The Buddha in the Attic

AUTHOR: Julie Otsuka
SETTING: California in the 1920's






Tragedy of the Picture Brides

Novelist Julie Otsuka talks about her new novel which follows the lives of Japanese picture brides coming to America in the 1920s—and her own families’ struggles here. By Jane Ciabattari.

by  | 

Novelist Julie Otsuka is an Upper West Sider, with a regular spot at her neighborhood café, the Hungarian Pastry Shop. “No internet access, no music, no outlets, and the coffee refills are endless and free. I have a favorite table in the back, which is where I wrote both my books,” she says.

But the material for Otsuka’s first two novels is rooted in the West Coast. She was born in Palo Alto, California, and moved to Palos Verdes when she was nine. Her father was an electronic engineer in the aerospace industry; her mother worked as a lab technician in a hospital before having Julie and her two younger brothers.

Otsuka came east to study art at Yale, and some years later ended up in the MFA program at Columbia, where she began writing her first novel. When the Emperor Was Divine, published in 2002, captures the experience of a Berkeley family evacuated from the West Coast to a Japanese internment camp in 1942 with breathtaking restraint. It draws from family history. Her grandfather was arrested as a suspected Japanese spy the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Otsuka’s mother, uncle, and grandmother spent three years in an internment camp in Topaz, Utah.

Her exquisitely crafted and resonant new novel is much less autobiographical, she says. The Buddha in the Attic follows a group of Japanese “picture brides” who sail to San Francisco in 1919 to marry men they only know through exchanging photographs. “There were no picture brides in my family, but it’s a very common first generation story. It’s how thousands of Japanese women came to this country before Asians were excluded altogether in 1924.”

This second novel, she says, entailed “tons of research.”“I read a lot of oral histories and history books, and old newspapers. I had to learn about two worlds: the old Japan from which the picture brides came, and the America of the 1920s and 1930s which they immigrated to. I kept many notebooks filled with detailed notes about everything.”

Many of the picture brides end up doing agricultural work. “I made these crazy crop charts, showing when things ripened, and where, geographically, certain crops were grown. Also, as a child I spent some time in Oakdale (Central Valley, east of Modesto), where our neighbors’ grandparents had an almond ranch. As a kid, we’d go out there in the summer, it was great fun: lizards, frogs, snakes, irrigation ditches, bugs…”

Otsuka says she struggled for months to find the right voice to tell the story. “I had run across so many interesting stories during my research—stories of women whose husbands had sent photographs of themselves taken 20 years earlier, of women who had sailed to America expecting to live lives of leisure only to find themselves working as field hands and laundresses within days of their arrival, of women who had run away from their husbands and drifted into lives of prostitution, of women who had always wanted to come to America and were willing to marry a man, any man, to get there—that I wanted to tell them all.

“‘On the boat we were mostly virgins.’ I knew at once that this would be the first line of my novel.”

“One day, while reading over my notes for the book, I found, buried in the middle of a paragraph several pages in, a sentence I had written months earlier: ‘On the boat we were mostly virgins.’ I knew at once that this would be the first line of my novel. There would be no main character. I would tell the story from the point of view of a group of young picture brides who sail together from Japan to America.”

Over time, many Japanese immigrants were so effective as farmers that they encountered a backlash in some communities. “The Japanese were extremely successful farmers,” says Otsuka. “They came from a very small island, remember, where you had to make use of every inch of space, and they knew how to make things grow. So when they arrived in California and saw this vast expanse of unplanted land, it was like catching a glimpse of paradise. They basically took wasteland that no one else would touch—rocky soil, hardpan, swamps, desert land—and turned it into fertile farmland. And their produce was better than anyone else’s, and their success was much envied.”

How did this envy influence the looting and violence toward the Japanese-American communities after Pearl Harbor, as portrayed in the novel? “If they’d stayed in their place as gardeners and maids, maybe they wouldn’t have been so resented. Also, their farmland, which they’d made profitable, was coveted. When they left, it was the middle of harvest time, and many of them never did get to see the profits of that last harvest—they had to turn over their farms to somebody else. They walked away from it all. Basically bankrupted themselves in the name of ‘national security.’ It was an economic boon for the white farmers who got to take over the highly productive farmland that had been cultivated by the Japanese.”

The Japanese were forced to evacuate in 1942 by Executive Order 9066, which Otsuka describes unflinchingly in the section of the novel called “Last Day.” It brings to mind Dorothea Lange’s photographsof the evacuation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast and of the internment camps surrounded by barbed wire.  “I know her photos quite well. There’s a Dorothea Lange photothat we found in the National Archives of my grandmother, mother and uncle, shortly after their arrival at the Tanforan assembly center in the spring of 1942.

“Because of my background in the visual arts, I’m very interested (obsessed, actually) with detail, what things look like, so I like looking at photographs, drawings, paintings, anything that is a source of visual detail. I often have to see a scene in my head before I can begin to describe it on the page. Sometimes I feel like my mind’s a camera.

Otsuka draws her title from a haunting visual image, an object left behind by one of the departing Japanese: “Haruko left a tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day.”

And what is she working on now, sitting in her usual spot at the Hungarian Pastry Shop? “I think the next book will be set in contemporary New York City and not have anything to do with Japanese Americans at all. It’s still very early days, and I know it sounds odd, but something about swimming and dementia.”

