Seeking Love in America
By Bennett Amador
Women from the early 1900s came to Japan to live with unknown already chosen spouses. These hopeful “women” were as young as 11, and as old as 31. The author, Julie Otsuka, describes their journey with unrivaled prose, written in a poetic fashion. She is the author of When The Emperor was Divine, a book about the American-Japanese in World War II. Both books are written in similar style; Otsuka writes plainly and concisely but her words leave a strong sentiment. She does not focus on the individual but rather the collection of women. To make her point she writes in the 1st person plural. One might think the stories would become detached or lacking individuality, but she overcomes this by occasionally telling anecdotes in the 1st person singular. The minimalist tack is effective and thought provoking, particularly because so much can be inferred by her words.
Julie Otsuka’s first book The Buddha in the Attic is considered a prequel to “When the Emperor was Divine”. Otsuka’s distinct writing style is evident in both novels. The focal point is the Japanese-Americans’ lives affected in WWII. She refers to specific characters of the book as “the boy” or “white dog.” The effect is that the reader connects to “the woman” and “the boy,” while at the same time facilitating the realization that the war affected many Japanese-Americans. She utilizes a similar strategy in The Buddha in the Attic by maintaining the focus on the group of Japanese women coming to the U.S.
The book opens on a boat that is transporting the Japanese women from their homeland to America. Otsuka is not verbose in the first chapter as shown in the first sentence “on the boat we were mostly virgins.” The Japanese women are portrayed as innocent, full of hope, nervousness, worry “would we be laughed at?” traits not omnipresent throughout the group but also not unique to a single woman. Chapter one primarily sets the scene for the book by explaining the disappointment the woman felt when reaching the shores of California: “…we could not have known that when we first saw our husbands we would have no idea who they were. That the crowd of men in knit caps and shabby black coats waiting for us down below on the dock would bear no resemblance to the handsome young men in the photographs. That the photographs we had been sent were twenty years old…. This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong.” This quote typifies the spirit of these women throughout the book because they are constantly faced with the harsh reality that they are not equals. World War II only further exacerbates this reality when they are sent away solely on the crime of being Japanese.
“The Buddha in the Attic” highlights the somewhat lesser known, unpopular actions carried out by Americans during World War II. The second chapter “First night,” conveys more horrors: “They took us by surprise, for some of us had not been told by our mothers exactly what it was that this night would entail. “ Each chapter advances the women’s lives “Babies,” “The Children,” “The Last Day” and with each chapter the characters evolve to develop an understanding, “they did not want us as neighbors in their valleys. They did not want us as friends.” The women slowly progress and repetition in their daily activities eventually leads to normalcy. That comfort found in normalcy is only shattered come wartime.
Otsuka writes repetitively to emphasize certain points. For example, when talking about the “picture brides” opinions on American women: “We loved them. We hated them. We wanted to be them.” The language is simple and certain parallels can be drawn to Ernest Hemingway. While reading the novel the reader feels a large sense of sympathy for these women and this is perhaps Otsuka’s greatest gift.
Otsuka writes simply, so that teens can read it and understand it, Adults will appreciate the book for its poetic style and historical underpinnings. We truly feel for these women and hope their lives positively change, however, knowing in the back of our minds, they are doomed.