‘The Buddha in the Attic’. What an innocuous book title. And such a pretty cover.
But the world it opened for me was neither innocuous or pretty.
A confession first. I am pretty ill-informed of historical migration to the US. I knew about Italians and Irish going. And other Europeans—like the Polish. But I never thought of Asian migration as significant. Hence the very moorings of the book were an education. ‘Oh, Japanese migrate to the US in numbers in the 1880s?’ was the question that struck me. I had to do some little surfing and reading to give myself a context.
Just a quick wiki-glimpse of the highlights of this for those of my readers who may not be familiar with the issue:
- 1885: On February 8, the first official intake of Japanese migrants to a U.S.-controlled entity occurs when 676 men, 159 women, and 108 children arrive in Honolulu. These immigrants, the first of many Japanese immigrants to Hawaii, have come to work as laborers on the island’s sugar plantationsvia an assisted passage scheme organized by the Hawaiian government.
- 1900s: Japanese immigrants begin to lease land and sharecrop.
- 1906: The San Francisco Board of Educationsuccessfully implements segregation for Asian students in public schools.
- 1907: Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907between United States and Japan results in Japan ending the issuance passports for new laborers.
- 1908: Japanese “picture brides” enter the United States.
- 1913: The California Alien Land Law of 1913bans Japanese from purchasing land; whites threatened by Japanese success in independent farming ventures.
- 1924: The federal Immigration Act of 1924banned immigration from Japan.
- 1941: Attack on Pearl Harbor: Japanese forces attack the United States Navybase at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu. Japanese community leaders are arrested and detained by federal authorities.
- 1942: President Franklin Delano Rooseveltsigns Executive Order 9066 on February 19, beginning Japanese American internment. Over the course of the war, approximately 110,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese who lived on the West Coast of the United States are uprooted from their homes and interned.
Coming back to the book, it traces the stories of ‘picture brides’ who came to the US from Japan. And therein lies the brilliance. It is not the story of one woman or family. The technique that Julie Otsuka uses is such that through a tiny 129-page book, I begin to understand the history of the whole Japanese community in the US in the pre-WWII period, and get powerful insights into what might have happened to a whole set of picture brides.
Read it to understand history from the perspective of immigrants; read it to understand history from the perspective of women; read it to understand xenophobia is not new and that history does repeat itself; to learn that the stories of some women are the stories of all women; to learn that the stories of one diaspora are the stories of all diaspora; to learn how so much can be conveyed with so few words.
Bottom line, READ IT!
P.S: Feel really ill-informed. I never knew about this book or Julie Otsuka till recently.