Overview: When the Emperor Was Divine

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From: Novels for Students(Vol. 41. )
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Work overview
Length: 3,157 words

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About this Work
Title: When the Emperor Was Divine (Novel)
Published: 2002
Genre: Novel
Author: Otsuka, Julie
Occupation: American novelist
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When the Emperor Was Divine is a novel by American author Julie Otsuka that was published in 2002. Otsuka's first novel, it tells the story of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II from 1942 to 1945. They were interned because the U.S. government thought they would be sympathetic to the Japanese cause and likely to participate in espionage or sabotage.

The story focuses on one family in particular, a mother and her two young children who are compelled to leave their home in California in the spring of 1942. They are sent to an internment camp in the remote desert at Topaz, in Utah. The father of the family was arrested in December 1941, immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and his story forms part of the novel, too.

In a matter-of-fact, unemotional tone, Otsuka shows how Japanese Americans coped with the shock of being uprooted from their homes and forced to live in a makeshift camp with few amenities. The novel is valuable not only for the human story it tells but as a contribution to understanding an episode in U.S. history that is now universally regarded as a mistake and an injustice.


Evacuation Order No. 19

When the Emperor Was Divine begins in Berkeley, California, in the spring of 1942. The United States has entered World War II the previous December. A middle-aged Japanese American woman sees a notice in a post office window stating that all Japanese Americans must leave their homes by a certain date. She begins packing immediately, and nine days later, she is still packing. She goes to a hardware store to buy a few supplies and then tries to find a duffel bag for sale, but all the stores are sold out. She goes home and decides she must finish packing, and she takes some things from the rooms of her ten-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son, wraps them up and puts them in boxes. The family has to leave the next day and they do not know where they are going. The woman's husband was arrested the previous December following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and is now imprisoned in Texas.

The woman gives their cat away, kills the chicken, and then kills and buries the pet dog. When the children come home, she tells them that tomorrow they will only be allowed to take with them what they can carry. After the children have gone to bed, the woman releases their bird, a macaw, from its cage. That night the woman lies awake worrying about the leaky roof of the house.


It is September 1942; this chapter is told from the point of view of the woman's daughter. The family is on a train, moving through Nevada, with other Japanese Americans. For the last two and a half months the family had been staying at an assembly center at Tanforan, a racetrack near San Francisco. Now they are on their way to the Utah desert where they will be living in a camp. It is a Sunday and as they pass through a small town, the girl looks out the window until a soldier tells her to put the shades down, which they must do whenever they pass through a town. She talks briefly with another passenger, a man named Ted Ishimoto. She tells him that her father is in Lordsburg, New Mexico, and that he never writes to her, although the latter statement is not true; he sends her postcards every week and she saves them all. The girl then observes some other passengers, talks to her mother, and looks out the window again. Now that they are out of the town, the shades have been raised again. She tries to play cards with her brother, but he is not interested. Her mother gives her brother an orange to eat, while the girl slips all the cards, one by one, out the window. When her brother sleeps, she looks at the postcards her father has sent. Part of what he wrote has been blacked out by government censors.

She tries to sleep but is awakened in the evening by the sound of breaking glass. Someone has thrown a brick through the window. She tells her mother she dreamt of her father.

They reach Utah at night. At a town called Delta, all the passengers get off the train and are put on buses that take them to the camp at Topaz, in the desert. The girl sees barbed-wire fences and soldiers.

When the Emperor Was Divine

It is late summer 1942 in the internment camp. It is hot and dry, and the wind blows up dust. The family adapts to the daily rhythms of their new home, in which the three of them live in one sparsely furnished room in a barrack. The boy misses his father. His mother tells him not to touch the barbed-wire fence or mention the Japanese emperor's name, but sometimes he whispers the name. The family passes the time as best they can, waiting for the mail and waiting for meals. They have no idea how long the war will last. The boy has nightmares and wonders whether he has done something bad that resulted in his being in the camp.

They receive censored letters from their father from Lordsburg. The boy sends replies and remembers his past interactions with his father. The boy hates the dust that is everywhere in the camp. Sometimes, in the evening, he and his sister go walking at the edge of the barracks to watch the sun set over the mountains.

In the fall, some of the people in the camp are recruited to work on farms in Idaho or Wyoming. When they return, they tell of the prejudice and abuse they encountered there. In the camp, the internees hear all kinds of wild rumors about what may happen to them, including being sterilized, shot, or deported to Japan.

