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The Floating World (book)

Book cover. Courtesy of Viking
View in the Densho Encyclopedia

Acclaimed coming-of-age novel largely set on the road centering on Olivia Osaka and her itinerant family in the 1950s.


As the novel begins, Olivia is twelve and her wise but acerbic maternal grandmother, Hisae Fujitano, has just moved in with her family—her father Charlie-O and mother Laura and three younger brothers—after the death of her third husband. Olivia's first-person narration takes us from Oregon, through California and on to Arkansas, where Charlie-O gets an offer to be a partner in an auto repair shop and where the family eventually settles among Japanese American chick sexers. [1] Olivia later moves to California, ostensibly to go to college, but ends up spending much of her time on the road there as well. Through Olivia's sometimes wise and sometime unreliable narration, we learn of her parents forced and often unhappy marriage, her grandmother's difficult but eventful life that continues to influence Olivia years after her death, and of Japanese Americans whose lives are a long way from the then prevalent " model minority " stereotype. Although the novel takes place in the years after World War II, and its characters lives obviously influenced by the war and the mass incarceration, there are only a couple of scattered references to those events in the book.

Background and Response

Author Cynthia Kadohata (1956– ) was born in Chicago, but like Olivia, lived in Arkansas for much of her childhood (where her father worked as a chick sexer) and moved to Los Angeles as a teenager. Though she dropped out of Hollywood High, she later graduated from the University of Southern California in 1977. Her big break as a writer was the publication of a short story, "Charlie O," in the New Yorker in 1986. That story, along with two others later published in the the New Yorker formed the basis for The Floating World, which she sold to Viking with the aid of famed literary agent Andrew Wylie in 1988. Kadohata later began writing young adult novels, one of which, Kira-Kira , also delved into the world of Nisei chick sexers.

Though some elements of the book are clearly autobiographical, Kadohata told historian Valerie Matsumoto, "I made a conscious effort to make the events things that never happened, and to have the characters not doing things that either of my parents ever did, just because I didn't want them to feel that I was invading them," adding, "But I guess the feelings are always there." [2]

Mainstream response to The Floating World was almost uniformly positive. Influential New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani hailed Kadohata as "a luminous new voice in fiction," and other reviewers praised the portrayal of the family, the first person voice, and the non-stereotypical view of postwar Japanese American life. At the same time, some Japanese Americans criticized Kadohata for not mentioning mass incarceration of Japanese Americans in a book set in its aftermath. Garrett Hongo recounts an episode at a book signing in which a scholar accused her of "falsifying our history," adding that "[s]he was then criticized for abdicating her responsibilities as a Japanese American writer, denounced for not fulfilling expectation, for not writing from the public truth of the time." Kadohata did set a later young adult novel, Weedflower , in an Arizona concentration camp during World War II. [3]

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

Might also like: What the Scarecrow Said by Stuart David Ikeda; Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire by David Mura; A Bridge Between Us by Julie Shigekuni


  1. Chick sexing, the rapid determination of a baby chicken's sex for the purpose of segregating the egg laying females from the relatively useless males, became an important postwar occupational niche for Japanese Americans. See Eiichiro Azuma, "Race, Citizenship, and the 'Science of Chick Sexing': The Politics of Racial Identity among Japanese Americans," Pacific Historical Review 78.2 (May 2009): 242–75.
  2. Valerie Matsumoto, "Pearls and Rocks," The Women's Review of Books 7.2 (Nov. 1989), 6.
  3. Michiko Kakutani, "Growing Up Rootless in an Immigrant Family," New York Times , June 30, 1989, ; Garrett Hongo, "Introduction: Culture Wars in Asian America," in Under Western Eyes: Personal Essays from Asian America , edited by Garrett Hongo (New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1995), 16.
Media Details
Author Cynthia Kadohata
Pages 196
Publication Date 1989
For More Information

For More Information

Author's website: .

Cooper, Janet. "Tools for Contesting Stereotypes and Reconstructing the Identities of Non-White Ethnic Women." Ph.D. dissertation, Penn State University, 2000.

Nyman, Jopi. "The Hybridity of the Asian American Subject in Cynthia Kadohata's The Floating World ." In Reconstructing Hybridity: Post-Colonial Studies in Transition . Edited by Joel Kuortti and Jopi Nyman. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 2007. 191–203.

