'Buddha in the Attic' shares stories of Japanese brides in America

They came to America hoping for love, good fortune and a better life. But what the young brides from Japan found was often just the opposite.

In the early 1920s, when U.S. law prohibited the immigration of Asians, wily matchmakers used photos to wed thousands of Japanese girls and women to Japanese men working in America. “The Buddha in the Attic,” a brilliant, yet slender book by Julie Otsuka, follows the stories of a few of these brides over a span of 20 years.

The brides, ranging from innocent farmgirls to sophisticated city women, arrive in America clutching the photos of their husbands. They already have been wed through a marriage ceremony in Japan. Some of the photos the women have are decades old, others show men groomed and in their best clothes. Few photos match up with the rough looking working men waiting to claim their wives at the shipyard dock.

The women join their husbands in work on farms, in small businesses, in domestic service, etc. Their marriages are loving or cruel. Their existence precarious. They marvel at the strangeness of Americans. They bear children that grow up to be part of this new world and forever separate from them. They never assimilate, but they gain a level of independence from experience and sometimes necessity. The isolated community of “we” that binds the brides slowly broadens over the years until the events at Pearl Harbor in 1941 turn them all into traitors.

Painting the picture of the lives of these women with exquisite but economical brushstrokes of words, Otsuka presents a fascinating portrait of a world that few would ever think possible today. Through her brief glimpses into the lives of the brides, Otsuka gives a complete and historically accurate picture of the hardships, the heartbreaking sacrifices, and even the small moments of joy that were experienced.

“The Buddha in the Attic,” creatively presented and very well-written, has been nominated for a National Book Award for 2011. Much deserved.