When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka is a Japanese-American historical fiction novel that tells the story of a family that is uprooted from their home and put into an Internment Camp during the Second World War. Each tale is told from the perspective of a different person, which helps explains the various traumatic experiences and harmful impacts that this devastating event had on Japanese and Japanese-Americans.
I recently re-read this for my Asian-American Literature class and it brought back all of the initial outrage, frustration, and heart-break that I felt when I read the novel for the first time a couple of years ago. I don’t typically cry when I read, no matter how emotional the story can become. The only exception to that was The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa (my favourite novel of all-time, and one that eviscerated my emotional state of mind). Yet, when I read about the horrible experiences that so many innocent people were forced to bear, the tears flowed from a plethora of feelings. It’s a novel that grabs you by the shoulders from the very first line of the very first perspective and holds on tightly until the flip of the finale.
The prose is one of the most remarkable aspects of this novel. It is simple and straightforward, unhindered in its descriptions and expositions of what is happening around this family, and that creates an intensely evocative atmosphere of tension, dread, and despair. As I hastily devoured one story after the next, I could feel my heart racing from frustration and empathy, as well as fear for this family and whether or not they’d make it to the other side of this war. Their pain is so powerfully tangible, not only in their confusion and sense of alienation, but especially in their longing for the missing father and the debilitating uncertainty of their future.
The physical descriptions of the mother and children aren’t ever described in any specific ways. Aside from the colour of a hair and a few comments indicating their age-range, when one reads what is going on, it could literally be anyone at all. The white, blonde housewife down the street and her children, or maybe a Black family who have worked hard to build a home for themselves. This becomes extraordinarily potent with its ramifications as it highlights that Japanese-American families were just like any other American family. Later when small comments made toward them, including racial slurs, are revealed, do we as the audience learn that we’re reading about a specific group and community. It’s incredibly haunting and sombre.
Ordinary citizens of America were uprooted from their homes, their lives, everything that they had worked just as hard to craft, harder even, and rather than be viewed as the Americans they were, they were sent away like heinous criminals where they were forced to live in barns and shabbily built shacks that typically accommodated animals. Children would go to bed with terrible thirst and throats filled with the dust of the desert, while the adults who had prominent business and careers had to now learn to spend their days sitting behind a barbed-wire fence wondering if there was anything they could’ve done to prevent such an onslaught. They were also brainwashed into hating themselves for their own ethnicities and forced to announce undying loyalty or continue to be treated like a monstrosity in the only home they’ve ever known. Unfathomably despicable and unabashedly inhumane.
When the Emperor was Divine gave me so much food for thought, more so on this second or third re-reading than the first, that really helps to put the ideal American identity into perspective for me. It helped me to understand why I shall never feel American myself, regardless of being one (I’m a citizen), and how no matter what, I will always be an outsider in this country. It also helped me to better understand our recent history, along with our present political turmoil, and the frightening future that may yet be in store for those of us who “don’t belong.”
All in all, I’d HIGHLY RECOMMEND When the Emperor was Divine to readers searching for phenomenal Asian-American literature, folx that are curious or interested in learning and understanding the Second World War and the long-term impacts of institutionalised racism, and people that just like amazing books in general. It’s also short, so it’s great for a quick read if one has limited free time for personal reading. The trauma and tragedy of the Japanese Internment Camps is depicted here with outstanding precisions, depth, and a veil of sorrow that shall shake you to the core.
Publication Date: October 2003
Publisher: Anchor (978-0345807274)
Genre: Japanese-American Literature, Historical Fiction
Page Count: 160
Content Warnings: Graphic animal deaths. Strong descriptions of inhumane imprisonment including imprisonment of children. Descriptions of starving children. Mildly strong language. Strong depictions of discrimination and racism against Japanese and Japanese-Americans.
Availability: In-print; paperback, eBook, and audiobook formats available.