Three contemporary themes central to Otsuka's novel are:
1) War and the rights of citizens.
The internment of Japanese Americans during WWII brings to the forefront our own predicament during present conflicts with the Middle East. We are confronted with the same questions today as America was confronted with during WWII: should immigrants originally from countries of conflict areas be afforded certain rights, especially protection from undue scrutiny and suspicion? If so, how should we balance the primary objective of national security with the crucial objective of securing the 4th Amendment rights of everyone?
2) Women's rights.
The Japanese picture bride system is showcased for us beautifully in Otsuka's novel. During WWII, the picture bride system was designed to provide Japanese men living and working in America with Japanese wives. The novel's accuracy in describing the plight of these helpless Japanese picture brides is heart-breaking. Convinced that they were going to live better lives in America, these Japanese brides were stunned to find that their husbands turned out to be old, poor and rough men; to make things worse, they were also to find themselves working in fields and serving as the hired help in white homes. Ironically, they had pictured coming over to America as an opportunity to flee from the back-breaking work in Japanese rice paddies. Then as today, women all over the world seek better opportunities, healthier lives and better futures for themselves and their children.
3) Immigrant assimilation into American society.
The Japanese picture brides learn some English but find that their spartan knowledge of the language is useless; their lives are not made any easier by learning the strange new language. Some of their babies still die and their back-breaking labor continues unabated. In the meantime, their children grow up in America and forget Japanese ways. They are ashamed of their mothers and want to be known only as Americans. Many immigrants today feel the sting of rejection and the pain of a deep cultural divide as they navigate new territory in their lives; not only must they strive to be successful, they must also deal with the fallout from the generational gap between themselves and their children.