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When the Emperor Was Divine

When the Emperor Was Divine

3.7 76
by Julie Otsuka

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The debut novel from the PEN/Faulkner Award Winning Author of The Buddha in the Attic

On a sunny day in Berkeley, California, in 1942, a woman sees a sign in a post office window, returns to her home, and matter-of-factly begins to pack her family's possessions. Like thousands of other Japanese Americans they have been reclassified, virtually overnight


The debut novel from the PEN/Faulkner Award Winning Author of The Buddha in the Attic

On a sunny day in Berkeley, California, in 1942, a woman sees a sign in a post office window, returns to her home, and matter-of-factly begins to pack her family's possessions. Like thousands of other Japanese Americans they have been reclassified, virtually overnight, as enemy aliens and are about to be uprooted from their home and sent to a dusty internment camp in the Utah desert.

In this lean and devastatingly evocative first novel, Julie Otsuka tells their story from five flawlessly realized points of view and conveys the exact emotional texture of their experience: the thin-walled barracks and barbed-wire fences, the omnipresent fear and loneliness, the unheralded feats of heroism. When the Emperor Was Divine is a work of enormous power that makes a shameful episode of our history as immediate as today's headlines.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Exceptional. . . . Otsuka skillfully dramatizes a world suddenly foreign. . . . [Her] incantatory, unsentimental prose is the book’s greatest strength.” –The New Yorker

“Spare, incisive. . . . The mood of the novel tensely reflects the protagonists’ emotional state: calm surfaces above, turmoil just beneath.” –Boston Globe

A timely examination of mass hysteria in troubled times. . . . Otsuka combines interesting facts and tragic emotions with a steady, pragmatic hand.”–The Oregonian

“Prose so cool and precise that it’s impossible not to believe what [Otsuka] tells us or to see clearly what she wants us to see. . . . A gem of a book and one of the most vivid history lessons you’ll ever learn.” –USA Today

“With a matter-of-fact brilliance, and a poise as prominent in the protagonist as it is in the writing, When the Emperor Was Divine is a novel about loyalty, about identity, and about being other in America during uncertain times.” –Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges

“Shockingly brilliant. . . . it will make you gasp . . . Undoubtedly one of the most effective, memorable books to deal with the internment crisis . . . The maturity of Otsuka’s. . . prose is astonishing.” — The Bloomsbury Review

“The novel’s voice is as hushed as a whisper. . . . An exquisite debut. . . potent, spare, crystalline.” –O, The Oprah Magazine

“At once delicately poetic and unstintingly unsentimental.” --St. Petersburg Times

“Heartbreaking, bracingly unsentimental. . . .rais[es] the specter of wartime injustice in bone-chilling fashion. . . . The novel’s honesty and matter-of-fact tone in the face of inconceivable injustice are the source of its power. . . . Dazzling.” –Publishers Weekly

“Otsuka . . . demonstrates a breathtaking restraint and delicacy throughout this supple and devastating first novel .” –Booklist

“Spare yet poignant. . . . clear, elegant prose.” –Library Journal

“Her voice never falters, equally adept at capturing horrific necessity and accidental beauty. Her unsung prisoners of war contend with multiple front lines, and enemies who wear the faces of neighbors and friends. It only takes a few pages to join their cause, but by the time you finish this exceptional debut, you will recognize that their struggle has always been yours.” –Colson Whitehead, author of John Henry Days

“Heartbreaking. . . . A crystalline account.” –The Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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Understated but powerful and particularly resonant today, When the Emperor Was Divine is a heartbreaking first novel, the story of a Japanese-American family all but destroyed by American prejudice and policies during World War II.

The story unfolds in the third person as four family members move through the different phases of their internment. Otsuka's language is spare, and her images are intense. The mother dispenses with the remnants of the family's life in California when they are forced out of their home. The boy recalls his father's arrest -- how he was led out of the house in a bathrobe and slippers. On a train headed for the Nevada desert, the children reflect on how their lives have changed, with their comfortable home giving way to whitewashed horse stalls, and finally to a dusty wasteland in the middle of nowhere.

