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When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka [in Bloomsbury Review]

When the Emperor Was DivineOver 60 years ago, the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 – “a day that will live in infamy” as then-President Roosevelt named it – eventually led to the signing of Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. Through misguided patriotic paranoia, 9066 caused the incarceration of 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent in concentration camps scattered through the West. These prisoners – U.S. citizens, for the most part – lost their homes, their possessions, their communities and their guaranteed, inalienable rights. All because they physically resembled the enemy.

The family in Julie Otsuka’s shockingly brilliant novel debut novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, represents four of those prisoners – a mother, a father, a daughter and son. Historically accurate, there are no surprises or plot twists in this slim volume – but it will make you gasp as it exposes the truth. It is undoubtedly one of the most effective, memorable books to deal with the internment crisis.

The title is an indirect reference to life before World War II, a time when the Japanese still believed that their emperor was descended from the gods. When the very human voice of the defeated emperor announced the Japanese surrender, the illusion of divinity was shattered forever. For the American family in Otsuka’s title, pre-WWII was a time of relative normalcy, of freedom.

Divided into five tense chapters, Otsuka’s novel gives voice to each of the four members of an unnamed family who survive the incarceration, only to return to a hostile home. Otsuka’s decision not to name her imprisoned family underlines the dehumanization 9066 wreaked upon citizens’ lives.

The novel begins with the mother, who reads the posted evacuation order on “a sunny day in Berkeley [California] in the spring of 1942,” with the new glasses that ironically allow her to see clearly for the first time in weeks. Her husband has already been taken in the middle of the night, in bathrobe and slippers – his crime unnamed, his sentence unknown.

The mother packs away her life and prepares her family for an unknown other existence far away from all that is familiar. She detachedly buys a hammer, refusing the credit the storeowner offers because she does not want to leave with unsettled accounts. She writes a note to herself that no pets are allowed and goes home to deal with the cat, the chicken, the lame dog and finally the talking bird. Her methodical, controlled movements are frightening in their helpless precision – she has no choice but to obey.

Six months later, the family rides a dusty overcrowded train after being kept captive in hurriedly converted, rancid horse stalls. The girl’s voice describes the monotony of the journey, heading toward their desert destination, a camp in a barren stretch of Utah called Topaz.

As their new life begins, the son’s voice emerges to describe a life within barbed wire fences, of freezing nights and parched days, of endless lines waiting for meals, water and open latrines. As the war rages on, the War Relocation Authority swoops in to procure cheap labor to harvest crops, but the world beyond the fence is even more hostile: “They said they’d been shot at. Spat on. …They said the signs in the windows were the same wherever they went: NO JAPS ALLOWED. Life was easier, they said, on this side of the fence.”

Three years later, the war is over and mother, daughter and son return home, a home they barely recognize in a neighborhood that doesn’t want them, to friends who refuse to remember them. Their newly reinstated, so-called freedom is an ironic slap in the face. Post-war reality is harsh, but clear: “We looked at ourselves in the mirror and did not like what we saw: black hair, yellow skin, slanted eyes. The cruel face of the enemy.”

But for the first time, the three become “we” as the father is finally reunited with his family – yet reunion is heartbreaking: “Although we had been waiting for this moment, the moment of our father’s return, for more than four years now, when we finally saw him standing there before us on the platform we did not know what to think, what to do. … Because the man who stood there before us was not our father. He was somebody else, a stranger who had been sent back in our father’s place.”

In the final pages, we’re given a glimpse of the ordeal that turned the father into that stranger. Entitled “Confession,” and written in first person, the “I” admits to ridiculous accusations – “It was me. I did it. I poisoned your reservoirs. I sprinkled your food with insecticide …” and so on with each admission becoming wilder. And in frustration, the “I” continues with “I’m the one you call Jap. I’m the one who call Nip. I’m the one you call Slits. … I’m the one you don’t see at all – we all look alike.” After four grueling years of having everything taken from him, including his individuality, his dignity and his freedom, he only wants to sign on the dotted line and go.

The maturity of Otsuka’s first prose is astonishing. In a sparse 160 pages, she captures the bewilderment, the cruelty, the inexplicable experiences of a group of Americans punished for what they look like. The urgency in her voice is especially poignant, given life post-9-11 when again, the innocent continue to be punished, even killed because of a mistaken resemblance to the so-called enemy. Otsuka is a remarkable witness – read her testimony and help ensure that the mistakes of our past are not repeated again.

Review: The Bloomsbury Review, September/October 2002

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2002

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