Simmering Perfection by William Nakayama 

very first novelist daydreams of having the editors at a prestigious literary house fall in love with the manuscript over a weekend and call Monday with a handsome offer. Julie Otsuka may be the exception. After laboring six and a half years on a slender masterpiece, having kept her own agent waiting three years for a hundred pages, Otsuka emailed her the final chapter without expectations. Only later did she learn that her manuscript had been delivered Friday to an important Knopf editor who called Monday to buy it.

DAIt’s a moment that could serve as a fairy-tale ending to Otsuka’s two-decade saga as a failed painter who finally finds the right strokes and pigments in English prose. Alternatively, it’s an epilogue to a family saga that began six decades and three generations earlier when Otsuka’s grandfather was imprisoned with other Japanese immigrants under the baseless suspicion of being a dangerous enemy alien. Otsuka’s grandmother and mother were railroaded out to the Utah desert to spend three years encircled by barbed wire. After the war the family returned to salvage lives in a society that had betrayed and robbed them.

The details of that experience came down to Julie Otsuka only as a child’s gleanings from adult stories, and later, through her own painstaking research into archives and published accounts. But those who read When the Emperor Was Divine will be convinced that through some alchemy Otsuka has distilled and crystalized the shock, numbness, pain and rage of eighty thousand Japanese Americans.

When the Emperor Was Divine received high praise for its understated tone and evocative powers.

Otsuka’s literary gem has the visual impact of a collection of paintings whose pigments are the small, irreductible words in which Hemingway put so much stock. In scene after scene the novel quietly evokes the rending and crumpling of lives without a single reference to emotion. It renders painstakingly, even lovingly in golden light, the mute minutiae of a historic moment now recognized as one of the ugliest in American history. Wisely avoiding the trap of denouncing an admitted injustice, Otsuka achieves emotional power by making immediate and palpable the internment’s effect on a boy, a girl, a mother. Only in the brief, catharctic final chapter does the reader hear a victim’s rage. The novel is a small tour de force of evocative power and narrative control. It has been so hailed by everyone from Michiko Kakutani to the survivors of the internment camps themselves.

Julie Otsuka was born May 15, 1962 in Palo Alto, California. Her issei father worked as an aerospace engineer. Her nisei mother worked as a lab technician before giving birth to Julie, then two sons. When Julie was nine the Otsukas moved to Palos Verdes where she did well enough in school to be accepted into Yale. She had intended to study American studies or history but discovered a passion for sculpture and painting. She graduated in 1984 with a B.A. in art, then spent three more years waitressing in New Haven while building up a portfolio. It got her into the MFA program at the University of Indiana. She started in September of 1987 but wilted under the pressure. She left abruptly less than three months later.

After a month at home, Otsuka moved to New York. She learned word processing and found work with a temp agency, then a construction marketing firm. The following year she enrolled in a non-degree program at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. To finance the day program, she continued working nights as a word processor. Two years later she accepted failure as a painter. For the next three years, she spent her days reading at an uptown Manhattan pastry shop. She became enamored of the novelists she calls her “outdoor guys” — Ernest Hemingway, Richard Ford, Rick Bass, Cormac McCarthy.

Her creative rebirth began as humorous sketches written to amuse herself and a boyfriend. She used the sketches to win admission into Columbia’s MFA program in creative writing. She started in 1994. By the time she received her degree in 1999, she had written two and a half chapters of When the Emperor Was Divine. They impressed a top literary agent who agreed to represent Otsuka in 1998. She would have to wait three years for the remaining few pages to trickle in. The hardcover edition was published by Knopf in September of 2002 to universally enthusiastic reviews hailing Otsuka as an elegant stylist of understatement and evocative brilliance. The Anchor Books paperback edition was released in late October, 2003.

GS: You’ve spoken about having failed as a painter.
JO: I was young and just sort of cracked and couldn’t paint any more. So I just left [the University of Indiana]. It was my first serious doubt about my creative abilities.

GS: Did you have a nervous breakdown?
JO: I did have a nervous breakdown.

GS: Did you see a psychiatrist?

JO: Right then, no.

GS: So you just left?
JO: I left. Now that I think about it, it would probably have been a good idea to talk to somebody. But I didn’t. I just left the scary place. I just ran away.

GS: When had you first become interested in painting?
JO: I had never taken a drawing class or any art class before I arrived at Yale. I really didn’t know what I would study there. When I see young kids today, they’re all on track and know what they want to do. They want to make good money. They seem very pre-professional these days. I was pretty naive. I thought maybe American studies. I liked history, I liked English. But I took my first drawing class there and I loved it.
My sophomore year I started doing a lot of figurative sculpture. With sculpture, it came to me very naturally and I did seem to have a gift for it. I just loved working from the figure there were long days in the studio, working with clay. I was very happy doing that.
I didn’t even start painting until my junior year, so pretty late. I guess I fell in love with the medium of paint. It was a little harder for me than sculpture. It didn’t come so easily, but I loved the act of looking and putting down the paint and color. But technically I was not able to do what I wanted to do. I think I became more interested in painting than in sculpture at a certain point.

GS: What were your subjects for sculpture?
JO: It was always working with the figure. Heads. Doing some portrait of heads and moved on to the full figure. I was always working from life. Still life or the view out my window or something in the studio.

