The Buddha in the Attic

by Julie Otsuka

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What are some diasporic themes in The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka?

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Diasporic themes in Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic include vulnerability, labor exploitation, racism, language, and generational differences.

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Julie Otsuka’s novel The Buddha in the Attic addresses numerous issues related to diaspora. Some of the issues she raises are specific to the experience of Japanese and Japanese American people in the first half of the twentieth century. Most of the diasporic themes connect with experiences of other immigrants in the United States.

The broadest general concern that the author points out is the vulnerability of immigrants. The Japanese women have traveled far from their homeland to marry and make a new life in the California, leaving behind their families. While some of the marriages turn out well, the isolated women are extremely vulnerable and their husbands are often not much more secure than they are.

One place this vulnerability is evident is in the limited opportunities for work that are available to people of Japanese heritage and the closely related issue of housing segregation. They must not only work hard for low wages but also live separately from their Euro-American coworkers. Vulnerability is closely connected with racism, as difference is almost invariably associated with race. Both themes become painfully evident during World War II, when Japanese Americans are detained and incarcerated—even those who are citizens by birth or naturalization.

Language is another diasporic theme that connects both with vulnerability and with generational differences. The women portrayed in the novel arrive without knowing English, and their opportunities to learn are shown as extremely limited. Not having English further limits their abilities for upward mobility or legal defense of their civil rights. In addition, language is a clear dividing line between the Japanese-born parents and their US-born children, who grow up speaking English and often rejecting Japanese language and culture.

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There are many diasporic themes and topics presented in the novel The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. How is the topic or theme of moving away from the homeland or mobility shown in the novel?

The experiences of the Japanese diaspora are set out in considerable detail by Julie Otsuka in The Buddha in the Attic. Although we are introduced to a number of different characters, each one giving their own unique take on the immigrant experience, it is possible to observe a certain pattern emerging from their stories. This allows Otsuka to make general observations about the Japanese diaspora and the many challenges that it faced.

One such challenge, perhaps even the biggest challenge faced by the book's characters, concerns the difficulties of assimilating into American society while retaining their cultural and ethnic identity. This is made all the more difficult by the widespread prejudice and racism that the Japanese brides face in white American society.

What makes adapting to American life all the more frustrating is the fact that the women are expected to perform back-breaking toil in the fields, just as they would do back in Japan. To make the transition from living in Japan to living in the United States as smooth as possible, the Japanese diasporic community has created its own mini Japan, complete with age-old practices and clearly defined gender roles.

Combined with the persistent racism and prejudice of white American society, this cultural isolation has made it hard for the diasporic community, especially its womenfolk, to assimilate into American society. What makes things worse for the Japanese women in the story is that they genuinely want to fit in and be accepted, to have the same privileges as the white women they encounter.

And yet, at the same time, the community becomes susceptible to official wartime propaganda, which leads them to suspect their own people of being fifth columnists and traitors. The irony here is that total assimilation would've made no difference whatsoever; Japanese Americans would still have been persecuted anyway.

In The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka gives us a complex, multi-faceted view of the Japanese diaspora, which at the same time speaks to the experiences of millions of immigrants down through the ages, wherever they come from.

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