Category Archives: JapaneseLiteratureChallenge 5

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.

Inspired by the stories of Japanese immigrants who came to America in the early 1900’s, this short novel is told in the collective first person, both Japanese and White.  Starting with women chosen as “picture brides” on their sea journey to this new place, we learn of their varied histories, thoughts and fears.  Who are these men they are going to meet and marry? What will their life be like? Did the Americans eat nothing but meat and were they entirely covered with hair?

Told in short clipped sentences the reader follows these women through their lives, from their “First Night” with their new husbands, the beginnings of married life,  issues with “Whites”, childbirth and on up to the Japanese internment of World War Two.  At times these sections read like lists and didn’t quite work for me, at other times I was astounded by Otsuka’s clarity of voice, of these voices, and her respect for these people and their suffering.  What stands out is their strength, both personal and collective.  I found this a striking book.

     A year on and almost all traces of the Japanese have disappeared from our town…We speak of them rarely now, if at all, although word from the other side of the mountains continues to reach us from time to time – entire cities of Japanese have sprung up in the deserts of Nevada and Utah, Japanese in Idaho have been put to work picking beets in the fields, and in Wyoming a group of Japanese children were seen emerging, shivering and hungry, from a forest at dusk.  But this is only hearsay and none of it is necessarily true.  All we know is that the Japanese are out there somewhere, in one place or another, and we shall probably not meet them again in this world.  From page 129.


Filed under Historical Fiction, JapaneseLiteratureChallenge 5, Review

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002

Borrowed from my library.  I decided to read this after reading an excerpt of Otsuka’s latest novel, The Buddha in the Attic,  in Harper’s.

In five chapters, from five different points of view, Otsuka records the displacement and exile of one family and brilliantly chronicles the uprooting of an entire generation.  In February of 1942 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which authorized the removal and internment of at least 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans from the west coast to the interior of the United States.

In language that is cool and spare we learn of the experience through the eyes of the Mother, Daughter, Son and Father.  Each has their own thoughts and needs.  Each  has own way of dealing with removal, their own way of coping with loss, of remembering.

All through October the days were still warm, like summer, but at night the mercury dropped and in the morning the sagebrush was sometimes covered with frost.  Twice in one week there were dust storms.  The sky suddenly turned gray and then a hot wind came screaming across the desert, churning up everything in its path.  From inside the barracks the boy could not see the sun or the moon or even the next row of barracks on the other side of the gravel path.  All he could see was dust.  The wind rattled the windows and doors and the dust seeped in like smoke through the cracks in the roof and at night he slept with a wet handkerchief over his mouth to keep out the smell.  In the morning, when he woke, the wet handkerchief was dry and in his mouth was the gritty taste of chalk.  from page 77.

Every bit of this small novel effected me.  I got to know each of these people,  but it was the mother I felt the closest to.  I only can wish I would show her strength, her fortitude, under similar circumstances.

During the daytime she spent hours scrubbing layers of dirt off the floors.  “Who were these people?” she asked us again and again.  She dusted and swept and cooked.  She washed windows with lemon juice and vinegar and replaced broken glass panes with tin squares.  On sunny afternoons she went out into the backyard in her  work gloves and her floppy straw hat and she raked up fallen leaves into piles, which we jumped in and scattered once more to the wind.  She cleared the weeds from the overgrown pathways.  She pruned back the hedges.  She tore out the rotting trellis from the middle of the garden, which had seeded itself and gone wild.  Deep down in the underbrush she found things.  A doll’s head.  A lady’s black silk stocking.  A stone Buddha lying face down in the dirt.  “So that’s where you were.”  We lifted it for her gently, brushed off the fat belly, saw the enormous round head, up lifted, still laughing.  from page 125.

This is a brilliant and beautiful book.  I highly recommend it.


Filed under Historical Fiction, JapaneseLiteratureChallenge 5, Review

Underground by Haruki Murakami

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel

Vintage International, New York, 2001

Borrowed from my local Library.

After reading Kafka on the Shore, and not being sure what I thought of Haruki Murakami, I decided to read his book on the 1995  Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo gas attacks.  Murakami says in his introduction that he was motivated to write Underground because he had been living away from Japan, wanted a deeper understanding of his home country and felt an obligation to those who had died in and survived the attack.  He wanted to have their voices heard.

Underground is actually two books that were published separately in 1997 and 1998.   The first part,. Underground, is made up of interviews with survivors of the 1995  attack in the Tokyo subway system, the second part, The Place That Was Promised, contains interviews with people who had been involved with Aum Shinrikyo.

From the interview with Toshiaki Toyoda, a Subway Authority workman.

    There were ordinary passengers who unfortunately lost their lives or suffered injuries just because they were traveling on the subway.  People who are still suffering mentally or are in pain.  When I consider their lot, I don’t have the luxury to keep seeing myself as a victim.  That’s why I say: “I’m not a sarin victim, I’m a survivor.”  Frankly, there are some latent symptoms, but nothing to keep me bedridden.  I’m just glad I survived.

The fear, the mental wounds are still with me, of course, but there is no way to flush them out of my system.  I could never find words to explain it to the families of those who died or sacrificed their lives on the job.  From page 38.

Murakami shows great respect for the people he interviewed, never interfering with their answers and yet drawing them out.  I am deeply impressed by his level of caring and by his commitment to his fellow citizens.  I am also moved by the survivors, their willingness to share their stories and their commitment to their culture and to each other. I find the difference between our two culture profound.

I also really appreciate the depth of Murakami’s intelligence, his clarity of thought and willingness to probe deeply into his own psyche.

From Blind Nightmare: Where Are We Japanese Going?

            …I am a novelist, and as we know a novelist is someone who works with “narratives”, who spins “stories” professionally.  Which meant to me that the task at hand was like a gigantic sword dangling over my head.  It’s something I’m going to have to deal with much more seriously from here on.  I know I’m going to have to construct a “cosmic communication device” of my own.  I’ll probably piece together every last scrap of junk, every weakness, every deficiency inside me to do it.  (There, I’ve gone and said it – but the real surprise is that it’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do as a writer all along!)

So then, what about you? (I’m using the second person, but of course that includes me.)

Haven’t you offered up some part of your Self to someone (or something), and taken on a “narrative” in return?  Haven’t we entrusted some part of our personality to some greater System or Order? And if so, has not that System at some stage demanded of us some kind of “insanity”?  Is the narrative you now possess really and truly your own?  Are your dreams really your own dreams?  Might not they be someone else’s visions that could sooner or later turn into nightmares?  From page 233.

The second part of this book is made up of interviews with people connected to Aum Shinrikyo at the time of the attacks.  It is chilling how easily these people, all of whom seem intelligent and humane, were disconnected from their families, their peers and any sense of empathy or compassion.  They became “mindless” but sincerely thought otherwise.  Read that quote from Blind Nightmare again.

I will definitely read more of Murakami’s work, even as I struggle to make sense of it.

Other reviews:


Dolce Bellezza


The Parrish Lantern

things mean a lot

Thyme for tea


Filed under Culture, History, InTranslation, JapaneseLiteratureChallenge 5, Nonfiction, Review