GS: Were there any subjects you preferred?
JO: No, I could look at anything. It was the act of looking and how you made something out of paint. It just seemed magical to me. I loved Matisse, Cezanne. He was very interested in the act of looking, like how he painted that mountain again and again and again, and how it was always different for him. How he was always engaged in the act of seeing.

GS: Wasn’t that Hemingway’s favorite artist?
JO: I don’t know, was it? He’s one of my favorite writers.

GS: Yes, we know. He said he learned to write from studying Cezanne’s paintings.
JO: I especially love Cezanne’s late paintings.

GS: Was your style anything like Cezanne?
JO: No, I don’t think so. I think I was more into color. Technically maybe I was never a good draftsman, I’m not sure. But I think I have a natural gift for color and mark. I think what happened was that I just got extremely self-conscious. I guess that’s what happened in graduate school. I just felt like I was watching myself. And when I got to that point, I just couldn’t really go on any more. I think I had been painting unself-consciously for a few years. Certainly while I was at Yale I was immersed in the moment and actually looking and doing and seeing. It felt very immediate. I spent the last couple of years at Yale in the studio all the time.

GS: How did you do academically?
JO: I actually did fine. I always liked writing, so writing was never a problem but I never really thought about it. I could write papers and I enjoyed writing but I had never written anything creative. I never made anything up. It seemed like painting was the harder thing to do. It was really what I loved to do for a long time. I was just more engaged in the process of looking

GS: So until you took that drawing class at Yale you had never really done any serious drawing or painting?
JO: No, I hadn’t. It was my freshman year. I got my first A-plus ever in that class. I was shocked. I think the reason the teacher liked my work was because I was very naive, I didn’t really at all know what I was doing. My drawings were almost childlike in a way. I didn’t know anything about technique so there was a sort of freedom then.

GS: What were you intending to study at Yale?
JO: I was thinking American studies or maybe history.

GS: Were you an intellectual in high school?
JO: I think I was a very nerdy studious girl. I liked to read. I didn’t really have an idea of the world of culture until after I got to Yale. Then I felt very intimidated actually. I had never run up against people who come out of elite private schools. They seemed a lot better prepared than I was. And I had never been to New York City before. It was my first encounter with the world of culture.

GS: So your family was not into literature or culture.
JO: My parents were not readers. They might have had Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. I didn’t know a lot as a teenager which I think might have been fine. I had no idea what I wanted to do.

GS: Did you apply to Indiana straight from Yale?
JO: No, I waitressed in New Haven after graduation. So I took off a couple of years.

GS: Why?
JO: I didn’t think I was ready right away to go to school. I rented a little studio space. I wanted to work more on my portfolio. I thought if I took a little more time my work would get a little stronger.

GS: Were you able to get much work done while supporting yourself as a waitress?
JO: Yeah. Back then it wasn’t that hard. I just rented a cheap room, and the studio was cheap. But I think I might have gotten a little lost just working on my own. Art graduate school might not have been the right thing for me to do then. But I did actually get into graduate school based on the paintings I had done while working alone which ended up being much more abstract than I had done before.

GS: What put so much pressure on you in Indiana?
JO: It was partly the environment but I think it was mostly me. My experience going to graduate school years later and writing was much different and it was because I was older. My failure in Indiana had more to do with me than the environment. It was slightly pressure-cookerish but that’s in the nature of graduate school.

GS: Why did you choose the University of Indiana?
JO: It had a reputation for being a good school and the faculty had close ties to the Yale faculty. There were actually five women from Yale in my year and the year above me. It was just known to be a good art school.

GS: Why did you drop out?
JO: I just choked up. I had a terrible critique. I really lost faith in my ability to paint. At a certain point I couldn’t even put down a mark on the canvas without wanting to wipe it away immediately. I think something in me just cracked. I just was frozen and I could not produce.

GS: Was there some input that made you lose your confidence? Did people say you were crummy?
JO: The final critique said I was crummy. My paintings really were crummy. I don’t blame them for saying that they were. I really started at square one and my paintings were very like a two-year-old could do them. [laughs]

GS: What did they look like?
JO: I can’t even remember what I put up on the wall. I can remember one painting. It was one tiny little landscape, which I actually liked. It was maybe the one strong painting.

GS: What did they say about that landscape?
JO: I think it was pointed out as being a painting that worked. The rest of them didn’t.

GS: Were the other paintings mostly abstracts?
JO: No, I think I went back to working from still life, very very basic setup. Because I didn’t know how to paint, I had to learn how to paint all over again.

GS: What did you do after leaving Bloomington?
JO: In November I visited my best friend in New York. She’s the one who introduced me to the cafe that I’ve been going to all these years to write. I visited her, then I went back to my parents’ for about a month. Then I moved to New York and rented a room and started temping nights. I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I learned how to word-process, then I went to a temp agency. They sent me to a firm, a construction marketing company. I stayed with them for years. They bought me out of the temp agency. Later when I started to go to art school, that summer — that would have been the summer of ’88 — I just had a desire to paint again. I enrolled in a non-degree art school in New York — New York Studio School. I stayed there for two and a half years. That was an all-day program so the company where I was working let me work at night.