A school opens in the camp in mid-October in an unheated barrack. The boy misses his father and remembers the night his father was taken away by the authorities. He remembers how, after that, curfews were imposed on Japanese American residents, as well as restrictions on how far they could travel.

There are dust storms in the fall, and snow falls as winter approaches. There is not much to do. There are rumors of spies in the camp, people who are thought to be government informers. In late November, some willow saplings are planted in the camp, and the boy takes a green leaf from one of them and sends it to his father.

The weather gets extremely cold. A man disappears and is found three days later frozen to death. At Christmas, turkey is served, as well as gifts for the children from the Quakers and the American Friends Service Committee. It is a long cold winter, and there is not enough bedding provided to stay warm at night. Illness is common. The boy's mother gets depressed and loses her appetite.

In February, army recruiters arrive looking for volunteers who will be willing to take a test of loyalty to the United States. In spring, the boy starts to take long walks on his own. In April, a man is shot dead near the border fence. The guard says the man was trying to escape, but many do not believe this. His funeral is attended by nearly 2,000 people.

The long hot summer arrives. The boy thinks of the day when his father will return.

In a Stranger's Backyard

In fall 1945, after the war has ended, the family returns to their home in Berkeley. The house has been neglected. The paint is peeling and most of their furniture is gone. They do not know who lived in the house while they were away. Outside, the town seems much the same but when they meet people they know in the street, those people turn away and pretend not to have seen them. Someone throws a whiskey bottle through a window of their home.

Gradually, the men from the neighborhood who fought in the war come home. Some of them who were prisoners of war in Japan have harsh things to say about the Japanese. The children's old friends from school no longer invite them home for supper. The boy and the girl respond to hostility or indifference at school by just keeping to themselves, careful not to cause any trouble. All this is quite different from the friendly reception they thought they would receive.

By November, the family is poor and the mother is turned down for almost every job she applies for. She ends up cleaning houses for a living and taking in people's washing and ironing to make extra money.

Their father finally returns in December. He looks much older, and the children can hardly believe he really is their father. He never says a word about what happened to him during his imprisonment. He is suspicious of people, and when he is outside, he does not speak unless spoken to. Small things make him lose his temper, but he is always pleased to see his children. When spring comes, he spends more and more time alone in his room. The children's lives gradually return to normal, and they face less hostility at school.


This short chapter is narrated in the first person by the father, who gives an account of what happened to him after he was taken away at night. In detention, he was told he had to talk to his interrogators. He gives a mock account of what happened, saying he admitted to being an enemy saboteur. He creates an absurd scenario in which he says he is guilty of everything from poisoning food to blowing up railroads, spying on airfields and neighbors, and many other things that are even more fantastic. He says he is like all the other Japanese in California who his interrogators know, and against whom they are prejudiced, thus implying that all the Japanese are guilty, a claim that he knows is absurd and will sound absurd. His bitterness is plain from his tone. Finally, having admitted to everything, he asks if he can go home.


Daughter : The daughter is ten years old in 1942 when the family is first sent to the internment camp. Unlike her parents, she was born in America and has always lived in California. She has straight black hair and is as American as any other girl her age. She likes "Boys and black licorice and Dorothy Lamour" (Lamour was a movie star at the time) as well as her pet macaw. She pays attention at school, studies for tests, and also takes piano lessons. She is good at drawing and has won a school prize for her work. Her world changes completely when the she and her mother and brother are sent away. Like her brother, she misses her father, and once confesses to her brother that what worries her most is that sometimes she cannot remember his face. She matures physically during the three years she spends at the camp, and when she undresses at night, she asks her brother to look the other way. She also gets to hear about some of the less savory things that go on at the camp during the nighttime hours. Sometimes she gets up in the middle of the night and jumps rope. She goes dancing in the evenings and wins second prize in a jitter-bug contest in the mess hall, where she also takes part in games of bingo.

When she, her mother, and her brother return to their home in California after the war, they find they are shunned. At school, the other students will not sit with the girl or boy at lunchtime, and their old friends longer invite them to their homes for supper. The girl and her brother try to keep quiet and not bring attention to themselves. She goes out of her way to make sure she does not offend anyone.

