Japanese “picture brides” had visions and dreams of a much better life prior to their arduous voyage to San Francisco during the early 20th century.
Many of these young women had never ventured outside of Japan.
It was an uncomfortable journey. They possessed little and left a lot behind. They were scared, brave, shy and ill-at-ease.
They asked tons of questions. They faced language barriers.
The women studied and clutched tightly the photographs of their future husbands.
Would they be happy? Surely their husbands would be kind, gentle and eager to help them assimilate and adjust to their new roles and environment.
This was never meant to be, according to Julie Otsuka, author of “The Buddha in the Attic.”
Imagine their dismay, shock, sorrow and fright when instead these women were misled, tricked and abused by their future husbands (who, up close, were not at all that young and handsome), lied to, discriminated against, ripped of their religion and cultural beliefs and forced to labor in fields from dawn until long past evening in all kinds of weather.
Imagine how these young women must have missed their mothers, fathers, siblings and friends, however, there was no turning back. Returning home, if they could, would be an insult and embarrassment to their families and neighbors.
The horrifying mistreatment of Japanese picture brides has been expertly portrayed in Otsuka’s novel.
Otsuka is also the author of “When the Emperor Was Devine” and the recipient of numerous literary awards.
Her research and poetic writing shine brightly in “The Buddha in the Attic” which literally can be summarized as a compelling look at the victims of slavery.
These Japanese wives and mothers who unfortunately had no choice but to put up with their husbands’ forced sexual advances and activity many times day and night, even right after women would give birth or even after the babies were stillborn or died later.
The men, the husbands, needed the Japanese picture brides for two predominant reasons: sex and to use them to help plant and grow crops in the fields.
Naturally, once their children were old enough, they could take over a family’s business, that is, if business was successful.
During wartime many Japanese were seen as traitors or spies and were accused of working with the enemy.
There were lists upon lists of names of Japanese who, supposedly, were guilty of associating with the enemy.
Many, however, were innocent, as Otsuka points out.
In many cases there wasn’t sufficient evidence and soon the Japanese were run out of town.
Discrimination and mistrust were everywhere.
A chance to make a buck really could do no harm. Could it?
Even children of a Japanese couple would turn in their parents’ names to be added to a list of others who were either believed to be or not to be working with the enemy.
What happened to the Japanese was a downright disgrace.
It is understandable for anyone in our own country to feel ashamed of how ‘we’ exploited and basically almost ruined future generations of Japanese-Americans.
Otsuka’s novel somewhat confirms how different nations today feel partially to blame for a new generation to want to abdicate their own culture and not pass on customs that had been practiced or observed in their lives for many years.
The recent comments of the necessity of “comfort women” during wartime for Japanese soldiers by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto stimulated a massive uproar among women’s rights activists and political parties.
He later “reframed” his earlier comments, stating that the “surviving comfort women deserve kindness from Japan.”
However, in Otsuka’s viewpoint, it appears that no apology would make up for the mistreatment of women who served their purpose as slaves.
Otsuka’s novel is an important addition to women’s studies groups for those who have an interest in history and Japanese-American culture.
Carol A. Wright is a freelance writer and former Manhattan resident.