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The Buddha in the Attic

3.64  ·  Rating details ·  45,353 ratings  ·  6,751 reviews
Julie Otsuka’s long-awaited follow-up to When the Emperor Was Divine is a tour de force of economy and precision, a novel that tells the story of a group of young women brought from Japan to San Francisco as “picture brides” nearly a century ago.

In eight incantatory sections, The Buddha in the Attic traces the picture brides’ extraordinary lives, from their arduous journey
Hardcover, 129 pages
Published August 23rd 2011 by Knopf
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Ellen The Buddha was a symbol of the religion that these women brought from Japan with them. When they had to abandon their houses due to wartime measures, …moreThe Buddha was a symbol of the religion that these women brought from Japan with them. When they had to abandon their houses due to wartime measures, this item was left behind, which in my mind symbolizes that they were forced to become Americanized and physically leave behind their heritage in order to be accepted in a very difficult time in history for their people. However, this is just my opinion, and there are many other interpretations available.(less)
cait A little bit of both. It's based on true stories and, as far as I know, none of it was falsified, but it is told more in vignettes than informative fo…moreA little bit of both. It's based on true stories and, as far as I know, none of it was falsified, but it is told more in vignettes than informative formatting.(less)

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Some of us will like the book. Some of us won't. Some of us will find the constant plural first person narrative terribly annoying, wondering if any group of people can be so cohesive and 'one' that they can always speak in unison, no matter the topic. Some of us can't wait to discuss it with our friends on Saturday. Some of us will cancel their RSVP to this week's book club because the last thing they want to do is give this book any more of their time. Some of us won't like it because the lack ...more
Mar 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
I read The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka as part of my women's history month lineup. A well researched, historical fictional account, Otsuka depicts life for Japanese American immigrants to California over a span of thirty years in the early 20th century. Featuring mail order brides who came to San Francisco to meet their husbands for the first time, Otsuka gives a voice to a people whose story would otherwise be lost.

The women came from all over Japan to sail on a steamship to meet their
After the first chapter of this book, I thought I had hit upon a goldmine of a book and wondered how anyone dared to rate it less than 4 stars. Otsuka draws the reader in by offering up a kaleidoscope of experiences by a flock of Japanese women clustered in the ship's steerage bound for California as mail-order brides. Lest you think this is a silly book. It is not. Here is what I liked:

*Otsuka clearly has researched, read her history of Japanese emigration, interviewed obsessively to come up wi
This novella has the most lyrical prose I've read in a long, long time. It begins on a boat in the early 1900s, with dozens of young Japanese women who were being shipped to husbands in San Francisco to begin new lives. The women didn't know it yet, but they had been sold a bill of goods. They had been promised that their husbands were successful, handsome and rich, and that they would love living in America, but the truth is they would become migrant workers in California, and that the women mi ...more
Nov 07, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013-reads
In this slim, delicate, lyrical novel Julie Otsuka unflinchingly and confidently does something that really is not supposed to work for Western readers, those bred in the culture of stark individualism and raised in a society where it's traditional to expect a bright spark of individuality shining through the grey masses. After all, it's the plight of one, the quest of one, the triumph of one that appeals to us - naturally, as individual and personal portrayals appeal to our innate sense of self ...more
Dec 07, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011-favorites
My father served in World War 2, Korea and Viet Nam. He never really talked too much about any of these wars. When we talked about World War 2 the only thing he said was that the American Government's treatment of Japanese Americans was one of the most shameful things we had ever done as a nation, at least in his life-time. He was sickened every time he thought of it. While he was alive, one of his good friends was another retired Colonel named Yamamoto who served with him in World War 2 and bey ...more
Feb 02, 2012 added it
Shelves: read-2012
It truly boggles the mind all of the attention this book has gotten. The premise is very simple: told in the first person plural, the stories of the women who were brought over from Japan before WW2, generally to miserable lives they had not anticipated, is related. There is no story in this book, however, as it is everyone's story. So we get every variation of where they had come from, every variation of sex for the first time with their husbands, childbirth, work, raising children, interacting ...more
Jun 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
(First [re]read of 2021, and I'm still as mesmerized as the first time around. Forever a favorite.)

All of us are readers. Some of us made the journey to the library, by walking, by bicycling, by bus, and others clicked a button on a screen. Several of us paid good money for the book, hoping, praying, that it wouldn't be a disappointment. Most could afford it, but some could not, and what a tragedy that would be!

Some of us heard good things, others picked it up on a whim. Pretty cover ran through
Apr 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Michael by: julie
This short 100-page read felt to me like riding in a human river and feeling magically a part of it. Otsuka enjoins the reader to flow with the voices of Japanese women from their sea passage to San Francisco as mail-order brides in the 20s to the time of internment in camps during World War 2. Though the women voice many different responses to the challenges they faced, they go through similar stages in the transformation of their hopes and dreams to the new realities of their life in America. ...more
Dec 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
“Because the only way to resist, our husbands had taught us, was by not resisting.”
― Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic


I read entirely too much white male fiction. I know this. It is familiar and available. Abundant even. It is everywhere. So, I'm trying to reach beyond my normal boundaries. Read more minority voices, listen to another story. Otherwise, what good is fiction?

Julie Otsuka's little novella was quick. It checks in at 124 pages or so. But it sticks with you. It carries you*. It d
Iris P
Dec 18, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Iris P by: Betsy Robinson

The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

What a mesmerizing reading experience this was. I don't recall reading a historical novel as emotionally intuitive and empathetic as this one in a long time.

I was moved to read Buddha after watching George Takei's Ted Talk in which he describes what he and his family experienced when they were rounded up and taken to a interment camp after the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor.

Although a work of fiction, this short novel focuses on the psychological and emotional suffer
Dec 19, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This book was like a muffled scream. A scream that comes from the mouths of a generation. A generation, lost in time and space, of a handful of Japanese girls, women, and children who are shipped to a distant land with a distant dream. An American Dream. They were shipped from their homeland with a photograph of their husbands and a pocketful of hope for a beautiful and fulfilling life ahead: of picket fences covering a lush neatly mowed lawn in front of their wooden A-frame houses. They really ...more
Julie Christine
A lovely poemovella. Or novellem? How would one categorize this hybrid poem-novella? Whatever its genre, it is without a doubt eloquent and unforgettable. Within this slim volume the history of 20th century Issei and Nisei - first and second generation Japanese immigrants to the western hemisphere - is told by Japanese women, who must "blend into a room", who must "be present without appearing to exist." Otsuka gives these women fearless, tender, angry, sorrowful voices and dares you to not hear ...more
Jul 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: own, favorites
Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic is a beautiful collection of short stories that I will cherish and think about for a long time. I've said it before: it's often difficult to write about things that are closest to my heart, and this one is no exception.

Told from the perspective of many picture brides sailing to San Francisco from their various hometowns in Japan during the early 1900s, Otsuka relates their dreams and fears in a constant stream of thought. When the brides finally arrive, each enco
A novel, without characters, with a non-fictional theme, but with a timeline, recollects the true events of a group of Japanese young women's immigration to America. They are caught up in a marriage scam of agents seeking wives for Japanese migrant workers who pose as wealthy businessmen in the initial plan, living the American dream.

The book is divided into different historical sections, starting with the young girls' journey on the ship, through their disappointing discovery of the truth, and
Susan Sherwin
Feb 07, 2012 rated it it was amazing
What a fabulous read!!! From the journey from Japan to San Francisco of Japanese mail-order brides to the onset of Japanese Americans sent off to internment camps during WWII, I was spellbound by Julie Otsuka's "The Buddha in the Attic." Narrated from first person plural and told from the POV of a group of women, this is a powerful story, for it allows the reader to see multiple perspectives yet still see the women as individuals. This would be a terrific selection for a book club. ...more
Mar 08, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Sue by: Barbara
Otsuka's story of the Japanese picture brides of the early 20th century is an unusual novella, written from the perspective of the group "we", the multiple experiences of the women who came to America for a "better" life for themselves and, in some cases, to help families left behind.

The style is evocative of, perhaps, the repetition found in Native American poems and song. Here it isn't so much repetition as the format of lists of expectations, fears and experiences. Amazing. And this also ma
Aug 17, 2017 rated it liked it
I adored When the Emperor Was Divine and was looking forward to this next book. There was a time when it seemed that all I was reading was about the plight of Japanese Americans during WWII. Another shameful part of American history. Otsuka didn't add anything new, but her writing is so eloquent that emotions and heartache were bleeding from the pages. The downfall for me was the style of telling this story. The repetitiveness didn't resonate with me and was distracting. I would absolutely read ...more
Mar 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Teresa by: Susan Sherwin
As with most short stories or novellas, this almost 'prose-poem' of a book is probably best if you can read it straight through, in this case to get the full effect of its incantatory prose.

Though it's mostly told in first-person plural, it reminded me of the style of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, another treatment where what seems like 'just' a list of things is so much more. It does what I feel literature does better than 'knowing the facts': reminding us, showing us, that behind the
Sep 29, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: asian-literature
A chorus of narrators – the “we” tense – is not the easiest voice to pull off. Julie Otsuka adroitly uses the tense to great effect in her latest book, The Buddha in the Attic. It’s a searing insight into an entire community of innocent and naïve Japanese women who arrived in California after World War I, with dreams of their new American life that would soon be cruelly shattered.

Each of these women – whatever fate decrees for her – is also connected to the larger body of the sisterhood, women w
Buddha in the Attic is a fictionalised account of the Japanese picture brides who arrived at San Francisco in hope of a better life than the one's the had left, a life better than the ones that their mothers had
Were they still walking three steps behind our fathers on the streets with their arms full of packages while our fathers carried nothing at all
Once in the USA, many had been cheated. Their husbands were older and poorer than their photographs suggested, even the letters they sent wer
Sep 16, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I don't believe that I have ever read a book that was written like this, one that is written in the collective "We" and "They." So creative, lyrical, and heartbreaking. So much is said in so short of a read.

They were Japanese mail order brides of almost a century ago that believed that they were coming to a good life in America, even to good husbands. They also believed that they would make good wives for they knew how to cook, to sew, to make tea, and to please. They brought trunks filled wit
This sparse but lyrical novel tells the story of the picture brides who sailed from Japan to California in the early decades of the 20th century, like the husbands they met having previously seen their fiances only in photographs. Otsuka tells this tale in the first person plural:

On the boat the first thing we did-before deciding who we liked and didn't like, before telling each other which one of the islands we were from, and why we were leaving, before even bothering to learn each other's name
Jenny (Reading Envy)
When I first read the Kindle preview of this, I decided I probably wouldn't like it because it felt like a "book club book," meaning a little light for my tastes. Having actually sat down and read it, I still dislike it, but for different reasons.

The second sentence of the novel: "We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall." This voice is not just for the set-up of the book, like I'd originally thought. No. Throughout the entire novel, Otsuka maintains this impersonal "
Jul 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction
Between the wars Japanese mail order brides are shipped over the Pacific to marry established Japanese migrants. They experience a variety of outcomes but most create a life for themselves and their families. Then Pearl Harbour happens and the Japanese expats become the enemy within, to be rounded up and interned.

Told in a very effective style featuring multiple short narratives, it is a real page turner.

I really enjoyed this book.
Mar 08, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: japan, 2020-read
This is more of an epic poem than a novel: Written like a symphony of cumulative voices rendered in a "we" form, Otsuka tells the stories of Japanese girls and women who came to the US in the early 1900s as so-called "picture brides". This practice entailed that matchmakers paired brides and grooms on different sides of the Pacific solely based on pictures, letters and family recommendations, meaning that girls and women went to the States to marry Japanese immigrant men they had never met in re ...more
Apr 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2019
This novel, based on true stories completely blew me away.

Here we learn about all the unnamed women who crossed the world to a life of a lie.

This book transported me to another world and another time that it not really documented.

The writing was phenomenal, I’m honestly unsure how their people did not like this as much as myself.
It’s a quick read, but a novel that is well worth it and one that will stick with me for a while.
Jeanette (Ms. Feisty)
Call it 3.5 stars.
This is not so much a novel as it is a work of creative nonfiction. There are no specific characters and no real story arc, although it does progress in a roughly chronological fashion. It's written as a collective recitation, sometimes almost like an incantation, using the "we" form.

Otsuka shares the experiences of the Japanese picture brides who debarked in San Francisco in the early 1900s, following them up through the time when they were sent to the internment camps during
Mar 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
A narrative about the experience of Japanese women in the 1920s-40s who came to the USA as "mail-order brides" for Japanese men.

The writing style of Otsuka will probably polarize readers. Many may find it just a "book of lists" covering every possible experience encountered by those women as they try to make California their home. Others may find the shifting in narrative voice among women and groups of women confusing or disconcerting. For me, the concentrated way in which Otsuka conveyed a we
Clif Hostetler
Dec 29, 2020 rated it liked it
This historical novel tells the Japanese American story beginning with the viewpoint of "picture brides" who came to California in the early 20th century all told in the first person plural "we" tense. In subsequent chapters other aspects of Japanese immigrant life—sex, employment, children—are explored continuing to use the technique of anaphora as a means to communicate the breath and variety of experiences by repeating sentences beginning with "We did …" or "Some of us …". In the chapter abou ...more
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Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. After studying art as an undergraduate at Yale University she pursued a career as a painter for several years before turning to fiction writing at age 30. She received her MFA from Columbia. She is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Asian American Literary Award, and the American Library Association Alex Award.

Her first novel, When the Em

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