GS: Did you sell any paintings?
JO: No.

GS: Did you do better at the New York Studio School?
JO: Yeah, I did.

GS: Was it because there was less pressure on you?
JO: I don’t know. I think I was learning. Also it was not as pressured an environment.

GS: What kinds of things were you painting?

JO: When I first started, I started doing self-portraits. I had never painted figures actually. I started doing paintings of heads, my head.

GS: Was that a reflection of your introspection after your earlier failure?
JO: For me painting wasn’t terribly reflective. I was not terribly interested in content. I was really into the act of looking. I had to look in the mirror and I was there; I was an easy model, really convenient. And for some reason I was interested in doing heads. I don’t know why.

GS: Did you mend during the two and a half years at this art school?
JO: I think I did. But at the end of that period I again hit that wall. I was overwhelmed with doubts. It happened again. That’s when I stopped painting. I was 27 — that would have been ’90. I think I was really depressed. But I still had this job working in the evenings. The way I tried to mend was I took long walks every day. That’s when I started going to the cafe very regularly every afternoon. I would just sit there and read for hours before I had to go to work in the evening.

GS: Did you gain any weight during that time?
JO: I don’t know. I don’t think so. I just had a croissant every day. That’s not terrible, is it? [laughs] That’s where I started to read.

GS: That’s when you started reading the “outdoor guys“?
JO: Actually, I think I started with Henry James.

GS: He’s an indoor guy, isn’t he?
JO: Yeah. [laughs] He’s very internal, very introspective. I didn’t know a lot about literature at that point. I don’t know why I started with Henry James, but I did. Then somehow I must have moved up to a lot of contemporary writers. I just read. I think I read for about three years.

GS: So when you stopped painting, you spent a lot of time reading at the cafe?
JO: Yeah. At the end of those three years I started dating a guy. I started writing these little vignettes about him. I really liked it. It was fun. I didn’t show them to anyone else but they made him laugh. I just did it to amuse myself and to amuse him. When I was thirty we split up. Again, [I felt like] “Oh, my god, I’m thirty! I’m doing nothing with my life!” So I signed up for a writer’s workshop. It was very exercise oriented. You didn’t have to write more than two or three pages, usually imitating somebody else’s narrative style, which was actually good for me. It wasn’t about writing an entire story. And so I did that for a couple of years and I really liked it. I continued to word process. I decided to apply to graduate school and started at Columbia in ’94.

GS: What were your parents saying during this time?
JO: During those years I was depressed, I was not terribly close to them. I don’t know if they were worried about me or not during those years.

GS: Did they ever visit to look in on you?
JO: No, I don’t think I ever invited them out here. I really did isolate myself, so I wasn’t terribly close to them.

GS: Even from your two brothers?
JO: One of them might have been here for a year. He taught at NYU for a year. I can’t remember what year that was. The older of the two. I think I sort of kept to myself and I really don’t know what they thought was going on. My brothers were pretty much on track from an early age and I just wasn’t. I was working and paying my rent. I wasn’t on the street or anything. The less I told them the less they would worry.

GS: What is your relationship with your parents today?
JO: Now it’s much closer because they’re a lot older and I’m a lot more grown up. Now I talk to them pretty regularly.

GS: How about your brothers?
JO: It’s not that we don’t get along but we don’t speak that often. We’re all sort of scattered. The one in San Francisco, the younger, is a lawyer. My other brother teaches philosophy at University College in London.

GS: You started at Columbia when you were 32. Did you apply with the thought of doing creative writing?
JO: I applied to their creative writing program. I had applied there with stories I had written that I thought were funny, comic stories.

GS: About your ex-boyfriend?
JO: About whichever guy I was with. They were he-said-she-said stories, sort of autobiographical.

S: How was the MFA program at Columbia?
JO: For me it was very good. It was while I was at Columbia that I started writing what became the begining of the novel. I wrote the first two chapters and half of the middle chapter. That became part of my thesis at Columbia. The other half was just these comic stories. The first chapter of the novel started as a story that I wrote at Columbia. It literally seemed to come out of nowhere. I had never written about the war before. I’d never written a serious voice before. It was very uncharacteristic of me to write in that way and about that subject.

GS: To write the book, you had to have had a bit of contact with your family to go over your family history.
JO: I think at that time I did start getting closer to them.

GS: So you were speaking with your mother?
JO: I would ask her questions. I got a lot less from my mother than I had expected to. I asked her minor things about what she remembered about being in camp but she does not have vivid memories of that time. The characters of the novel are similar in age to my mother, her brother and my grandparents. But especially the middle chapter that take place in the camp — the boy’s and the girl’s story — that’s pretty much based on a lot of research and my imagining what would have happened, not really based on the events of my own family’s history.

GS: How did the book get published?
JO: Columbia had submitted the first two chapters to be included in an anthology that came out in March of 1998. I think I did a group reading at Barnes & Noble. Someone at my agent’s office read the chapter and contacted me. I remember going to meet [agent Nicole Aragi] in her office. I was working in midtown and her office was eight blocks away and it was hot. It must have been summer.

GS: She had only read two chapters at the time she signed you?
JO: Right. We never signed a contract or anything. When she agreed to take me on verbally, she had only had the first two. Then there was a long wait for three. I think it probably took me two more years for the third. Actually I submitted a good part of the third chapter with my thesis in 1999. I think it might have taken me until ’99.

