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When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka.

April 2, 2015

When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka.  Anchor (2003), Paperback, 160 pages

FAVORITE – 5 stars

A riveting account of a Japanese family’s experiences in America during World War II.

Julie Otsuka uses sparse, unsentimental prose to convey the details that make up daily life even when that life is being irretrievably uprooted. The result is lyrical and driven by the turbulent emotions almost hidden under the prose. Otsuka’s manner of telling her story seems to reflect the Japanese cultural demand for control with a more western impulse to reveal the inner pain. I found myself unable to resist being drawn into the story.

The individual family members in Otsuka’s story remain nameless. We see them as “the woman,” “the man,” “the boy,” and “the girl.” The perspective from which events are viewed shifts between them. We read of the woman packing and preparing to leave the family’s comfortable middle-class home in Berkeley. Her husband has already been taken away, and she performs the mundane and horrific tasks necessary before leaving the next day. In later chapters, we watch out the train windows with the children on their way to the camp. The girl relates how a kind soldier, gun on his hip, passing through their car instructed them to pull down the shades in the middle of the day.

Now she could not see anyone at all and no one outside could see her. There were the people inside the train and the people outside the train and between them there were the shades. A man walking alongside the tracks would just see a train with black windows passing by in the middle of the day. He would think, There goes the train, and then he would not think about the train again. He would think about other things. What was for super, maybe, or who was winning the war. She knew it was better this way. The last time they had passed through a city with the shades up someone had thrown a rock through one of the windows.

Life in the camp was hard, demeaning, and boring. In addition to daydreaming about the Emperor, the boy kept remembering the night his father was taken away.

The Christmas tree was up, and the whole house smelled of pine, and from his window, the boy had watched as they led his father across the lawn in his bathrobe and slippers to the black car that was parked at the curb.
He had never seen his father leave the house without his hat before. That was what troubled him most. No hat. And those slippers: battered and faded, with rubber soles curling up at the edges. If only they had let him put on his shoes then it all might have turned out differently. But there had been no time for shoes.

Finally the family was released. Unlike many of the evacuees, they were able to return to their home, but much had changed. They were no longer treated as belonging to the community as they had been before the war.

Julie Otsuka is daughter and granddaughter of Japanese who endured conditions she describes in this book. She attended Yale and worked as an artist for a time before turning to writing. This book has received wide-spread critical approval. It is been frequently chosen as a core book for college freshman and community reading projects. If I were still teaching US history survey courses, it would be among the books I would require my students to read.

When the Emperor Was Divine is rich with themes to explore; how the Japanese were treated and why, how they survived, and what was lost for them. It is a prism through which we can read about how Americans have treated outsiders at a particular time and place. More deeply it is about what injustice looks like and feels like. And it is a book about grief, loss, and creating beauty out of pain. With its fine-tuned attention to detail, it suggests how humans find ways to survive when much is taken away from them.

I already knew much about the treatment of Japanese living on the west coast of the United States after Pearl Harbor. I have read the narratives of people who actually lived in the evacuee camp. Yet I was unprepared for the emotional impact and literary grace of this book.
I recommend this book as forcefully as possible to all readers. They will be touched by it, regardless of their own interests and concerns.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2015 3:39 pm

    I have been reading mixed reviews about this book but have been hoping to read it nevertheless. I loved Otsuka’s Buddha in the Attic – the writing style was one of the things I loved best about it. From your description, it sounds like I will enjoy this one too.

    • April 7, 2015 11:57 am

      The book’s style is unique and might not suit everyone, but if you liked her Buddha in the Attic, I think you will also like this one.

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