Franklin Hata, affectionately known as Doc Hata, is the protagonist and narrator of A Gesture Life. In the novel’s present time, Doc Hata enjoys a reputation as a model citizen in the upper-middle-class town of Bedley Run, located to the north of New York City in affluent Westchester County. When he left Japan for the United States thirty years ago, Doc Hata chose to settle in Bedley Run because the town had just started to develop and he believed he could make a meaningful contribution to local commerce and society. He established a successful medical supply store and later purchased property in a posh neighborhood. He spent many years meticulously restoring the house and landscaping the grounds, and now the Tudor-style home stands out as the most beautiful property on the street. Doc Hata takes great pride the efforts he made to improve his home as well as his social standing. He has a friendly and polite attitude toward everyone in Bedley Run, and he has frequently used his social influence to benefit others. Now in his seventies and retired, Doc Hata takes refuge in his daily rituals.

Yet in spite of his material and social successes, Doc Hata looks back on his life and wonders who he really is. As he grows older and watches his store go out of business under new owners, Doc Hata begins to sense just how fragile his legacy is. He reflects on how others have accused him of relying on politeness too much in order to gain the approval of others, and these reflections allow other memories of pivotal moments from his past to flood into his present. In particular, he recalls his various failures to develop meaningful, lasting relationships with women. For example, he remembers his failure to help a Korean woman named K when he was an officer in the Japanese army. He also remembers his failure to develop a lasting intimate relationship with an American woman named Mary Burns. Finally, he remembers the traumatic events that caused a lasting riff between himself and his adopted daughter, Sunny. As he comes to understand that he has never taken decisive action when it really mattered, Doc Hata resolves to repair his relationship with Sunny and help her care for her son, Tommy. However, he fears he may simply bring them more harm than good.