country. The author, Julie Otsuka, illuminates the challenges, suffering and occasional joy that they found in their new homeland

Though Knopf, publisher of The Buddha in the Attic, classifies the book as a novel, it is more like a beautifully rendered emakimono, hand-painted horizontal scrolls that depict a series of scenes, telling a story in frozen moments. For those looking for a traditional story, be forewarned that there is no protagonist, plot or dialogue. The main character is simply “we.”  Sometimes a name is mentioned, occasionally even the same name twice, but for readers who prefer well-defined characters with whom to identify, and a clear narrative arc, this book is not for you. If, however, you are interested in a social history of the Japanese immigrant experience wrought in exquisite poetry, each sentence spare in words, precise in meaning and eloquently evocative, like a tanka poem, this book is a rare, unique treat.

Given the book’s rapturous detail, I can only imagine the mountain of documents that the author must have sifted through. The book launches with the long voyage from Japan, during which “we” yearn for abandoned mothers and villages, and are giddy with anticipation and the grand hopes pinned on nothing more than some pages of correspondence and a black-and-white photograph. Upon arrival, we realize that the letters were “written to us by people other than our husbands, professional people with beautiful handwriting whose job it was to tell lies and win hearts.” There were no white picket fences or Model T Fords; the men looked nothing like the photographs worn in lockets, tucked in the sleeves of kimonos or kept “in silk purses and old tea tins and red lacquer boxes and in the thick brown envelopes from America in which they had been originally sent.” Instead, these men are field hands who work from sun-up to sun-down and sleep in shacks, barns or bunkhouses. Nevertheless, it is too late to turn back, and we go on a journey of a quarter century, in chapters divided by the challenges met: the first night with our new husbands; interacting with the whites as second-class citizens; giving birth and raising children, natural-born citizens who “spent their days now living in the new language, whose twenty-six letters still eluded us,” and had strange manners, behaved boldly, and whose very bodies were shaped differently. “I feel like a duck that's hatched goose’s eggs.”

And then comes World War II, and the book becomes a history lesson in heartbreak. Just as we come to the rewards of our years of hardship — businesses well established and children in university or with factory jobs or serving in the armed forces — we are forced to abandon everything, the noodle shops, farm stands, vineyards and laundries, and sell our most precious possessions to white neighbors at giveaway prices. Tagged and herded off like livestock, to destinations unknown, we become the victims of one of the most shameful acts of 20th-century America.

In the last chapter, “we” becomes “they,” as the whites who lived with the Japanese guiltily ponder their disappearance, but then slowly forget. The final panel of the scroll fades into white, as a reminder that history can be forgotten, memory can be erased and a whole ethnic group can fade away behind barbed wire fences out in the deserts of this great, wide land of ours.

From editorial assistant to copy editor to freelance travel writer, Alice Stephens has had a long and varied career working with the written word. She recently completed a historical novel set in Nagasaki, Japan.

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