“When the Emperor was Divine” covers a time when Americans, paranoid and under the pressure of a war, sent Japanese-Americans to internment camps.
This account of the life within an internment camp in Utah focuses on one family’s acceptance and how they dealt with the harsh reality suddenly facing their once tranquil life.
Written simply, from the view of a child, the novel follows a regular family of Japanese-Americans who were suddenly uprooted and shaken. The story brings the internment camps to life, explaining a period of American history that has often been avoided.
When the father is taken away in the middle of the night, and the rest of the family is taken off a few weeks later, a confusion and uncertainty envelops the family. The mother tries to comfort the children, keeping normal daily rituals while their regular days are numbered.
When the child sees his father taken away, author Julie Otsuka emphasizes the rituals and beliefs that were held by the father. The child only sees that his father did not put on his hat, not concerning himself with why the father was taken because he was reassured that he would be back quickly.
This simplicity and innocence emphasizes how the child is not in touch with the reality and seriousness of the war.
As Otsuka composes the personality of the mother, the first thing she does is take down the pictures of the Emperor of Japan that she and her husband kept up and hides any other emblem that could associate them with the Japanese.
From that moment on, she tells her children “We are not Japanese, we are Chinese.” This exemplification of the fear the families felt emphasizes the unexpectedness of the internment and the desperation many felt.
As Otsuka follows the mother around town, closing her accounts and selling her household items, she explains how the family didn’t believe they would return to their house. The mother’s thoughts were covering what she should do, how she should leave the house, and who she believed would take their place when they were gone.
Afterward, while in the internment camp, there are short explanations of how the people looked and were acting while suddenly interned. The mother quickly deteriorates, and the children are uncertain what to do, or what is happening at all.
Despite the short rendition of events, the simplicity of the story makes the reality easier to grasp. The childlike fear and hopeless expectancy that many interned people felt at the beginning adds to the confusion and simple acceptance of something the people believed they couldn’t fight.
Otsuka connects readers to the lifestyle within the camps and the preparation each person took to enter them. American history is relived in a family’s struggles to accept a sudden change.
Staff writer Kelly Bleck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.