“The Buddha in the Attic”, by Julie Otsuka, is a collective emotional diary of the lives of a generation of Californian Japanese women: from mail order brides to internment during World War II. Distilled as an obituary, the foibles of their community, soaked in Japanese and American culture, are captured in a simple documentary narrative. Historical fiction, it leans more toward non-fiction, but in a fictionalized form. Ms. Otsuka acknowledges that the novel is drawn from life stories of Japanese immigrants in the 1900s and newsreels. There is no plot apart from history; no characters apart from individuals named to describe the characteristic. It may be more compelling than history, because it relates the everyday events and emotions of people who happen to be Japanese.
An unblemished work, it begins, “On the boat we were mostly virgins”. These are young girls thrust into womanhood, in a foreign country, with foreign customs, foreign language, and foreign religion. Life is unforgiving. The novel is a testament to women; particularly Japanese women. They are not perfect, but their cultural reserve is distinctive to this beleaguered second class gender of the Eastern world. Like many immigrant women they endure loss of family at a young age; the immediate disillusionment of most mail order brides; unforgiving workloads in the Californian fields (with their babies in tow); and more evening service when they returned home to often brutish husbands. Prized as dependable cheap labor Japanese workers do not complain. They are in demand by Americans when war breaks out. They lived sequestered in J-town, their halting English and customs distinct from their surroundings. They wonder if they had been open to American society whether internment could have avoided. They are loyal Americans whose children had adapted. Their children are starting to succeed when their lives are pruned. There is both hatred, caring, ambivalence, and indifference to their internment by their neighbors. To their neighbors, they slowly disappeared. Neither they, nor these Japanese Americans, knew what was happening, where they were being taken. Rumors abound as in all crises. Their neighbors, including other immigrants, took advantage of them as they were leaving and after they were gone.
The title of the book is taken from a line in the book. “Haruko left a tiny brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day.” Like Hotei (the Japanese Buddha), these women and their families left for internment with just a sack. They are poor, or poorer, but their is no contentment. They are awakened by internment, but it is only a variation on the life they had been leading. There is no wealth, good luck, or prosperity in the offing, as Hotei would represent. Is the laughter a hope to be realized in the future, or an ironic laugh antithetical to their religion?
Mr. Otsuka debut novel “When the Empire Was Divine” was well-received. It too was about interment during World War II. This novel was awarded the 2012 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction and was long listed for the 2011 National Book Award. It, like its predecessor, is a short, quick read. It is memorable.