Julie Otsuka’s Buddha in the Attic tells the story of Japanese picture brides. Women emigrated from Japan to America in the early 20th century to marry men they had seen only in pictures. Hence the term picture brides.
Otsuka could have chosen a more traditional first- person- singular or third-person-close point of view in which to tell this story. She instead chose an unusual, novel and, in my opinion, quite successful point of view: first-person plural.
Instead of I she gives us We.
What Otsuka achieves is spectacular. Buddha in the Attic reads like a non-fiction history book where the facts (“X percent of picture brides came from the Tokyo area. All experienced racism in some form….”) become characters. The historical fact and movement of the picture brides in their plurality become a kind of singular protagonist.
This is a book that each must read alone, I think. It’s that kind of experience. Saying “Oh, it’s about all the things the picture brides experienced” does little justice to the profound insights I encountered in the pages of Buddha in the Attic. It’s as if I became a picture bride myself yet also did not.
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Otsuka’s epigraph describes her goal for her book. It is taken from Ecclesiasticus 44:8-9:
There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported. And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.
Buddha in the Attic serves as both an explication and memorial for the picture brides. But this isn’t a typical history of picture brides told thorough the story of the Akiko Tanaka or some variant. No. This story is about the thousands of women who left Japan for America. An individual’s story would lose so many of the complex, factual details of the brides’ experiences. So Otsuka deftly keeps the focus on the group.
Some of us were from Tokyo, and had seen everything, and spoke beautiful Japanese, and did not mix much with any of the others. Many more of us were from Kagoshima and spoke in a thick southern dialect that those of us from Tokyo pretended we could not understand. Some of us were from Hokkaido, where it was snowy and cold, and would dream of that white landscape for years. Some of us were from Hiroshima, which would later explode, and were lucky to be on the boat at all though of course we did not know that then.
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This sentence blew my mind. “Many more of us were from Kagoshima and spoke in a thick southern dialect that those of us from Tokyo pretended we could not understand.” As I read it, my mind suspended the first-person plural. What I thought was “those women from Tokyo pretended they could not understand.” This subtle shift provided the traditional protagonist/antagonist found in fiction writing (and even non-fiction writing). I guess I needed a protagonist.
But Otsuka wants something far grander for us, which I think of as the fictionalized portrayal of a group experience.
So as I read Buddha in the Attic, I felt involved intimately with a group of women without names or faces. This sounds strange even as I write it out, which is why you must read this book to understand Otsuka’s accomplishment. We talk about the ability of fiction to enliven history. Otsuka accomplishes this and so much more.
In a manner both direct and surreptitious, Otsuka makes us both a participant and an observer of this particular historical moment. The first-person plural provided the point of view needed to accomplish this feat.