Father : Before he is arrested by the authorities shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the father, who like the other main characters is never identified by name, worked for a company. What he did for that company is never stated, but it obviously provided sufficient financial reward for him to establish a middle-class lifestyle for his wife and two children. The father was born in Japan, it would appear, and immigrated to the United States, where he must have lived for over twenty years. He is described as a "small handsome man with delicate hands and a raised white scar on his index finger." He dressed well, was always polite and punctual, and loved to play with the children. He also loved his adopted country; he once told his son that what he "loved most about America . . . was the glazed jelly donut."

The charges made against the father are never revealed. He is detained in a prison at Lordsburg for four years, during which time he writes affectionate letters to his children. He is finally released and returns home in December 1945, but he is far from the handsome, strong man his children knew. He has aged considerably in the four years he has been away. He is thin and bald, and he has lost all his teeth.

He is completely shattered by his experience of being imprisoned. He refuses to talk about it and never mentions politics. His personality has also deteriorated, and he has become suspicious and uncommunicative. Sometimes he will fly into a rage at the slightest provocation. His affection for his children remains, but he is a broken figure, retreating often to his room just to be alone. Sometimes he goes to bed as early as seven o'clock, immediately after supper.

Ted Ishimoto : Ted Ishimoto is a Japanese American man who is on the same train as the family as they travel to the internment camp. He has a friendly chat with the daughter.

Mrs. Kato : Mrs. Kato is an old Japanese American woman who lives in the internment camp. She lives with her son and his wife in the room next to the family. She talks to herself all the time and is confused about the situation she is in.

Mother : The mother of the two children was born in Japan into a large family. She had six older sisters and a younger brother. She has lived in the United States for nearly nineteen years in 1942. In the spring of 1942 she is forty-one years old, eleven years younger than her husband. By the standards of the day she had married late and had her children late, when she was in her thirties.

She is a practical woman who absorbs the shock of having her husband taken from her by the FBI and takes the necessary steps to ensure the family's smooth departure after she sees the relocation notice. She gives the cat away, kills and buries the family dog, and spends many days packing. She is also resourceful, burying the family silver in the garden so she can be sure it will be there on their return.

She feels no allegiance to Japan and has no difficulty passing the loyalty test that she is given in the internment camp. It is not that she has great patriotic feelings for the United States; she simply does not want to be sent back to Japan, and she wants to ensure that the family remains together. Since she lives in the United States, she wants to continue her life there.

In the internment camp she does her best to look after her children, but during the long cold winter she also gets worn down and depressed by the situation they are in. She does not bother to apply for any of the jobs that are available, and sometimes she just sits in her room doing nothing with an unopened book in her lap. She is haunted by the experience of having her husband suddenly taken from her with no explanation.

After she returns from the internment camp with the children, she must shoulder the responsibility of providing for her family. It will be several months before her husband returns, and he never works again. Facing prejudice because of her ethnicity, the mother is forced to take menial work cleaning houses. The work is hard and it ages her, but she does what she has to do for the sake of the family.

Elizabeth Morgan Roosevelt : Elizabeth Morgan Roosevelt is a young American girl with long yellow hair. She was a neighbor of the family that is sent to the internment camp. Elizabeth is a friend of the boy, and just before he goes away, she gives him a lucky stone from the sea. She writes to him at the camp, telling him all the news from Berkeley.

Son : The son is seven years old when the family is first sent to the internment camp. Like his sister, he is a typical young American; he likes baseball. However, in the months after Pearl Harbor before they are sent to the camp, he finds out what it is like to face discrimination because of his ethnicity. He learns to say that he is Chinese rather than Japanese so as to deflect this hostility. But on one occasion, having told a man he is Chinese, he runs to the corner of the street and shouts out that he is "Jap! Jap!"

The son is an impressionable young boy who absorbs a lot of information from his older sister, whom he asks a lot of questions. At the assembly center before they go to the camp, they stay in former horse stalls behind the racetrack, and after that the boy talks about horses a lot. He dreams he is riding a horse.

At the camp he misses his father badly and, at first, thinks he sees him everywhere among the other Japanese American men. His father had always been very affectionate toward him, calling him names like Little Guy and Gum Drop. The boy writes postcards to his father from the camp.

The boy seems to find it hard to adjust to life in the camp. Sometimes he lies awake at night listening to the radio bulletins about the war. Sometimes he wakes up from a bad dream wondering where he is. He wonders why he is in the camp and sometimes thinks it must be because he did something bad, but he never knows what that might have been. He keeps himself amused by playing marbles and Chinese checkers, and roaming around the barracks with the other boys, playing games. He keeps a pet tortoise in a wooden box filled with sand.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1430007696