The Floating World Additional Summary

Cynthia Kadohata


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Olivia Ann Osaka, or Livvie, says that she did not like her maternal grandmother, Hisae Fujiitano, who had died in a motel bathroom when Livvie was twelve years old. While remembering her grandmother’s life, Livvie also reflects on how the names in her own family reflect assimilation in the United States through the generations. When her grandmother had emigrated from Japan to America, her father had chosen a new last name—Fujiitano—for good luck. During World War II, all the children got American first names in addition to their Japanese ones. Livvie’s mother’s name, Mariko, for example, was changed to Laura. Livvie herself does not have a Japanese first name, but she always uses the formal Japanese term obsan (“grandmother”) when referring to the formidable old woman tormenting her, even after death.

Obsan uses the term ukiyo, Japanese for “floating world,” when referring to the world of Livvie and her parents and three younger brothers. Originally, the term had applied to the pleasure quarters of old Japanese cities. For Livvie, the floating world means life on the road in the Western United States, as her family travels from menial job to menial job in many small towns, and the highway is her constant companion. Livvie believes that her family is steady, and the world floats around them.

Livvie has an ambiguous relationship with Obsan. The seventy-six-year-old, cigar-smoking woman had had three husbands and seven lovers; the last one died just three years ago. Obsan requires chores of Livvie and boxes her ears if she is slow at those chores, but when a strange man threatens Livvie in a town, Obsan chases him off with a stick that is so hard, her palm gets bruised, showing her love for Livvie.

Livvie is out in the field with her eight-year-old brother, Ben, the outgoing one, and her six-year-old brother, Walker, the silent one, all accompanied by Obsan; two-year-old Peter stays at home. The grandmother scolds the kids for being bullied into buying apples from a white farmer. She also pinches Livvie’s wrist.

Later at night, Livvie discovers her grandmother huddled on the bathroom floor of the motel room where the family is staying. Obsan repeatedly pleads with Livvie to get her mother. Livvie knows her grandmother is dying, but she ignores her pleas and goes back to sleep. In the morning, Obsan is dead, and Livvie feels guilty. None of the four grandchildren...

(The entire section is 1000 words.)