Their father imprisoned in far away New Mexico, the children and their mother eke out a new existence in the "blinding white glare" of the treeless desert internment camp. Assigned to a single room in a tar-paper barracks with three iron cots, they live through brutally hot summers and bitterly cold winters as their once happy and promising lives waste away, and as they wait, patiently, for the war to end. (Fall 2002 Selection)

The New Yorker
This exceptional first novel is about a Japanese family in Berkeley, California, during the Second World War. After the father is arrested for treason, the mother, daughter, and son are sent to an internment camp, where the girl tells her brother bedtime stories about the desert beyond the barbed-wire fence, and the boy whispers the forbidden name of the Japanese emperor when he thinks no one is listening. Otsuka skillfully dramatizes a world suddenly foreign, from the "No Japs Allowed" sign at the movie theatre to the horse meat served at dinner in the camp. The implicit questions about culpability resonate with particular power right now, but Otsuka's incantatory, unsentimental prose is the book's greatest strength. It turns our ideas of beauty on their head, as when the boy uneasily remembers a treasured glimpse of the horses he now eats: "They had long black tails and dark flowing manes and he had watched them galloping in the moonlight across the flat dusty plain and then for three nights in a row he had dreamed of them."
Publishers Weekly
This heartbreaking, bracingly unsentimental debut describes in poetic detail the travails of a Japanese family living in an internment camp during World War II, raising the specter of wartime injustice in bone-chilling fashion. After a woman whose husband was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy sees notices posted around her neighborhood in Berkeley instructing Japanese residents to evacuate, she moves with her son and daughter to an internment camp, abruptly severing her ties with her community. The next three years are spent in filthy, cramped and impersonal lodgings as the family is shuttled from one camp to another. They return to Berkeley after the war to a home that has been ravaged by vandals; it takes time for them to adjust to life outside the camps and to come to terms with the hostility they face. When the children's father re-enters the book, he is more of a symbol than a character, reduced to a husk by interrogation and abuse. The novel never strays into melodrama-Otsuka describes the family's everyday life in Berkeley and the pitiful objects that define their world in the camp with admirable restraint and modesty. Events are viewed from numerous characters' points of view, and the different perspectives are defined by distinctive, lyrically simple observations. The novel's honesty and matter-of-fact tone in the face of inconceivable injustice are the source of its power. Anger only comes to the fore during the last segment, when the father is allowed to tell his story-but even here, Otsuka keeps rage neatly bound up, luminous beneath the dazzling surface of her novel. (Sept.) Forecast: Reader interest in the Japanese-American experience was proved by the success of Snow Falling on Cedars. Otsuka's pared-down narrative may have a more limited appeal, but can safely be recommended to Guterson fans. Five-city author tour. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Their middle-class, close-knit Japanese American family could have been any of the thousands uprooted from their homes in the Pacific coast and sent to internment camps in distant states during World War II "for the sake of national security" and "for their own protection." Otsuka eloquently chronicles in five chapters, one from each family member, their reactions as they are removed from their friendly neighborhoods and thrust into a strange new world where they are now the enemy. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the father, still in bathrobe and slippers, is taken away by the FBI for questioning and is not allowed to return home. Later, the mother, her eleven-year-old daughter, and her eight-year-old son are told to prepare to leave, taking with them only what they can carry. Resettled in a Utah camp, they begin to receive heavily censored letters from the father, who is now detained in New Mexico. When the war ends, they are sent home, impoverished and viewed with suspicion by their old neighbors. Resilient and resolute, the mother begins to earn a living as a maid, coping with her physically weakened, spiritually crushed husband. The family is nameless, adding to the feelings of unreality and alienation. With precise detail, succinct but sensitive prose, and great emotional restraint, Otsuka's enlightening, deeply stirring, Alex Award-winning book will affect all readers. A recent nonfiction book on this subject is Japanese American Internment During World War II by Wendy Ng (Greenwood, 2002/VOYA February 2003). VOYA Codes: 4Q 2P J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; For the YA with a special interest in the subject; Junior High,defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2002, Random House, 144p