GS: You graduated in June of 99?
JO: Right. I think my thesis was half of the third chapter. So I think she waited at least a couple of years for [the third chapter].

GS: Then she waited another year for the fourth chapter?
JO: Yeah. Then maybe a couple of weeks for the very last chapter.

GS: Had she been subtly bugging you to get the last chapter to her?
JO: No, ’cause she knows that I’m so slow. And I remember I said to her, “I’ll get the last chapter to you shortly.” But I think she was sort of thinking, “Mmm hmm, right, right.”

GS: How did you find out that you had been accepted by the distinguished firm of Alfred Knopf?
JO: I think I emailed her that last chapter earlier, maybe a week or two earlier. She submitted the entire manuscript to the publisher on a Friday. They read the manuscript over the weekend and made us an offer on Monday.

GS: What happened on Monday? Were you waiting nervously by the phone?
JO: No, I don’t think I was waiting nervously because I didn’t know how long these things took and she wouldn’t tell me. I definitely didn’t expect a phone call on Monday.

GS: So what happened on Monday?
JO: I was at the pastry shop.

GS: What were you doing there now that you didn’t have anything to write?
JO: [laughs] I don’t remember. I remember I came home and there must have been a message. Then I called her back. She said that Jordan, who’s now my editor at Knopf, wanted to buy it. And she said, “I want an answer.”

GS: Did she tell you how much they wanted to pay?
JO: Yes.

GS: Can you tell us what that was?
JO: I’d rather not. I’m sorry.

GS: Was it an amount that impressed you or disappointed you?
JO: It was a good amount. A friend of mine also had the same editor, Jordan Pavlin, and the same agent. [Nicole] said, “Why don’t you talk to him?” I just talked to him briefly and he raved about the editor.

GS: Why did you decide on Knopf?
JO: Knopf is a very well respected literary publishing house. I thought I would like to be published by them. It just seemed so unreal, like a dream. So I called her back and said, “Yes.” I didn’t sleep for a day. I freaked out after that. You’d think I’d be happy when something like that happens. I was filled with dread.

GS: What were you dreading?
JO: I don’t know. I’m not used to something good happening. Karmically I think I’m gonna have to pay. I was filled with dread. I didn’t sleep very well. It just took me a long time to be able to feel happy.

GS: What was the next step in your interaction with the book?
JO: I worked with an editor. The changes were very very minimal. I was glad about that because I was pretty happy with the book the way it was.

GS: Would you have fought a lot of changes?
JO: I don’t know what I would have done if the editor had had a lot of changes, but I am sort of a control freak. Every word is exactly where I want it to be. The suggestions she did make were right on. I didn’t disagree with a single thing that she said.

GS: Were they on the level of words or on the level of rearranging scenes?
JO: The only structural comment was maybe, “Give us a little bit more of the father before he became so embittered.” So I added a few flashback scenes to sort of give a warmer sense of who that father might have been from the boy’s point of view. Make him seem a little realer. That was the main structural comment. It was a matter of adding in just a couple of scenes to warm that chapter up. And then the rest of them there might have been a word here or there, either struck out or changed. It was pretty minor.

GS: Did your life change once the book was accepted?
JO: Day to day wise? No, I continued to go to the pastry shop every day.

GS: Doing what?
JO: I had to edit. Then you meticulously comb over the manuscript, you know. It was probably a few months. That’s sort of easy. It’s sort of fun in a way.

GS: Your prestige probably went up considerably at the pastry shop.
JO: When the review of the book came out — I think it was Michiko Kakutani’s review in the New York Times Review of Books — September 12 maybe, they pasted the review behind the glass on the sandwich counter. It made me happy. It was really sweet. And behind these glass frames they have book covers of writers who have written their books there, longtime customers. Probably no one you’ve ever heard of. A few weeks later I looked up and the owner’s wife was hammering up another frame and my book cover was in there. She was so sweet. She said, “We’re so proud of you.”

GS: Was Michiko Kakutani’s review mostly glowing?
JO: Mostly, but she had problems with the last chapter. She found it a little didactic and sort of spoiled the tone of the book for her. I forget the words she used.

GS: Did you agree with her?
JO: My editor at Knopf at first wasn’t so sure. People had hot and cold readings of the last chapter. They either liked it or they didn’t. My agent said, “You have to know that this is the ending that you want because if there is going to be any criticism of the novel, it will be about that last chapter.” She was right. It’s the way I want it to be. If somebody has problems with it, that’s okay. I was just glad to get basically a pretty positive review from her.

GS: Did you see the ending as a resoluton of the suspense building in the book about what happened to the father?
JO: No, it was almost an accidental ending. It just sort of came out while I was writing the second to the last chapter. I literally heard that voice in my head and I just sort of wrote it down. I set it aside and I continued to finish the second to the last chapter. When I was done, I typed up what I had written down and I tweaked it a little but I just knew that it was right. I knew that the last chapter would have to deal with the father but I didn’t know how it was going to happen. I just feel like the ending was a gift almost.

GS: Is that chapter the closest the book comes to your own feeling about the internment?
JO: I don’t know. I was surprised that that anger was in me. I feel like the reason I could write the book was because I’m two generations removed from it. I don’t consciously feel that much rage. I was surprised that that came from me. I almost thought that was a channeled voice that came from somebody else.

