Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic revolves around the themes of appearance versus reality, marriage, racial tensions and injustice, the mutual support of women, and struggles between generations.
The book tells the story of Japanese brides who come to America to marry husbands they have never met. These women hope for wonderful things and better lives, but most of them end up with lives of hard work and discrimination, oppression and suffering.
One major theme in the novel is that of appearance versus reality. When the brides are on the ship to America, they dream of what their new lives will be like. They look at pictures of their husbands-to-be and dream about fine houses and silk clothing and love. But when they arrive in America, they find the reality of the situation much different than their expectations. Their husbands don't look anything like the men in the pictures. The wives are forced into situations of hard labor in the fields, which is exactly what they were hoping to leave behind. They have not found romance or prosperity. They have found suffering. Appearance and reality do not match.
Another major theme in the novel is marriage. The young women come to America as brides, and most of them are both excited and nervous about taking husbands, especially husbands they have never met. The marriages that are formed run the range from caring to abusive. Some of the women are lucky enough to find husbands who truly care about them and try to protect them. Others are forced into harsh sexual relationships and neglect.
The theme of racial tensions and injustice also guides the story. The wives quickly learn all about the prejudices of white Americans. In American eyes, the Japanese are good enough to work in the fields but not much else. Some of the women work in the homes of wealthy Americans, and they want to be like American women but despise them at the same time. Injustice reaches its peak when the Japanese Americans are taken to internment camps during World War II simply for having Japanese origins.
One more minor theme in the story is the mutual support of the women. They learn how to survive together and support each other through their hardships and suffering. They teach each other and rely on each other when there is no one else. Another minor theme is the struggle between generations. The women watch as their children grow up and become Americanized, taking on American names and longing for the American way of life. These children become embarrassed by their traditional parents, who follow old ways and speak old languages.