Book Review: The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

1 May

Genre: Literary fiction

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday (Alfred A. Knopf)

Pub date: 23 Aug 2011

Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis (From GoodReads)

The Buddha in the Attic is a novel that tells the story of a group of young women brought over from Japan to San Francisco as ‘picture brides’ nearly a century ago.

In eight incantatory sections, The Buddha in the Attic traces their extraordinary lives, from their arduous journey by boat, where they exchange photographs of their husbands, imagining uncertain futures in an unknown land; to their arrival in San Francisco and their tremulous first nights as new wives; to their backbreaking work picking fruit in the fields and scrubbing the floors of white women; to their struggles to master a new language and a new culture; to their experiences in childbirth, and then as mothers, raising children who will ultimately reject their heritage and their history; to the deracinating arrival of war.


The Buddha in the Attic tells the story of a group of Japanese picture brides who came over to America shorty after the First World War. Sent over on the boat to California, they had no idea what to expect, even the photographs they were shown of their husbands were 20 years old.

Otsuka uses an unusual and highly effective way to tell the story of these women and these people. Almost the entire story is told in the first person plural – we. The “we” of the story is at times the Japanese women who come for a better life and get backbreaking work in the fields and cleaning the Americans’ homes. The “we” is also all Japanese in America. The “they” are sometimes the Japanese men, and later their own children. But always “they” are the Americans who only see the Japanese as other.

Each chapter of the book deals with an aspect of immigrant life: jobs, having children, the racism that they encounter. The story also deals with the children of the immigrants who feel more American and turn their backs on their parents, take on American names and make fun of their mothers’ accents.

After Pearl Harbour the order for internment of the Japanese comes through and it is only now that we hear about individuals – Iyo who left the alarm clock screaming and Haruku who left the laughing Buddha in the attic. It is when all the Japanese disappear from all American cities that the Americans start to wonder where they disappeared to.

This plural voice makes it a little difficult to read at times, but the sparse lyrical quality of the prose and the hauntingly sad story it tells makes it impossible not to go with these women to the end of their journey.


Highly recommended. A haunting account of Japanese women and men in America between the two world wars.

Rating: 4.5*

*See my Rating policy

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One Response to “Book Review: The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka”

  1. Sam (Tiny Library) May 2, 2012 at 7:19 pm #

    I really want to read this one. I’m glad to see you enjoyed the plural voice because I know other reviewers haven’t. Can’t wait to try it for myself 🙂

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