The Floating World

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The Floating World is Cynthia Kadohata’s first novel. It details the impressions of its narrator and central character, Olivia Ann, as she travels by car with her Japanese American family in the Far West, settles with them in Gibson, Arkansas, and strikes off on her own in Los Angeles. The mostly episodic plot is organized around these three phases in the narrator’s growth from childhood to young womanhood.

The floating world, or ukiyo, refers to the unsettled life that Olivia’s family leads until they settle in Arkansas, to the “fears, resentments, necessities” that unite them, and to Olivia’s crucial experiences as she matures, including her relationship with her grandmother, Obasan (Hisac Fujutano).

Olivia’s family history is a record of displacement. Her great-grandparents moved from Japan to the United States, and her grandparents to Hawaii. Also, her grandmother Obasan had three husbands (as well as seven lovers), and her mother Mariko, to some extent, is similar to her. Mariko has an affair with a married man, “Jack,” by whom she becomes pregnant with Olivia. Shortly before Olivia is born, Obasan arranges Mariko’s marriage to Charlie-O (the “0” stands for Osaka), but after that, Mariko has an affair in Oregon with Taro Nagasaki, or “Shane,” as he is called.

Charlie-O is as unlucky in work as he is in marriage; he must move from job to job, taking his family (which includes Obasan and Olivia’s three younger brothers) from house to house, motel to motel. Not until Olivia is twelve, and after Obasan has died, does Charlie-O manage to settle the family in Gibson, Arkansas, where he has become part owner of a garage.

The character who has the most influence on Olivia is Obasan. They are enemies, perhaps because they are so alike. Olivia is willful, and her grandmother irascible. Obasan picks on Olivia at every turn, pinching her wrist or boxing her ears. At times, Olivia defies her. On one occasion, for example, Obasan, who always seems to have money in her “magic purse,” buys apples from a farmer, and Olivia, against her grandmother’s orders, starts to eat one. She locks Obasan out of the house in which the family is staying and continues to eat, ignoring the old woman’s plea to let her in. Obasan hits her for this later, but the following night, during one of the drives on which her grandmother sometimes takes her, Olivia is approached by a stranger while Obasan is urinating in the bushes. Olivia is convinced later that the stranger, who owns a nearby farm, would have killed her had Obasan not returned in time to drive him off.

Obasan is protective of her family when the need arises—thus helping to keep it together—and generous to Olivia when the whim strikes her. All in all, however, Olivia’s dislike of her is such that when she sees Obasan dying on the floor of a motel bathroom, she fails to rouse her parents. The guilt she feels for letting Obasan die is one of the reasons that she remains tied to her afterward.

Olivia’s mother gives her a strand of Obasan’s hair for a keepsake. Olivia also has access to Obasan’s diaries, which she consults to learn about sex and to discover how her grandmother viewed life. In the house in Arkansas, a photograph of Obasan in her twenties is hung on the livingroom wall; it is Olivia’s job to put fresh water and a fresh rice ball in front of this shrine each day, which keeps Obasan alive in her thoughts. When Shane, Olivia’s mother’s former lover, visits, Olivia, seeing her mother’s hands shake, detects her grandmother’s “soul” in the family.

Obasan was a tyrant,...

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The Floating World

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

This retrospective, pointillistic chronicle begins when the narrator and protagonist Olivia Osaka is about twelve years old, living in northern California with her mother, her stepfather Charlie, her four brothers, and her grandmother Obasan. Because jobs for Charlie are scarce, the story no sooner begins than the family is moving to Arkansas, where Charlie will get a job as a chicken sexer. Moving from place to place is habitual for the Osakas, and by the time she is twelve Olivia has lived in--besides California--Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming, and never in one place in any of these states for very long. The family has moved often, she tells the reader, for three reasons: “One was bad luck.... Also, it could be hard ... for Japanese to get good jobs. The third reason was that my parents were dissatisfied with their marriage.” While these three reasons are mentioned on the fourth page, Kadohata makes much of the third one and surprisingly little of the other two.

