The Buddha in the Attic

by Julie Otsuka

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1647

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 want the Japanese living in or around their towns. Sometimes the whites shoot at the shacks of the Japanese or burn their chicken coops, and the wives wonder if there are any people on Earth more savage than the white Americans. Some of the wives are taken to work as maids in the homes of the whites. The white women teach them the rules and chores of the house. The wives love the women yet hate them, are jealous of them, want to be them. A few fall in love with the white husbands, and some are taken to work in their whorehouses. Many wives end up working in Japantowns—“J-town”—and hardly see any whites at all. The wives promise themselves that one day they will leave their husbands. But then they think themselves foolish, so they pack up their kimonos and settle into their lives.

The wives give birth under trees, beside woodstoves, in shacks. Some babies die after only a few days, others are perfect and have heads full of black hair. During their labor, some wives have the assistance of doctors, midwives, or other women; others have only their husbands. Some must give birth alone. Some wives make it through labor just fine, while others contract a headache that lasts for years. Some die. A few of the husbands cannot wait for their wives to heal, and their wives give birth year after year. Finally, they say, “That’s enough.”

The wives put their children in wicker baskets on the edges of fields while they work to pay off their debt. The babies cry, but their mothers cannot comfort them, and they eventually drift to sleep. Sometimes the wives have favorites—the quiet baby who is more calm than Buddha—although the husbands always prefer the sons. As soon as they are able, the children go to work in the fields. As they get older, they learn about the white children who grow up indoors and have never stepped into a field. The children learn the harsh realities of life as some of them die from diseases like measles and whooping cough and others from accidents like being kicked by a mule. The ones that live grow up so fast, and soon they forget Japanese words and customs in favor of American ones. They want to be called by English names like Peggy and Violet. The children become ashamed of their mothers, and the wives feel like they no longer know their own children. But they know that their children still have dreams—to be a rock star, a state senator, a teacher—but even though their mothers know that dark times lie ahead, they let their children continue to dream.

On the second day of World War II, rumors begin to spread about a list of traitors. Having lived a simple life, the wives assume that they and their families will be safe. In nearby towns, raids begin and the wives hear that people are being sent far away on trains. Soon the neighbors begin eying them suspiciously, and they find threatening letters in their mailboxes. The stories in the newspapers claim that the Japanese assisted during the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The wives and their families begin to erase from their lives anything that might be considered a tie to Japan—they burn old letters, clothing, and photographs. But soon a few of the prominent farmers are taken away and rumors of mass removal sprout. The fear of waiting makes the wives feel closer to their husbands. Families sell whatever items they can for they are only allowed to take one bag when they leave. They know that soon, all traces of their lives will be gone.

On the last day, the families leave crying, laughing, singing, and drunk. Some are quiet. As the women are forced away from their homes, their individual lives bear the weight of a collective experience: “Shiki left in a trance”; “Chiye left Glendale still grieving for her oldest daughter, Misuzu, who had thrown herself in front of a trolley five years before.” The Japanese leave and do not look back.

The Japanese have disappeared from town, and their homes are taken over by unkempt lawns and unclaimed newspapers. Their pets wander the streets. Downtown, their businesses are boarded up and eventually sold. The mayor tells everyone not to worry, that the Japanese are in a safe place. The neighbors wonder why they were not safe here in their town. The official evacuation notices are still nailed to telephone poles, but over time, they become tattered and faded, and soon, no one really remembers what the notices once said. Some are secretly happy that the Japanese are gone. Their houses are pillaged and soon it is like the Japanese were never in town at all. After a while, a few neighbors receive letters from Japanese friends, and they demand answers as to why the Japanese left. The mayor tries to ease their fears and tells them that life goes on.

And their lives do go on—as the war continues, the townspeople leave their homes less and less. They hear of the “ghost trains” that took the Japanese away. The townspeople pray and go on with life as usual. By winter, the townspeople can hardly remember the names and faces of their old Japanese neighbors, and they speak rarely of them. The townspeople think that they will likely never meet the Japanese again in this world.

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