GS: Do you feel any indirect effect of Japanese Americans having been interned?
JO: I know that somehow something has been passed on. It’s so hard to say what it is. What would have been if my mother hadn’t been interned? It’s hard to know how much you unconsciously inherit from your parents. Definitely that generation was affected.

GS: How about consciously? What effect do you perceive in other Japanese Americans?
JO: I can’t speak for the whole generation but I think my mother somehow was damaged by what happened. How much, I don’t know. My gandmother, she was the one for whom life was good one day and the next day the world was turned upside down. I can see that life was very hard for my grandmother’s generation. Her husband couldn’t work any more. He had a few strokes and was very ill and she went to work as a housecleaner for the next thirty years. I know that life was good one minute and the next suddenly it was not. And for my mother having lived through that as a child, I don’t know how much faith she feels in the world. As for me or her children, what we inherited, it’s really hard to know.

GS: Do you feel a deep suspicion toward authority?
JO: I do think I’m a sort of suspicious person. Yeah, I think so. In general I’m just wary, very wary I think. I think I get that from my mother. I don’t trust that things are going well. Even if things are going well, I’m not sure. I don’t take anything for granted.

GS: Is the humor that was in your comic writing a way of expressing or venting anger?
JO: I think comedy very much comes out of anger, or sadness. Good comedy I think especially has a vein of sadness in it too, but humor is sort of an expression of anger.

GS: Does the humor you were drawing on when you started writing have any connection to the anger of the father in the final chapter?
JO: No, it was a lot quieter. It wasn’t loud and it wasn’t as dark or as noisy. It was more subtle. That’s not at all subtle.

GS: Did you continue to work at the construction marketing company after selling your book?
JO: Sort of by default I am not working there any more. Ever since September 11 the construction industry in New York has been extremely slow.

GS: So you were laid off.
JO: I was a freelancer. Actually I had been laid off years ago. I had been an employee, then they laid me off, then they had to rehire me to replace myself. which was perfect because that’s when I was starting grad school. But they always had steady work for me until September 11. After the book sold I continued to work for a few months [until September 11].

GS: Share with us your writing routine and mechanics. Some writers type out a draft, then spend time painstakingly revising it. Some try to write it in finished form as they go along.
JO: That’s me. I wish I could draft something out but I don’t seem able to do that. I labor over every word and every sentence and I can’t really go on until everything up until that point is perfect.

GS: So you write like Hemingway, keep going back and rereading each section before continuing?
JO: I don’t know if that’s a good way to work or not, but I think that’s what I do

GS: Do you work with a pencil.
JO: I write out in longhand, I use a fountain pen. Then I go home and type up my changes. I’ll print out a draft, then mark up that draft. But I like writing with a fountain pen and I guess my favorite place to write is in a cafe after I’ve gone swimming.

GS: How long do you spend at the cafe?
JO: How long I spend at the cafe and how long I spend writing are two different things. [laughing] Usually at the cafe I’m there for maybe three hours. But a good part of that time I’m reading because I like to read first just to get into the right head for writing. As far as actually writing, it could be half an hour, an hour. I can spend an hour just staring at what I had done the day before.

GS: Sounds like you don’t really spend that much time writing.
JO: But I also give it a shot in the morning, before I go to the pastry shop. Actually, I think you’re right. I think I spend a lot more time reading actually than writing.

GS: You have aristocratic writing habits.
JO: [laughs] I wish I were a lady of leisure for real. Now I don’t have my evening job to go to but… Yeah, I’d better speed things up.

GS: We weren’t suggesting that…
JO: I think of reading time as sort of like writing time. It seems of a piece. I can be inspired by something I’m reading. I think I do that to get in the right frame of mind for writing, but it does seem extravagant to have a certain time to prep your brain.

GS: Do you do that every day?
JO: Pretty much, actually almost every day. I think I’m a really hard worker. I’ll come home and I’ll look again at what I’ve done, or go over it. Also a lot of the time if I’m in research mode, I’m just taking down notes. That counts, right? [laughing]

GS: Yes, of course.
JO: Pretty much of my day is taken up with just writing or reading or doing research.

GS: What do you consider a decent day’s output.
JO: Let me say a decent week. It could take a week and I could come up with a page, maybe. And I’ve spent weeks just going over the same ground. I could have some long slow periods where I just get stuck. I’ve said in other interviews, but the first paragraph of that middle chapter took nine months to come up with. I think I was working on a different beginning and finally I just scrapped it. It was wrong and the right beginning came to me in, you know, one of those flashes. I spent months just polishhing the beginning paragraph that ended up being thrown out the window.

GS: What effect do you labor over, the imagery or the flow of words?
JO: I like to keep things very concrete.

GS: You seem to be painting pictures, one after the other.
JO: Yeah, I guess it is pretty visual. I hadn’t realized it before.

GS: You mentioned that your second novel continues the same themes. Are you continuing the same characers?
JO: At first I thought I would. But I’ve had some didfferent ideas since then. Now I’m started on something that’s completely different which I don’t want to talk about yet. It just feels too soon.