Effects rather than causes concern the author most here, in particular the family’s travels; from these come the novel’s title: “We were traveling in what Obasan called ukiyo, the floating world. The floating world was gas station attendants, restaurants, and jobs we depended on, the motel towns floating in the middle of fields and mountains.”

This narrative is frustratingly meager, reading like a series of postcards from a distant acquaintance who has jotted down the bare essentials of her journey and companions. Kadohata is not a minimalist; she is simply not generous as a novelist.


Antioch Review. Review of The Floating World, by Cynthia Kadohata. 48 (Winter, 1990): 125. Brief but favorable review of The Floating World. Calls Kadohata’s first novel “an appealing account of what it was like growing up a Japanese- American in this country.”

Asian Women United of California. Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings by and About Asian American Women. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989. Although this...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Kadohata’s novel is a coming-of-age story of a young Japanese American girl. Related both to the genres of the Bildungsroman (a novel of the education of its young hero) and the picaresque (an episodic novel highlighting the adventures of its hero on a journey), The Floating World casts an adolescent girl in the role of its traveling hero. Narrating her story through the point of view of Olivia Ann, Cynthia Kadohata highlights a young girl’s perception of life in a post-World War II United States, a perspective which encompasses three generations of a Japanese American family.

Olivia perceives the often unhappy and unstable world around her. While her family is traveling from the West Coast to Arkansas, her grandmother dies and Olivia witnesses an accident in which a woman is critically hurt. These two incidents highlight the transient nature of both life and death. Olivia feels an overwhelming need to see the accident victim, to look directly into the face of tragedy. If she sees the woman, she will not have to be haunted by the specter of the unknown, she will not have to “brace” herself “against all the things” she could not know. Olivia looks directly at the woman’s face and then acknowledges that this woman, too, is simply part of a transient world, shaped by accident rather than a larger, fatalistic order. Later in her life, before she leaves for California, Olivia will observe that she wanted to escape her parents’ many fears, including their fear of the anti-Japanese sentiment during the war years and their fear for their children’s future. Olivia attempts to look at both life and death with a...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Cynthia Kadohata was among a number of Asian American writers who received recognition for their works in the late 1980’s. The recipient of the Whiting Award, Kadohata has been compared to such writers as Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac. Yet Kadohata transforms the typically male “road novel”—such as Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and Kerouac’s On the Road (1957)—into a female Bildungsroman, highlighting a female perspective of life in the “floating world” in which her heroine travels. Kadohata’s Huckleberry Finn is Olivia Ann, who also desires to “light out for the Territory.” In Twain’s novel, women typically represent stability and community while such males as Huckleberry yearn for freedom; Olivia, however, transforms such stereotypical expectations. Olivia is the one who loves the road, who actively engages in the world of new experiences.

Kadohata also challenges the depiction of the stable and conservative Japanese American family unit. Moreover, in the depiction of her feisty and strong-willed grandmother, she subverts the “Madame Butterfly” stereotype of the long-suffering, always faithful, and sacrificial Japanese woman—an exoticized fantasy of the West. Some members of the Asian American community, however, have criticized Kadohata for her depiction of such characters as Obasan, stating that such an abusive and conflicted character is hardly characteristic of Japanese grandmothers. Kadohata simply asserts that she is describing an individual grandmother, not a representative, stock character. Thus, her novel serves to challenge gender and ethnic stereotypes.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Antioch Review. Review of The Floating World, by Cynthia Kadohata. 48 (Winter, 1990): 125. Brief but favorable review of The Floating World. Calls Kadohata’s first novel “an appealing account of what it was like growing up a Japanese-American in this country.”

Asian Women United of California. Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings by and About Asian American Women. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989. Although this anthology does not include Kadohata’s works, it does give valuable information focusing on the historical and cultural background of Asian American women. As such, the work illuminates several key...

(The entire section is 592 words.)