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June 19, 2013

“The Buddha in the Attic”

by Anne Paddock

In the United States, we commemorate December 7, 1941 as the day Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese but we don’t  recognize April 2, 1942 – the day nearly 120,000 US citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry were forced to leave their homes, property, businesses, and communities to live an internment camp – most of which were called Assembly Centers or Relocation Centers created by the US government.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and fearing more attacks, Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order in February, 1942 authorizing the military to designate exclusion zones where people could be prohibited from living and working. Suspecting US citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry were somehow aiding Japan’s military, the government used this order to declare that all people of Japanese descent would be interned into camps. Most of the estimated 130,000 citizens and residents of Japanese descent who resided on the continental US lived on the west coast:  110,000-120,000 were estimated to live in California, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona.  These people were ordered to leave their homes and report to areas from which they were transported to internment camps where they stayed until the end of the war.

Unknown-21Much has been written about this period of time when paranoia and suspicion led to what can only be described as a radical racist reaction. Some critics say the equivalent action today would be for the government to require all people of Arab descent to relocate to internment camps – an act most of us would find abhorrent and racist because people regardless of cultural descent cannot be detained without cause in the US. And, certainly there was insufficient cause to require nearly 120,000 men, women, and children to leave their homes, businesses, and jobs in 1942.

In The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka writes a moving story of the Japanese women who immigrated to the United States in 1919 with letters promising “handsome young men with dark eyes and full heads of hair and skin that was smooth and unblemished” who owned homes with chimneys and prosperous businesses. If the men had told the truth – that the photographs were twenty years old, that the letters had been written by “professional people with beautiful handwriting whose job it was to tell lies and win hearts” and that the men “were not silk traders, they were fruit pickers, they did not live in large, many-roomed houses, they lived in tents and in barns and out-of-doors, in the fields, beneath the sun and the stars ” – the women never would have come to America. But once here, they were stuck with most accepting their fate.

Divided into eight chapters, The Buddha in the Attic is told in the voice of one woman who is speaking for all the women who crossed the ocean on a ship in hopes of a better life in America. They came from all walks of life and from vastly different families, but they all shared a common Japanese culture and a friendship with each other. Shocked at their circumstances, most of the women did what they had to do to survive. Others gave up and died.

The women spoke of their roles as wives – as sexual servants to their husbands; as laborers going into the fields every day to  work under the hot sun – and as mothers raising children in a foreign land that made them feel like “a duck that’s hatched goose’s eggs” because their children considered themselves American first and Japanese second. “They learned that some people are born luckier than others and that things in this world do not always go as you planned.”

Even more shocking than the women’s cultural introduction to America in 1919 was what happened to them 23 years after they arrived when they were required to leave their homes, businesses, and property to live in an internment camp.  These women knew that “the only way to resist was by not resisting” and so they accepted their fate as unjust as it was and left their homes and the only life they knew.  The Buddha in the Attic is the story of these women, how they felt, how they lived, and how they survived and died. Winner of the Ben Faulkner Award for Fiction, The Buddha in the Attic is the story of women who always kept a part of themselves hidden while making a life for themselves in a foreign land.

The Japanese have disappeared from our town. Their houses are boarded up and empty now. Their mailboxes have begun to overflow. Unclaimed newspapers litter their sagging front porches and gardens. Abandoned cars sit in their driveways. Thick knotty weeds are sprouting up through their lawns. In their backyards, tulips are wilting. Stray cats wander. Last loads of laundry still cling to the line.

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