GS: When did you start the second novel.
JO: A couple of months ago. I think I had a lot of false starts. I toyed with different ideas and it took me a while to feel my way into a story that’s big enough to contain me for the next years, and something I was very engaged with. For a while I did think I would continue writing more about the internment. I was very interested in what it was like for the people left behind after the Japanese had left. There were some unanswered questions. Why didn’t people protest more about their being sent away? But I just couldn’t look at the war any more. I was ready to move onto something very different.

GS: Did the process of publishing the first novel disrupt your ability to focus on writing your second novel?
JO: Yeah, actually it did. Now I’m about to go out on book tour for the paperback. You’re already engaged with your next book but you’re out there talking about the first book. It does feel like the past for me already. I’m thrilled to be able to have a book to talk about, but there is a slight lag in the process. You spend a lot of time doing interviews and talking about the book and so it did take me a while to settle down again because my life felt different than it had been. After the book came out, my life is definitely different. I was really private and very much stayed to myself so that whole going on a book tour and giving interviews and reading is very different from me and the life I was used to.

GS: How did contact with readers effect your writing?
JO: I didn’t even think for a long time that the book would get published. I never imagined that anyone would want to read a book about World War II. Especially on the West Coast when I was on book tour, a few people would come up to me afterward and ask, “Which camp was your mother in? I was in this camp or I was in that camp.” It’s very humbling to be able to talk to those former internees. I was a little nervous about going on tour and having to talk to people. It was actually a good thing for me to meet actual readers. I was very moved that people would even want to read my story or they were even touched by it or that it effects them in a particular way.

GS: Did it inhibit your ability to express yourself? Did it change what you thought you wanted to write about?
JO: I don’t think so. I think for me the work is very internal, it’s internally generated. It comes from some place deep inside of me, so I’m not necessarily thinking now about a future potential audience. The material has to feel psychologically compelling and urgent. Maybe it’s more about what I have to work through and hopefully what I’m thinking about will effect other people.

GS: What percentage of your readers are Asian American?
JO: I’d like to know, but I don’t know. I don’t even know in which areas of the country the book sold better.

GS: Toward the end of the book, the kids would see things stolen from their home in the houses of neighbors. Did you mean to suggest that there was a larcenious motive behind the internment?
JO: I think there are a lot of different reasons — political, economic — for why the internment came about. But maybe not on that small scale like neighbors coveting the neighbors’ belongings or furniture… There were farmers coveting the land that had been successfully farmed by Japanese American farmers.
I don’t think I consciously meant to be pointing any fingers. Maybe deep down, probably, but again it’s not something that I thought about. But I guess you can extrapolate from a small detail.

GS: Your book being so visual, have you given any thought to a film being made from it?
JO: Actually at the beginning of the Sundance Film Festival, there’s a Media That Matters Conference. They wanted me to do an MPR selective shorts, that series on the radio. Once a week they have an hour program where a short story is read by an actor.

GS: We don’t listen to the radio much…
JO: I don’t have a TV so I only listen to the radio. The idea is that they want to present socially important ideas for stories to filmmakers. They wanted to present story ideas to the group of people who were there. They chose the first chapter of the novel to read there. But there were no followup calls from the filmmakers who were there wanting to present this novel as a film. It’s beause it’s not very sexy material. It’s because everyone’s Japanese American. I don’t think you can really have a film unless there’s someone who’s white or a white love interest.

GS: Do you think it’s material that lends itself to a film.
JO: No, I think there’s very little plot actually. I always think of film as being what I can’t present as far as a beginning, middle and end — which is what I’d love to do but I can’t do. A good part of my novel is about time passing and people reacting to a situation but I think it’s really weak on narrative.

GS: Most of your book reads as a non-judgemental treatment of internment. Yet when you finish reading it, it feels like one of the darkest, most damning books on the internment. How do you feel about that?
JO: I wanted to tell the story very very quietly because I think it’s easily exploitable material. I didn’t want the reader to feel that he or she was being hit over the head. We all know it’s a terrible thing that happened and there’s no need to overplay that. Also I think maybe understatement just comes naturally to me. But I certainly didn’t want to shout this story out loud. I also wanted it to be readable and go down easily. I didn’t want it to be like an angry screed.

GS: How do you stay in shape while spending so much time writing?
JO: Five times a week, I swim a mile.

GS: Any other interests that you devote time to?
JO: Sit in cafes. Sit around and read. Sometimes I’ll talk with friends.

GS: How about travel?
JO: I’ve really lived on a shoestring for years, so I have not traveled very much. I’m also a real neighborhood girl. When I leave, I get homesick for New York and homesick for that cafe. I’ve been going there for so long, it sort of feels like my home away from home. I have one really close friend, the one who introduced me to the cafe years ago, but she doesn’t live in New York any more. I’ll see her when she comes into the city or we’ll have dinner together. I guess I don’t spend that many hours writing but I spend a lot of time trying to write. [laughs]

GS: Are you planning on getting married and having kids?
JO: At this age, if you’re gonna have kids, you sort of have to start planning yesterday, right? If that happens, it happens. As for marriage, it’s a possibility.

