The central symbol of Kadohata’s novel is the “floating world,” or ukiyo. Obasan states that in Japan, ukiyo means “the districts full of brothels, teahouses, and public baths,” but it also, in a Buddhistic sense, alludes to “change and the pleasures and loneliness change brings.” In the United States, “the floating world” refers to the unstable world in which the Osakas travel, the world of transient jobs and locales, “the motel towns floating in the middle of fields and mountains.” In the context of such a world, Olivia Ann must attempt to construct meaning developed from the key relationships in her life: her grandmother, her parents, her siblings, her friends, and her lovers.

Although Obasan dies early in The Floating World, Olivia’s grandmother acts as a powerful force in her life—both as an unconventional role model and as an adversary. From the outset, Olivia says of Obasan, “My grandmother has always been my tormentor.” A willful and short-tempered woman, Obasan works against the stock characterization of the solicitous and caring Japanese grandmother; as such, she challenges gender and ethnic stereotypes. She boxes her grandchildren’s ears and predicts dire futures for them. Moreover, her own life—a life filled with three husbands and seven lovers—has been not only unconventional but also scandalous by Japanese standards. Obasan leaves Olivia a twin legacy: a legacy of guilt and a legacy of storytelling. When her grandmother is dying and pleading with Olivia to bring her Laura, Olivia’s mother, Olivia ignores her. Consequently, Olivia feels as though she has killed her grandmother. Years later, she recognizes that this guilty act allowed her to confront her own “bad” side, a confrontation which both freed and trapped her. In essence, Obasan’s death entailed Olivia’s fall into knowledge, encompassing both an awareness of death (hence the transience of life) and an awareness of her capacity for hate. At the same time, although she always wished to be the opposite of her grandmother, Olivia cannot escape the fact that she resembles Obasan and that she is a traveler in her grandmother’s floating...

(The entire section is 893 words.)