Julie Otsuka: The Buddha in the Attic, Knopf, 2011

On the boat, we often wondered: Would we like them? Would we love them? Would we recognize them from their pictures when we first saw them on the deck?

I found this book to be brilliant and stunning, a wonder to read both on the story and discourse level. Let’s talk story first.

In the early part of the 20th century, about twenty thousand Japanese women arrived in the US as picture brides, to marry Japanese men they had never met. Their marriages had been arranged via correspondence. You can listen to an interview Otsuka gave with NPR to learn more about this history, or hear Jane Kaczmarek read a passage from the book, at NPR.

This book is the collective story of one boatload of picture brides. It’s a short book in eight sections and covers their lives from the boat to their internment after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

It’s the discourse (and I’m using that word, as I understand it, in a very basic sense), and how it works with the story, that’s brilliant.

The book is written in first person plural – another “we” story, like Then We Came To The End – but more firmly so. It starts out quite rigid on a sentence level; in the first section nearly every paragraph starts with “On the boat we…” though it evolves (as the women do) throughout into a more individualized group, even finally using names, though “we” still remains a collective protagonist. The effect, for me, is to emphasize that what happens to one of these women, happens to them all. And, likewise, the use of “us” requires a “them” and reminds us what we as a “them” are capable of. Who is “us,” who is “them” now –and what we are capable of now. And how careful we should be of what we do out of fear, of what is done in our name, especially now.

I chose to read this book because of a reviewlet by Anne Barnhill at Fiction Writers Review; she asks the question:

Do we still need the Aristotelian notion of protagonist and antagonist? Must one create rising tension? Is a Greek chorus still drama? How far can the bounds of narrative be stretched and still provide satisfaction?

I’m not sure protagonist-antagonist, rising tension, have been abandoned here at all. The protagonist is not a person, but a group: the Japanese picture brides, how they deal with their boat passage, the strangers who are their new husbands, their relationship with whites, their function as childbearers and child rearers, all with background tension of their status as outsiders. That tension is then brought to the front, and reaches a climax in the next-to-last section. So I think it’s actually a pretty classic structure.

That being said, the collective voice will not appeal to everyone. In fact, it’s going to drive some people bonkers by the second page. There was a kind of acclimation experience for me. I kept waiting for the introduction to be over, for the story to begin. I gradually realized the story had begun with the first page, and allowed myself to go with it. It’s a brilliant approach, and I’m surprised the book hasn’t received more notice (though it was a finalist for the National Book Award). I have to wonder: if a man had written this about a group of literature professors (or, say, a group of suburban teenage virgins, or advertising executives), wouldn’t it be hailed as a breakthrough and on everyone’s read list?

But back to the book. By sections:

Come, Japanese!

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.

In this very short, very poetically stylized section, we are introduced to the women, how they vary in age and background and reason for being there, but how they are still one group. In discourse terms (and again, I’m kind of making this up as I go along from a very basic grasp of the term) it is exposition in which the protagonist and setting is introduced.

First night

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 flat on our backs of the Minute Hotel. They took us downtown, in second-rate rooms, in the Kumamoto Inn. They took us in the best hotels in San Francisco that a yellow man could set foot in at the time.

We see the wedding night. This section is very short, and quite poetic, and further introduces us to the lives these women will lead, and especially how they will be viewed by their husbands.


We loved them. We hated them. We wanted to be them. How tall they were, how lovely, how fair. Their long, graceful limbs. Their bright white teeth. Their pale, luminous skin, which disguised all seven blemishes of the face. Their odd but endearing ways – their love of A.1. sauce and high pointy-toed shoes, their funny, turned-out walk, their tendency to gather in each other’s parlors in large,noisy groups and stand around talking, all at once for hours. Why, we wondered, did it never occur to them to sit down?

We see the women surviving their work environments, from the farms where they worked the fields endlessly to the city houses where they served as maids and nannies to Japantowns in various places where they worked in noodle houses and laundries and boarding houses, at the hands of white people who had power over them; white people they had to work for, sleep with, keep secrets for, learn from, and sometimes, admire.


