Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic: Silence and Injustice
Updated: Nov 6
Minor spoilers ahead for Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic
The Buddha in the Attic is primarily a work that discusses and depicts the lives of a marginalised and historically silenced group(s) of people. For most of the narrative the ‘we’ changes in a fashion that is directly linked to the thematic focalisation of each chapter. This subtle movement varies from sentence to sentence and is not always consistent or unambiguous. Nevertheless, it could be said that the focus is generally expanding as the novel proceeds, i.e. the focus begins with Japanese picture brides, then expands to Japanese American women, then to Japanese American mothers and then Japanese Americans in general, this coinciding with the evolution of the themes from first journey, first night, integrating in the US, raising children and finally being regarded with suspicion and hostility when Japan assaults Pearl Harbor and war is declared. So, whilst the redefinition of ‘we’ is often inconsistent or deliberately contradictory, the general focal point could be said to be centred around Japanese Americans (with the emotional core of the narrative often focusing on Japanese American women).
There is one marked exception to this, namely the last chapter ‘A Disappearance’ wherein the narrating voice is that of white Americans remarking on the disappearance of their Japanese neighbours. In this piece, I want to talk about this final chapter and what it signifies.
The first thing that came to mind when I read the final chapter was Martin Niemöller’s ‘First They Came,’ a poem about the inaction of Germans to the Nazi purges during the holocaust. Whilst the genocide of Jews, Roma, Homosexuals, disabled people, socialists, communists and other dissenters in Nazi Germany and the relocation of Japanese Americans are two events that are widely different in scope and nature, at their core they are both historic injustices that were able to take place due to the consent of the majority population.
However, when we compare both texts’ handling of this theme a stark difference is immediately made clear; Niemöller’s poem is unambiguous, ‘they’ took people and the lyrical subject both admits to observing this and doing nothing. There is clear agency for both those who did the taking and those who allowed it to happen. In contrast, in ‘A Disappearance’ the act of relocation is mostly depersonalised, removing agency from those involved. The narrating voice shifts the blame at multiple stages; the total ignorance of white Americans about what was happening is stressed constantly (despite the notices for Japanese Americans being widely available to them as well), feelings of worry, anger and indignation and the writing of petitions are used as indicators that white Americans did care about their Japanese neighbours despite not undertaking any real action, and lastly, when Japanese homes and businesses are looted and their possessions are redistributed the passive voice is used to once again remove the agency from those doing the looting to make it appear as a natural agent-less event.
The last chapter of The Buddha in the Attic represents the undiluted guilty conscience of white America. During the rest of the book white Americans have been shown to sometimes exploit the Japanese (and other) migrants, but they have also been shown to do the opposite. The variety and the scope of the experiences of Japanese immigrants (in particular Japanese picture brides) make it difficult to pinpoint agency. Instead, during most of the book, the tone seems to be one of historic tragedy. The tragedy of people immigrating to another country on false pretences, being exploited and brutalised by their husbands, their employers, destroying their bodies and minds by having to do inhuman amounts of work whilst raising their children etc. In short, the tragedy of being trapped in an unjust world, in an unjust time at the bottom of the societal hierarchy, in some ways a timeless tragedy.
This is subverted in the final chapter. The people who write history and dictate the lives of Japanese American immigrants and other marginalised groups ( the white American majority) finally speak, and they deflect blame and try to convince themselves that they did not know and that there is nothing they could have done. They are the people with power, yet they insist on being absolutely powerless, and more importantly blameless. However, during this chapter there are several indicators that white Americans could have known, and could have done something, but it was by choice that they did not seek to find out what happened and did not really try to do anything once they had discovered the truth. Moreover, it is made clear that they benefited materially from the dispossession of the Japanese.
This chapter causes perception to shift dramatically, from historical tragedy to historical injustice. It is made clear through this chapter, not only that white Americans were complicit in the dispossession and relocation of their Japanese neighbours, but also that this act could be seen as the culmination of the historical exploitation and dehumanisation of Japanese immigrants. In this way, the final chapter reframes the entirety of the novel; whilst the hard lives of the Japanese picture brides, and Japanese American immigrants in general are no less tragic, their struggle is not a tragedy, but an injustice, a deliberate and systemic injustice.
Martin Niemöller’s ‘First They Came,’ is invaluable piece of poetry because it illustrates in a concise and powerful way how indifference and consent by silence can be powerful accomplices to horrific events. It also shows how such events do not materialise suddenly, but gradually escalate in scope and horror. Julie Ostuka’s The Buddha in the Attic is not only invaluable because it gives a voice to a historically silenced minority, but also because similarly to Niemöller’s poem it shows how great acts of injustice are the result of gradual escalation, and most importantly could not take place without the silent consent of the non-afflicted majority. As Desmond Tutu put it "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."