Image Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Image Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
In Japan, the matchmaking tradition of omiai dates back to the 16th century. In the U.S., the immigration wave of Japanese laborers in the late 1880s gave way to the practice of marriage through picture brides — a sort of a translation of omiai in which women in Japan were paired with men in the U.S. using only photographs and family recommendations. This resulted in the immigration of over ten thousand Japanese women to the West Coast from 1908 until 1920, when the Japanese government stopped issuing passports to picture brides.

The popularity among Japanese women of marrying men abroad can be attributed to a combination of social, cultural, economic, and historical factors of Meiji-era Japan, such as the increased importance of education and opportunities to travel abroad. As for the issei men in the U.S., it was both an economic decision and a compromise with the political racism of the times. The Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 restricted the immigration of Japanese laborers, and made provisions only for family reunions — which in turn created a loophole for women in Japan to emigrate to the U.S. by becoming the wives of those already present in the country.

Upon a picture bride’s arrival, she and her new husband could identify one another only by referencing the photographs exchanged via mail. However, as with the cacophony of alleged “tall, dark, and handsome” online bachelors, discrepancies between the picture and the person were common. Ai Miyasaki, who immigrated from Japan to the U.S. with her husband in 1916, recalls seeing the confusion among picture brides:

None knew what their husbands were like except by the photos…The men would say that they had businesses and send picture which were taken when they were younger and deceived brides…In our own town in that era, the men all wore white clothes and dressed nicely in the summer. Here in America, the men usually had only dingy black suit, worn down shoes, shaggy hair… and to have seen someone like that as you came off the ship must have been a great disappointment. It was only natural to feel that way. (The Issei: Portrait of a Pioneer, edited by Eileen Sunada Sarasohn, 1983)

Besides dealing with deflated expectations, the shift into American culture for many picture brides involved adapting to unfamiliar foods and customs, and facing grueling labor conditions alongside their husbands. Some left their marriages and headed home to Japan; those who stayed, yet were unsatisfied with their situation in the U.S., chose to run away. In 1914, community leaders in Little Tokyo established a society to provide counseling and referral servicesfor such women.

But the majority of the picture brides stayed on. Working beside their husbands, this generation of women made possible the growth of Little Tokyo and survival of the Japanese diaspora that previously was disproportionately limited to men. Few years after the Japanese government ceased issuing passports for picture brides, the 1924 Immigration Act further restricted immigration. But by this time families were beginning to grow. By 1930 Little Tokyo had a population of roughly 35,000 issei and nisei Japanese.

The photos below chronicle the challenges and concerns of the picture brides who traveled to California, as well as the circumstances that led to the phenomenon.



Hisataro with his wife Sugi with their first son Hidihalu in Japan. Hisataro and Sugi were married in Japan in 1906. Hisataro moved to the United States in 1908 for economic reasons and Sugi followed in 1914. The family settled in Los Angeles | Image Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Hisataro with his wife Sugi with their first son Hidihalu in Japan. Hisataro and Sugi were married in Japan in 1906. Hisataro moved to the United States in 1908 for economic reasons and Sugi followed in 1914. The family settled in Los Angeles | Image Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library



A picture bride being processed at Angel Island | Copyright 2008 California State Parks

A picture bride being processed at Angel Island | Copyright 2008 California State Parks



A loophole in the Gentlemen's Agreement allowed single Japanese American bachelors, like the two shown here, to find a wife in Japan to come live with them in the United States | Image Courtesy the Los Angeles Public Library

A loophole in the Gentlemen’s Agreement allowed single Japanese American bachelors, like the two shown here, to find a wife in Japan to come live with them in the United States | Image Courtesy the Los Angeles Public Library


Large groups of picture brides would enter the U.S. through Angel Island, considered the 'Ellis Island of the West' after a two week journey by ship. North Garrison Buildings of the Angel Island Immigration Station, ca 1930 | Copyright 2008 California Sta

Large groups of picture brides would enter the U.S. through Angel Island, considered the ‘Ellis Island of the West’ after a two week journey by ship. North Garrison Buildings of the Angel Island Immigration Station, ca 1930 | Copyright 2008 California Sta



It was common for Japanese men to send old or retouched photos of themselves in fear that if the women knew how they really looked r their real age they would not come. Men often posed with borrowed suits and fancy items in order to give the illusion that they were wealthier and better off than they actually were | Image Courtesy of the USC Digital Archive

It was common for Japanese men to send old or retouched photos of themselves in fear that if the women knew how they really looked r their real age they would not come. Men often posed with borrowed suits and fancy items in order to give the illusion that they were wealthier and better off than they actually were | Image Courtesy of the USC Digital Archive



Young picture brides, like those seen here, were often disillusioned to see the true appearance and lifestyle of their husbands once landing on American soil. Japanese women were often younger than their new husbands by several years, sometimes decades. Some young brides returned to Japan upon seeing their husbands, but the majority accepted their fate by settling into life in America and starting families | Copyright 2008 California State Parks

Young picture brides, like those seen here, were often disillusioned to see the true appearance and lifestyle of their husbands once landing on American soil. Japanese women were often younger than their new husbands by several years, sometimes decades. Some young brides returned to Japan upon seeing their husbands, but the majority accepted their fate by settling into life in America and starting families | Copyright 2008 California State Parks



A professional portrait of a Japanese American woman and her child | Image Courtesy of the USC Digital Archives.

A professional portrait of a Japanese American woman and her child | Image Courtesy of the USC Digital Archives.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *