Philly’s ‘One Book’ choice tells collective story of Japanese ‘picture brides’

The 2013 selection for the Free Library of Philadelphia’s annual “One Book, One Philadelphia” program is “The Buddha in the Attic” by Julie Otsuka.

Published in 2011, the best seller and winner of a PEN/Faulkner award is about Japanese picture brides who migrated to America in the early 20th century to marry men they did not know in a country they little understood.

The novel is written entirely in the first-person plural — told from a general perspective rather than with a single voice. Otsuka admits it seemed like a crazy idea at first, but discovered that writing about these women as a group did not sacrifice emotion or pathos.

“When I first began, I started with one picture bride, and it felt really flat,” said Otsuka in a telephone interview from her home in New York City. “At a certain point I saw this line that I had written months earlier and had forgotten that I had written it. The line was: ‘On the boat we were mostly virgins.’ As soon as I saw that line knew it was the right voice.”

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That line now begins the novel: “On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet, and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing buy rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we’d been wearing for years …”

Enduring hostility, then internment camps

“This book was one of those books that grabbed you instantly, and the story is so powerful and profound,” said Siobhan Reardon, president of the Free Library. “It’s a piece of American history that we just don’t like to discuss, when you think about all that happened to the Japanese during World War II.”

Like most “One Book” selections, “The Buddha in the Attic” is fiction, but deeply rooted in historical events. Many picture brides arrived in American under false pretenses, their future husbands having told them a life of leisure awaited them. In reality, many were abused almost the moment they were ashore and learned white Americans were often ambivalent at best — at worst violently hostile — toward Asian immigrants.

Otsuka researched the lives of picture brides, drawing up large charts and maps of small California towns where the women followed their new husbands to work as itinerant laborers, picking lettuce and tomatoes and raspberries. Some landed in “Japantowns” of larger cities, finding work as maids or prostitutes.

Theirs was not an easy life, which ultimately they had to throw away. They were forced into internment in camps during World War II, due to national paranoia following the kamikaze attack on Pearl Harbor.

Although the major events in “The Buddha in the Attic” are based on fact, Otsuka says she created many details for narrative effect and readability.

A story of bravery and struggle

“It seemed like such a brave thing to do. We think of Japanese women as demure and passive, but these were such brave girls,” said Otsuka. “Of course, all marriages back then were arranged, so it wasn’t as strange as it might seem to us now. But everyone was so young, you know … teenagers coming over. It seemed like such a dramatic story.”

The thin book — just 129 pages in paperback — was chosen by the Free Library because it satisfies many “One Book” criteria: the author is living, it can be read at a 10th-grade level, and the subject is rich enough to program a variety of related subjects.

About 150 events and programs are being coordinated by the Free Library and its partner organizations, including a discussion with area women who had lived in the Japanese internment camps in California; martial arts demonstrations; Japanese cooking classes; meditation classes; a lecture about the culture and history of the geisha; and an evening of open-mic personal storytelling.

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