Being married to a Japanese woman, and having lived for many years in Japan, I have always been interested in the stories of those who came before, those people who endured all the hardships and paid all the dues so that my wife I and could live happily in the US without anyone batting eye. I am fully aware that it wasn’t so long ago that the government could have ripped her from me and sent her to a concentration camp in the desert.
“Buddha in the Attic” is ostensibly the story of the Picture Brides, those women who made the long voyage across the ocean betrothed to a man who they had only ever seen in a picture. Most of the photographs were lies, taken twenty years earlier when the men were still young, and most of the fairy tales of riches and an easy life were nothing but lies. These women found themselves facing a hard life in a country prejudiced against them. But author Julie Otsuka expands the story with every chapter, moving beyond the Picture Brides to encompass all the Japanese women in the Pacific coast; the maids, the prostitutes, the wives, the mothers. And finally she expends her scope to include all of the Japanese, forced to abandon their homes and property, rounded up like cattle, and shipped to concentration camps in the desert.
This was not the easiest book to read, something due entirely to the writing conceit adopted by Otsuka. It is impossible to call “The Buddha in the Attic” a novel. It is much more like a long-form poem. In an attempt to show the group experience of the women, she starts every sentence with “we” or “Some of us.” The paragraphs read like lists, sounding something like:
“We worked all day in the field. We brought tea to the elegant ladies in their big houses. We washed laundry in hot water until our hands blistered. We went on shopping trips to the finest stores. We cooked three meals a day for a mining camp. Some of us wore the same kimono every day. Some of us wore pants for the field. Some of us had new underwear and white gloves. Some of us never washed the dirt from our hair.”
That’s not an exact quote, but it gives you an idea. When I read the first chapter, I was intrigued with the style. But with the second chapter, when I realized she intended to write the entire book that way, I was annoyed. Then finally I got into the rhythm of the writing. But I never really grew to like it.
Otsuka’s writing style creates too much of a sense of a faceless mass, of a wash of humanity that you can never connect with because they have no names and no faces, no individuality. The style does allow for scope; telling no individual story means that she can cover decades and thousands of lives in a scant 150 pages. But I wish that Otsuka had left her style in places, and broke up the repetition with something more personal. I have seen the same subject handled more personally, like in the film Picture Bride or from the Chinese point-of-view with The Poker Bride. I think “The Buddha in the Attic” would have benefited from a few of those kinds of individual stories.
One chapter I really enjoyed was the final one. I have read quite a bit about the Japanese concentration camps of WWII, but always from the Japanese point-of-view. “The Buddha in the Attic” is the first book I have read that deals with the white Americans who woke up one day to find the classrooms empty, the stores closed, and their towns and cities entirely stripped of the Japanese population that once lived there.