We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113-degree heat. We gave birth beside woodstoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the year. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta six months after we arrived, and the babies were tiny, and translucent, and after three days they died. We gave birth nine months after we arrived to perfect babies with full heads of black hair.

All the circumstances of childbirth. The places – fields, laundries, houses, midwife’s clinics, hospitals. The number of babies – ten in fifteen years. The ones who were left to die or smothered or who never made it into the world at all. The ones who never bore children.

The Children

Still, they dreamed. One swore she would marry a preacher so she wouldn’t have to pick berries on Sundays. One wanted to save up enough money to buy his own farm. One wanted to become a tomato grower like his father. One wanted anything but. …One wanted to become an artist and live in a garret in Paris. One wanted to go to refrigeration school… One wanted to become a state senator. One wanted to cut hair and open her own salon. One had polio and just wanted to breathe without her iron lung. One wanted to become a master seamstress. One wanted to become his sister. One wanted to become a gangster. One wanted to become a star. And even though we saw the darkness coming we said nothing and let them dream on.

As the women raise their children from infancy to maturity, care for them, teach them, and watch them grow – they are American citizens, after all, able to buy land – they still fear. The rising action begins.


What did we know, exactly, about the list? The list had been drawn up hastily, on the morning of the attack. The list had been drawn up more than one year ago. The list had been in existence for almost ten years….It was nearly impossible to get your name on the list. It was extremely easy to get your name on the list. Only people who belonged to our race were on the list. There were Germans and Italians on the list, but their names appeared towards the bottom. The list was written in indelible red ink. The list was typewritten on index cards. The list did not exist. The list existed, but only in the mind of the director of military intelligence, who was known for his perfect recall. The list was a figment of our imaginations. The list contained over five hundred names. The list contained over five thousand names. The list was endless.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the dread becomes real. The list – who doesn’t flash to Schindler’s List here? But it is the opposite. This is a list of uncertainty, banishment, perhaps death, no one knows. They hear of other towns where all the Japanese are gone. They hear of individuals who have simply vanished. Individuals become more prominent in the narrative.

Last Day

Some of us left weeping. And some of us left singing. One of us left with her hand held over her mouth and hysterically laughing. A few of us left drunk. Others of us left quietly, with our heads bowed, embarrassed and ashamed.

The women, their families, all the Japanese, leave for an uncertain future. It’s hard not to compare the scene with Holocaust, though it isn’t as determinedly, heinously evil. There’s a lot of switching back and forth between the transitive and intransitive meanings of the verb “left” – they left, and they left things behind. It’s definitely more personal, these are individuals. The title of the book comes from this section: “Haruko left a tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day.” This breaks my heart.

A Disappearance

With each passing day the notices on the telephone poles grow increasingly faint. And then, one morning, there is not a single notice to be found, and for a moment the town feels oddly naked, and it is almost as if the Japanese were never here at all.

And now, in this last section, there’s a sudden shift. We’ve heard the last from the Japanese, and the narrative voice moves to a different collective: the white people in the town. noticing how the Japanese have disappeared suddenly. They don’t know where they’ve gone. Some feel a little guilty; they should’ve done something, said something to somebody, but what, who? New “others” move in – “country people” who find work at the war factory, people who make some of the white people long for the quiet Japanese. Surreptitious looting of Japanese belongings left behind begins, and Japanese items – stone lanterns, scrolls, hair chopsticks – begin to appear in white homes. And I have to say, just typing about white people and white homes throughout this post is freaking me out.

A year on and almost all traces of the Japanese have disappeared from our town….All we know is that the Japanese are out there somewhere, in one place or another, and we shall probably not meet them again in this world.

The book ends here, on an uncertain note. Rumors fly, but no one knows where the Japanese have gone, if they’ve been shipped back to Japan or put to work on farms or just abandoned somewhere in the middle of the country, if they’re alive, if they’re ever coming back.

But like the laughing Buddha in the attic, they were and are here. And I’m grateful to Otsuka for reminding us who they were.

[Addendum: I’m delighted to see this book is a finalist for the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award.]

6 responses to “Julie Otsuka: The Buddha in the Attic, Knopf, 2011

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