With simple sentences that say so much and read almost poetically, Julie Otsuka in The Buddha in the Attic delivers an emotional novel about Japanese picture brides who came to the United States in the early 1900s.
They numbered in the thousands; each had her own story. Otsuka skillfully and with great economy of words tells the collective story of this group of women while at the same time giving voice to the individual. The novel starts with their boat ride to America and ends as they are bused to World War II internment camps.
We hear about the hardships, the disappointments, the moments of kindness, the bouts of sickness, and the struggles with marriage. We read that the first English word they learned was “water” and how they raised children in a multicultural environment. We are told about the Caucasian women who employed them as maids and taught them about American culture. We learn how the Japanese woman learned to survive in a non-sensitive, white American culture.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, many Japanese men came to the United States to work in agriculture. Wanting wives, they turned to the accepted practice of arranged marriages. After an exchange of pictures, the marriages were recorded on official registries in Japan, and the women sailed to meet their new husbands. They were full of hope, yearning for the golden life awaiting them in a new country. The arduous boat journey served as an omen; they were not entering a world of large homes, elegant fashions, and idle time.
Reality hit them as they disembarked. For most, their new husbands were 20 years older than their picture suggested. By day two in the US, many of the brides were working in the fields. They began having children and instilled in this new generation of Americans the values that would guide their lives. Otsuka writes:
We praised them when they were kind to others but told them not to expect to be rewarded for their good deeds. We scolded them whenever they tried to talk back. We taught them never to accept a handout. We taught them never to brag. … A fortune begins with a penny. It is better to suffer ill than to do ill. You must give back whatever you receive. Don’t be loud like the Americans.
The lucky women found employment as housekeepers and maids in the homes of well-to-do Caucasian women. The relationship of these two sets of women was at times complicated. They were employees of the women but many also became their employer’s confidante and companion: “We loved them, we hated them, we wanted to be them.”
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the economic status of the Japanese in the U.S. rapidly deteriorated. Their businesses were boycotted out of anger and/or fear (was arsenic in the fruit they grew?) Insurance companies canceled coverage of Japanese-owned businesses. Bank accounts were closed. As a group and as individuals, the Japanese lived under a cloud of suspicion. In self preservation they began burning any links they had to Japan (photographs, letters, chopsticks).
One by one, the men were taken away – to where, the women did not know. They were accused of being traitors, spies, and informants. The Japanese even became distrustful of each other. But they kept on working, right up until the day they were taken en masse to the internment camps.
The picture brides had started arriving 40 years earlier. All of them had been in the country for at least 20 years. America was now their home; they were a part of the fabric of our society. No matter, they were now the enemy and were held against their will until the end of the war. Their personhood was minimized.
Many of us had lost everything and left saying nothing at all. All of us left wearing white numbered identification tags tied to our collars and lapels.
Despite these tones of tragedy (and, in part, because of them), Buddha in the Attic is a terrific read.