They said that our short stature made us ideally suited for work that required stopping low to the ground. Whereever they put us they were pleased. We had all the virtues of the Chinese — we were hardworking, we were patient, we were unfailingly polite–but none of their vices — we didn’t gamble or smoke opium, we didn’t brawl, we never spat.
They couldn’t go home again, back to Japan, those “picture brides.” They had sought husbands and lives outside the restrictions of Japanese culture, so they married men they had only seen in pictures. The pictures, it turned out, were often of someone else more attractive or had been taken 20 years before. When the women arrived, they went to work, they bore children, they endured.
In this magical book, Julie Otsuka gives us their voices, a chorus of voices, yet within their song we can hear the individual singers.
We gave birth during the Year of the Dog and the Dragon and the Rat. We gave birth, like Urako, on the day of the full moon. We gave birth on a Sunday, in a shed in Encinitas, and the next day we tied the baby onto our back and went out to pick berries in the fields. We gave birth to so many children we quickly lost track of the years.
We hear these women speak from the boat on which they traveled from Japan, during their first experience of their new husbands, of their work, of their babies, of their children and, finally, their fate as they were exiled again from the place they had learned to call home. In the last chapter, we no longer hear the picture brides, we hear those they left behind.
A year on and almost all traces of the Japanese have disappeared from our town. Gold stars glimmer in our front windows…. Harada Grocery has been taken over by a Chinese man named Wong but otherwise looks exactly the same, and whenever we walk past his window it is easy to imagine that everything is as it was before. But Mr. Harada is no longer with us, and the rest of the Japanese are gone… 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.
True, the Japanese you will meet when they are released from the camps will be different people, changed by their experiences, just as the picture brides were changed by theirs.