One Book, One Philadelphia explores Japanese American history

Posted: October 25, 2012

The book chosen for next year's One Book, One Philadelphia tells a story many American families keep hidden in the attics of memory.

For that reason alone, it's a very American tale.

It's Julie Otsuka's Buddha in the Attic, a fictional retelling of the personal odysseys of hundreds of Japanese "picture brides" who sailed from Japan to the United States in the 1920s to marry men, most of them itinerant Japanese workers without other options, who had arranged for a wife to be sent over. The book, published last year, was a bestseller and won the PEN/Faulkner Award.

The selection is to be announced Wednesday morning by the Free Library and the Mayor's Office. Buddha in the Attic will be the focus of dozens and dozens of panels, films, musical performances, and other events throughout Philadelphia and its school district. Teachers and students will read and create around the shared experience of the book. Author Otsuka will be present at Wednesday's announcement and for selected events next year.

"It's a huge deal for me," says Otsuka, speaking by phone from her home in Manhattan. "It took me eight or nine years to write this book. That it would find an audience at all is wonderful. But that it might resonate with people this way makes me think it was worth all the time it took to write it."

The program, which runs Jan. 17 to March 13, extends the theme of Japanese American history to its selections for younger readers. All three books, in fact, touch on the relocation of Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants to internment camps during World War II. And all three involve the same camp: the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah.

For readers in grades 5-8, it's Journey to Topaz: A Story of the Japanese-American Evacuation, by Yoshiko Uchida. Based on Uchida's experience, it tells of an 11-year-old girl and her family's relocation to Topaz. For grades 1-4, the book is A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, by Amy Lee-Tai, illustrated by Felicia Hoshino. Sunflowers, too, takes place in Topaz, as a little girl learns of hope and friendship in a bleak place. Copies of all three books will be available via the Free Library system; thousands of readers are expected to join in.

Buddha in the Attic interweaves stories of unbelievable endurance. "The thing that gets me," says Otsuka, "is the courage of some of these women. Some were as young as 14 to 15 years old. To come over here, marry a man they never met, and somehow make it work. It's such an epic, tragic, operatic story. It happened to so many thousands. Many had never even left their villages before."

Many families, like Otsuka's, have a story like this in their histories, yet so few talk about it. Otsuka grew up for "my first nine years in Palo Alto [Calif.] and the next nine in Palos Verdes, and we never heard about this anywhere, not at home, not in school." Out of shame, bitterness, or simply the desire not to burden children with the weight of the past, parents and grandparents chose not to tell.

'So much silence'

How did Otsuka decide to write about it? Her first book, the well-received When the Emperor Was Divine, was a fictional account based on her own family's experience with the camps. "My mother was sent to the camps, my grandparents, uncles, all my older relatives were sent away during the war," she says. Four members of the family were sent to Topaz; her grandfather, accused as a spy, was sent to a New Mexico camp.

While on a book tour supporting Emperor, Otsuka met many Japanese Americans who approached her with stories of their families: "Some of them started telling me of their mothers or grandmothers who'd come over as picture brides. There's so much silence about these things in Japanese families."

Otsuka immersed herself in research. That, in itself, is a story to inspire teachers and students alike. "I read a lot of history books," she says, "a lot of oral histories. I had to learn all about the old Japan, so different from today's Japan, that these people came from. I kept these crazy charts about crops."

She knew little about farming and had to learn where the Japanese farmed in California, and what crops ripened when: "I had to know what cities and towns the Japanese lived in. And I had to learn about something I knew nothing about: America during the Depression years."

That very list suggests the many topics this book could furnish for the One Book events next year, including history, race, women's rights, the immigrant experience, identity, family, war, memory, and oral history.

Buddha is told in lyrical, short sections, a string-of-pearls approach like the one she used in Emperor. "I don't write every detail," Otsuka says. "I focus on the focused, intense, explosive moments, the trip across the ocean, the wedding-night deflowerments, the cruelties." For many of the sections, the "speaker" is the collective we of the picture brides.

A second hardship

What's amazing is that these women often achieved a kind of success, at least momentarily.

"They and their husbands came from a small, crowded island," Otsuka says. "They knew how to grow something on every inch of land." In many cases, Japanese farmers outdid the locals in farming.

But a second hardship was coming: Executive Order 9066 of 1942, which allowed for the forced deportation of Japanese to the camps, and the confiscation of their property. "Just as things are about to go well, the business or farm is starting to thrive, the kids are doing all right - everything is taken away," Otsuka says.

Buddha in the Attic is a title referring to a keepsake left behind by a picture bride who had to abandon her home. The image speaks eloquently of identity, hope, and betrayal.

As for One Book, One Philadelphia, Otsuka says: "It makes me happy that this story is getting told, and that kids will learn about it."

She tells of teaching the book to some Latino students in Bakersfield, Calif. "These were kids who worked in the fields, backbreaking work, many of them very poor," she said. "They got it right away. You can never tell when a reading experience can change you."


Contact John Timpane

at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter, @jtimpane.

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