In 2003 Julie Otsuka published When the Emperor Was Divine, a novel about the experiences of one Japanese family removed from their California home in 1942 by US authorities and sent to live in a relocation camp for the duration of the war. It was the same for all Japanese living on the west coast at the time and a shameful episode in US history. Eight years later Otsuka published her second book on a similar theme and walked away with the Pen Faulkner Award for Fiction. That book was her 2011 novel The Buddha in the Attic.
In The Buddha in the Attic Otsuka has given us a novel in which there is no main character, no protagonist, no real plot and no dialogue. Dozens of names are mentioned, but throughout the book we see these dozens as a collective ‘we’ living similar experiences and facing a like fate. They are the Japanese picture brides who came to America as the ‘arranged wives‘ of Japanese immigrant workers in California of the 1920s.
Their story is told in a spare six chapters that are almost poetic in their eloquence. The whole is like a Japanese picture scroll depicting a series of scenes, telling its story in frozen moments. Otsuka begins her story on a boat carrying the picture brides from Japan to San Francisco…‘On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves.’
They are met by the men who are their sudden husbands, men who look nothing like their photograph but have the worn markings of overworked laborers. In her second chapter, the writer introduces the reader to a surprisingly effective pattern that will continue through the rest of the book, an almost-list of sentences describing first one woman and then another. It is this technique that Otsuka uses to build a collective character from the individual experiences of many Japanese women. We are unable to attach names to the actions described, but we feel the confusion and pain all the more…‘That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently, but firmly and without saying a word…They took us before we were ready and the bleeding did not stop for three days. They took us with our white silk kimonos twisted up high over our heads and we were sure we were about to die…They took us with apologies for their rough, callused hands, and we knew at once that they were farmers and not bankers…They took us on our knees, while we clung to the bedpost and wept…They took us while murmuring “Thank you” over and over again in a familiar Tohoku dialect that immediately set us at ease.’
These women along with their men struggle collectively in coming to terms with the new culture, language and attitudes, settling into family life. They battle disappointment in each other and in their isolation and their homesickness. But they are hard workers unfamiliar with the concept of giving up and they persevere until the time they can make humble success of their lives. Children are born and given names like Lester and George and Doris and grow up more American than Japanese. But everything begins to change with Pearl Harbor and by the following April all Japanese are instructed to prepare for evacuation, leaving their homes, their farms and businesses, pets, savings. Here again Otsuka paints the picture in one sentence descriptions of this one or that one heading off into an unknown future as a dangerous alien.
In the last chapter of the book titled “A Disappearance” the collective ‘we’ becomes ‘they’ as the Americans who lived among the Japanese ponder their disappearance, but then slowly forget about them.
‘The Japanese have disappeared from our town. Their houses are boarded up and empty now. Their mailboxes have begun to overflow. Unclaimed newspapers litter their sagging front porches and gardens. Abandoned cars sit in their driveways. Thick knotty weeds are sprouting up through their lawns…In one of their kitchens—Emi Saito’s—a black telephone rings and rings.’