In the novel, Julie Otsuka conveys the paradoxes of the American Dream according to class, race, and foreign origin. She strongly suggests that this dream was not attainable for the women depicted, and only rarely for their children. The men who are to receive the Japanese “picture brides” are rarely well-to-do. Rather, most of them are agricultural laborers who live at labor camps. The women were enticed by the idea of a middle-class life of leisure that would be different from the lives most had led back home, toiling in the rice paddies. Instead, they find themselves triply discriminated against: as poor laborers, as Asian, and as foreigners who speak little or no English. Their national identity as Japanese is often suppressed, as European-heritage Americans lump together all Asian people as “Orientals” or assume they are Chinese.
Many women find themselves the only Japanese person in their labor camp or town, where they may be the victims of racist attacks on their homes or property. Others live in Japanese settlements and have little contact with the dominant white society. Some women experience alienation so profound that they cannot adjust. The disappointed husbands of others find fault and become verbally or physically abusive. A few even used the ruse of taking a “wife” to recruit women to work as prostitutes.
When the U.S. enters World War II, the families—now including American-born children—are plunged into crisis. As Japanese and Japanese American people are rounded up into camps, the full extent of their alienation from mainstream society becomes clear. Stripped of property and civil rights, they endure years of confinement far from their adopted homes. Otsuka effectively presents the hardships experienced over several generations, and the glimmers of hope for those who not only survived but thrived against the odds.
Julie Ostuka's Buddha in the Attic is a heart-wrenching novel-- part memoir, part historical fiction-- that describes the kind of experiences faced by Japanese immigrants in America during the first half of the 20th century. Many who came to the United States had hopes of a better life, and had even been promised such. Picture brides, women who came to the United States for marriage, had been promised lives of comfort, respectable husbands, and beautiful homes. These women left their homes and families in Japan, where they most often worked as farmers, to find themselves isolated and farming yet again.
While the book focuses on a narrative of Japanese women and their struggles in the United States, there is insight into the dynamic of families and children, as well. Many people who came to the United States had children who rejected their heritage in favor of American culture. Assimilation is a source of shame for many immigrants, especially in the second generation. The Japanese people who came to the United States suffered doubly-- first the struggle of leaving behind their "old life," and then the arrival to the United States, where they are marked as the enemy! With the beginnings of World War II, the Japanese people were forced to give up the homes, businesses, and lives they had fought to build, and were relocated to internment camps.
For Japanese immigrants in the first part of the 20th century, the American Dream was all but attainable. These people were promised, implicitly and explicitly, a better life. The United States were touted, world 'round, as a better place where people could have opportunity and freedom. Unfortunately, this was not true for everyone. Chasing the American Dream presented obstacles for many Japanese immigrants, and every success required sacrifice. I think that the idea of the American Dream is an intensely personal one. Life in the United States must have held different dreams and promises for everyone who traveled there. I imagine that some descendants of these Japanese immigrants have only achieved their American Dream very recently.