“The Buddha in the Attic,” written by Julie Otsuka, investigates the lives of Japanese mail-order brides in the years leading up to the Second World War. A poetic, powerful punch at the American Dream, Otsuka’s 129-page novel critically examines the diverse breadth of Japanese women leaving their homes, blindly following the letters, photographs, and promises sent to them from suitors in America.
“The Buddha in the Attic” includes eight sections in a loose chronological order that represent eight stages of the mail-order brides’ lives up until immediately after the forced containment of Japanese American citizens following Imperial Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. Wielding precise vocabulary and carefully simple sentences, Otsuka invites the audience to follow the lives of many different, often anonymous Japanese women who ultimately were stripped of their individuality in the face of 1940’s America.
The stories offer a preservation and voice to individuals’ stories, which racial minorities, particularly women, didn’t have at the time. In between the subjects’ departure from Japan and their departure from their homes in America, Otsuka’s characters are introduced to a list of formidable experiences. Common tropes in the novel include the feeling of isolation, wondering, and the American Dream that encourages the characters to persevere. Under the modern lens, the book also poses questions to the audience as we consider the similarities and differences in American culture almost a century later.
The first section: “Come, Japanese!” takes place on rocky waves on the coast of Japan. The women having been betrothed to these mysterious men across continents wait in the first, second, and third class holds of the ship, uncertain with their fortunes. Several of them hail from villages and have never seen the sea, many of them have never been on a boat, and all of them do not fully understand what lies ahead of them.
Sentences blasted with emotion come together and pronounce the theme of total uncertainty for the rest of the book. The women feel uncertain about the journey, each other, America, their future husbands, and much more as they cling to their wedding night kimonos and trinkets. Otsuka prefigures the rest of the book with such symbolism as the vastness of the open sea alluding to the vastness of possibilities and the traditional Japanese articles that each woman holds on to remind her of home. The articles eventually fade, as one of Otsuka’s anonymous narrators says, “One must not get too attached to things of this world.”
One of the most jarring passages to read is the second section: “The First Night”. Having landed in America, the women who endured the passage now face one of the most exhilarating, daunting, horrifying, and unsure moments as they meet their husbands and consummate their relationship in bed. The section speaks lengths to patriarchal tradition and sexuality, and while a few women do not highlight a bad experience, the overwhelming majority presents the audience with an incredibly discomforting account of their loss of virginity. Arduous but important to acknowledge and read, this set of pages carries on throughout the rest of the book and serves as a reminder of violence and sexuality. Otsuka’s lyricism comes out best in this portion; her character’s voices chant raw truths that surface in the ink of the page.
“Traitors,” the fifth of eight components in Otsuka’s novel, places the reader in the days and weeks following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor before the forced exile of Japanese-Americans to containment camps on the mainland. The piece continues in the theme of the Japanese finding their place in the often-lopsided American melting pot and following the bombings, they find themselves in an identity crisis. The women, most of whom work tirelessly, now have husbands struggling as the American government randomly the Japanese women for investigation.
Continuing to feel like strangers in a strange land, this sequence of events not only evaluates the cruelty and horrendous conditions the Japanese people endured during World War II, but it also commemorates the women’s loyalty and fierce display of perseverance in such seemingly impossible circumstances. Alienated from both their own culture and the American culture they seek to be a part of, Otsuka writes a vigil filled with tension and sadness that cannot be overlooked by the audience.
The incredible vastness of stories included in the novel make it almost impossible to summarize while succeeding to display the novel’s main theme, to identify and engage the reader with stories that supersede generalizations, and celebrate individuality even in the darkest recesses of history. Otsuka masterfully conducts this chorus of Japanese women whose stories span anywhere from the length of a trite sentence to a full paragraph.
The eight sections present a semblance of general experiences such as the boat ride to America, the first night with their husbands, their interactions with Caucasian people in America, birthing children, the children themselves, Pearl Harbor, the last day before containment camps, and Caucasian people’s reaction to their absence.
“The Buddha in the Attic,”,written in an incantatory tradition, sings thousands of songs for the Japanese women and the American Dream they sought in the first half of 20th century America. It renders its depth from the vastness of human experiences, each one falling on the page one letter, one word, and one sentence at a time. Most importantly, it reminds us of our past—“those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)