Park, You-me, and Gayle Wald. "Native Daughters in the Promised Land: Gender, Race, and the Question of Separate Spheres." American Literature 70.3 (Sept. 1998): 607–33.

Shepard, M. Scott. "Daughters, Tricksters, and Ugly-Ducklings: Coming-of-Age Narratives of Japanese American Women Writers." Ph.D. dissertation, Bowling Green State University, 1997.

Yamamoto, Traise. Masking Selves, Making Subjects: Japanese American Women, Identity and the Body . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.



Antioch Review 48 (Winter 90): 125. ["... an appealing document of what it was like growing up a Japanese-American in this country."]

D'Aguiar, Fred. "The Diminutive Epic." Third World Quarterly 12.1 (Jan. 1990): 215–17. ["… Kadohata never compromises clarity. The price is a tendency to explain too much when the story should be trusted to a greater extent to convey thought."]

Edwards-Yearwood, Grace . " Growing Up Japanese American ." Los Angeles Times , July 16, 1989. ["Olivia's coming of age is convincingly detailed and her adolescent dreams are rendered with such tenderness that her sexual awakening only seems to enhance her innocence."]

Ehrlich, Gretel. " A Japanese Girl Wistfully Drifts Across America ." Chicago Tribune , July 23, 1989. [" But a life on the road affects the way Olivia sees and thinks and feels, and Kadohata beautifully captures this world in flux with sharp, lyrical language."]

Kakutani, Michiko. " Growing Up Rootless in an Immigrant Family ." New York Times , June 30, 1989. [ The Floating World marks the debut of a luminous new voice in fiction."]

Kirkus Reviews , Apr. 15, 1989, 570–71. ["Kadohata writes with a nerveless precision that etches deep. A lovely novel—resonant, complex, yet always accessible."]

Lim, Shirley Geok-lin. Belles Lettres 5.3 (Spring 1990): 20. ["Some of the best passages in the novel are the depictions of economic activity among these landless, unsettled people…. The floating world of migrant Japanese-Americans is solidly grounded in these fine particularities of a working class milieu, portrayed through a women's sensibility."]

Matsumoto, Valerie. "Pearls and Rocks." The Women's Review of Books 7.2 (Nov. 1989): 5–6. ["This story flows like a clear stream, revealing at every eddy unexpected depths and the startling beauty of examined lives."]

Ong, Caroline. "Root Relations." Times Literary Supplement , Dec. 29, 1989–Jan. 4, 1990, 1447. ["Kadohata's reminiscences ramble through time, people and events. Yet the narrative is haunting because of its very simplicity and starkness, its sketchy descriptions fleshing out raw emotions and painful truths."]

Paget, Anne. School Library Journal , Jan. 1990, 127–28. ["This coming-of-age novel works on several levels, and it will engage the emotions of teenage readers and make them think about their own personal situations."]

Publishers Weekly , May 12, 1989, 279. ["In her first book, Kadohata works wonders in evoking the mysterious balance, imperfectly held, of a Japanese-American family drifting apprehensively during the 1950s... "]

Sassone, Ralph. "The Wanter Years." Village Voice , Sep. 19, 1989, 55. ["Cynthia Kadohata's assured mix of direct and metaphorical prose, of lyrical writing about enduring natural phenomena and delicate humor about ephemeral relations, separates The Floating World from less poised (and whinier) bildungsromans by her contemporaries.... Kadohata's narrator has the kind of sweet, solid authority one doesn't want to escape for an instant."]

Shelnutt, Eve. America , Nov. 18, 1989, 361. ["... exceptional for the quality and depth of love its characters—six members of a family—show toward one another without the least trace of cloying sentimentality."]

Time , June 19, 1989, 65. ["Kadohata has a painter's eye, and her narrator's scroll is filled with scrupulously detailed portraits—of her tyrannical grandmother, of herself and her lovers and, memorably, of unassimilated migrant workers..."]

Woods, Frances. Booklist , May 15, 1989, 1609. ["The cumulative, quite magical effect is of a rich, unique, and fully realized world, a movable place defined by a car, a family, the times, and by what struck one particular girl as worth remembering."]