Extended Summary

In her second novel, Julie Otsuka explores the lives of Japanese picture brides who make the overseas voyage from Japan to America in the early 1900s. Written in the first person plural narrative voice, The Buddha in the Attic recants in eight chapters the collective experience of this group of immigrants.

When the brides-to-be board the ship, the first thing they do is compare pictures of their future husbands. They are handsome young men with dark hair, posing in front of Model-T Fords and white picket fences. Some of the men have had their photographs taken at a professional photographer’s studio. And all of them have promised to be waiting for their brides at the dock when the ship sails into San Francisco harbor. The women wonder if they will recognize their new husbands when they get off the boat. They wonder if they will be happy.

At night, the women sleep down below in steerage. The beds are small and the hold is dirty and dimly lit. The women try to sleep, and when they do, they dream of their future husbands and the new lives they will lead with pretty houses and bolts of silk. Sometimes, they dream of rice paddies, but these are nightmares, and they wake gasping for air. When they are not dreaming, the women stay up late chatting about the unknown land that lies ahead. Many of the women are accomplished and believe that they will make good wives. But they must tackle the very different ways of the Americans whose bodies are rumored to be covered with hair. However, they agree that life will be better in America than it would have been in Japan because in America the women do not have to work in the fields and there is plenty to eat.

On the boat, some of the women have secrets that they vow will never leave the boat. It has been a long journey, so some of the women have become too friendly with the deckhands. One woman becomes pregnant, and when her baby is born nine months later in America, she swears to all that her baby looks like her husband. Another woman falls in love and her lover begs her to run away with him, but she tells him that she has already made a promise to the husband who is waiting for her.

When the boat finally arrives on the shore of California, the women have no idea who their husbands are. The men do not look like the handsome gentlemen in the photographs—maybe the photographs are twenty years old or are pictures of other men. The letters had been written by professionals to lure the women across the sea. The women want to go home, but they lower their heads, smooth their kimonos, and meet their fate. They think all will be fine, yet they are wrong.

On the first night of their marriages, the women are expected to bed their husbands. Some of the men are gentle and procure the best hotel that is available to them. Others are rough and greedy, and they force the women down on the floors of scummy inns. In the bedroom, secrets are revealed as the men resort to hometown dialects that betray their background and profession like the “rough Hiroshima dialects” that reveal a life of fishing. But no matter the experience, in the morning, the women are theirs.

The women live with their husbands on the edges of towns inhabited by whites or on labor camps in the hot valleys in California. Their houses are long tents or wooden shanties, an abandoned schoolhouse or an old washhouse. Their husbands teach them quickly to learn to shout for water if they feel faint in the fields from picking strawberries, grapes, or beans all day. Still, one woman dies of heatstroke for not speaking up and another of typhoid from being afraid and drinking from an irrigation ditch. The men also teach their wives to be wary of white people, although they must obey their orders. The women try to learn some phrases in English, but their new knowledge is useless. The husbands tell their wives to work hard, and they cover for their wives when they are sick and falter. The whites are impressed with the stamina of the Japanese workers, but they still do not...

(The entire section is 1647 words.)