Tag Archives: Japan

Book Review: The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (4/5). We liked this book.

29 Sep

This book is another gem that came to me through my Book-A-Day Calendar in 2013. That thing really filled up my TBR list and this year, I’ve read 5 of them with an average rating of 3.8. That’s pretty good for a stack of papers! Especially when you consider the 10 personally recommended books I’ve read this year have an average 3.2 rating. I should trust this calendar more.

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

We came over from Japan on boats to meet husbands in pictures. We work the fields of the wealthy white men in California, never having a moments rest. We bear the children who we hope will grow up to be just like us, but much better. And we are the ones that suffer when we’re taken away and put into camps.

Written in the collective first person, this story chronicles the Japanese brides who came to American after World War I in hopes of a better life. They work for years, raising children who reject them and their traditions and being seen as outcasts by the others living around them. And then the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. What’s a Japanese to do? They purge themselves of their heirlooms and pictures of their families, but the accusations still fly. People start to disappear in the night. And then the word comes that they’re all going to be moved. In a mass exodus, the Japanese will leave the coastal cities and be relocated inland. The silence they leave behind is deafening.

I was not expecting much from this short little book. It’s length actually made me wonder at first if it was written for a young audience, but the quick dive into these women’s personal lives and thoughts corrected me. I knew about the Japanese camps during World War II, but I never gave much thought to what those people had endured before. I hadn’t read anything about Japanese immigrants to America before and it was eye-opening to see how they were treated.

One thing about history that’s always bothered me was why we put the Japanese in camps. I understand the logic that some immigrants were thought to help coordinate the attacks, etc., but I’m asking specifically why the Japanese and not the Germans or Italians or other nationality against which we were fighting. I’m German in heritage myself and I kept thinking of my grandma as a little girl being taken away to these camps, wondering what her distant relatives back in Germany could have done. I think the Japanese children felt this way, too. One theory I’ve heard is that the Japanese were just more easily identifiable. This makes me sad. Any comments?

It was almost impossible to draw individual characters from the text because of the first person plural POV. Otsuka presented the experience as collective and individual at the same time. It would say something like, “We endured and we flourished.” The reader knows some of the Japanese women endured and others flourished, but there was no tracking who did which. It was also hard to tell the size of the group the book tracked. Parts of it seemed like a small group, one ship’s worth of women, but at other times it seemed to represent all Japanese brides in that time period.

It was hard for me to relate to the characters. I felt that their story was very unique to the time in which it was told and would more relatable to an immigrant. I was born and raised in the US and I can’t relate to the struggles to learn the language and culture aside from my study abroad experiences, and I don’t think that holds a candle to what these women endured. I can see a struggle such as this one in some of the immigrants I interact with, but I can’t imagine the struggle.

I thought the end of the book was the most powerful. The point of view switched to the people who lived in California and how it felt when the Japanese were gone. There was a shared sense of emptiness and a realization that the Japanese had never harmed them and in truth had added a lot to their lives. No one seemed glad that the Japanese were gone and there was a slight sense of guilt in the voice.

Julie Otsuka Image from the author's website.

Julie Otsuka
Image from the author’s website.

The section of the book toward the beginning about manual labor when the women first arrived in the US was hard to read. The suffering that these women described reminded me of The Grapes of Wrath. It was hard to read about that suffering and I knew then that this book would take on a dark tone. The men were portrayed in a very negative light during this part of the book and it made the women seem very alone and vulnerable.

The point of view lends itself to a theme of community. The Japanese women shared many of the experiences in the story and kept a close community with those enduring with them. Their diaspora from California was also done as a community and their group was unwelcome as a nation. Their community stayed tight-knit throughout and I think that’s the best they could have asked for in the situation. Sometimes, having each other is enough.

Writer’s Takeaway: What a great example of being brave with writing choices. Not many novels are written in the collective first person and I’ve never read one so coherent as this. Otsuka did a wonderful job of bringing the story of a community together with one voice. She was also very smart to choose a time in history that’s not as well-known and make it relatable today. Plus, she did it in a short number of pages. Bravo all around to the writing in this book!

Really enjoyable overall and a quick, refreshing read. Four out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

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