A compelling and heartbreaking story, this book is about the tragedy of Japanese Americans interned during WW II and, by understated implication, it is a powerful indictment of the kind of racism still practiced in this country, now more commonly directed at Middle Easterners. First, the father is taken for "routine questioning," not to be seen by his family for over four years. A few months later, mother, teen daughter, and ten-year-old son are sent to a fenced and guarded desert camp for three and half years. Haunting, evocative, brilliantly written, with multiple points of view—mother, daughter, son, daughter and son ("we"), and finally, father, none of whom is given a name—this novel merits significant attention. Note: some young readers may benefit from teacher or Web explanations of the internment camps of WW II, and the treatment of Japanese Americans before, during, and especially, after their imprisonment. 2002, Knopf, 144 pp.,
— Ted Hipple
Otsuka has created an intriguing story about Japanese internment during WW II. This powerful book is characterized by sparse, contained prose detailing the lives of a Japanese American family in California. The reader never learns the names of the characters, just their roles in their family-mother, son, daughter, and later, father. As the mother walks around her neighborhood on her errands, she stops to read a notice and her demeanor changes. She begins packing, locking up some items and burying others. She gives away the cat and kills the dog prior to her children coming home from school. They take a train out to the desert and are interned in a concentration camp, all the while awaiting news from the father who was taken away one night in his bathrobe and slippers. Through the minute details of their lives and their memories of what life was like before the war, we get to know each character and their personalities. The father, reduced in most of the story to the author of an occasional postcard, finally rejoins his family as a shell of his former self, reduced to a fearful life of mere existence. The other members of the family, once returned home after the war, cannot look at their neighbors or even their home the same way. Each has invisible but lasting scars from their experience. When the Emperor Was Divine could easily be categorized as psychological fiction as well as historical fiction with its in-depth look at the minds of its characters and how each of them copes with their situation. There is no reader's guide to the book, which would have increased its appeal, as the paperback version will undoubtedly inspire book clubs to adopt it as a selection. Senior high andpublic libraries will definitely want to add this work if they don't already own the hardcover edition. KLIATT Codes: SA-Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, Anchor, 144p., Ages 15 to adult.
— Courtney Lewis
Library Journal
Otsuka researched historical sources and her own grandparents' experiences as background for this spare yet poignant first novel about the ordeal of a Japanese family sent to an internment camp during World War II. Its perspective shifts among different family members as the story unfolds. We see the mother numbly pack up the family's middle-class belongings to leave behind in their Berkeley home. The dehumanizing train trip to the camp, and the bleak internment in the alkaline Nevada desert, as related by the young son and daughter, become mythic events. Their father, picked up for questioning immediately after Pearl Harbor and imprisoned throughout the war, returns a broken and bitter man. The family's humiliation continues beyond the war's end: after returning to their vandalized home, they are shunned for months by former friends and neighbors. The novel's themes of freedom and banishment are especially important as we see civil liberties threatened during the current war on terrorism. Otsuka's clear, elegant prose makes these themes accessible to a range of reading levels from young adult on. Highly recommended for all libraries.-Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Libs., Harrisonburg, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
New York Times
Crystalline.... precise but poetic.... resonant and beautifully nuanced.... —Michiko Kakutani
Kirkus Reviews
A carefully researched little novel, Otsuka's first, about the US internment of Japanese citizens during WWII that's perfect down to the tiniest detail but doesn't stir the heart. Shortly after the war begins, the father of an unnamed Japanese family of four in Berkeley, California, is taken from his home-not even given time to dress-and held for questioning. His wife and two children won't see him until after war's end four years later, when he'll have been transformed into a suddenly very old man, afraid, broken, and unwilling to speak even a word about what happened to him. Meanwhile, from the spring of 1942 until the autumn after the armistice, the mother, age 42, with her son and daughter of 8 and 11, respectively, will be held in camps in high-desert Utah, treeless and windswept, where they'll live in rows of wooden barracks offering little privacy, few amenities, and causing them to suffer-the mother especially-greater and greater difficulty in hanging on to any sense of hope or normality. The characters are denied even first names, perhaps as a way of giving them universality, but the device does nothing to counteract the reader's ongoing difficulty in entering into them. Details abound-book titles, contemporary references (the Dionne quints, sugar rationing), keepsakes the children take to the camp (a watch, a blue stone), euthanizing the family dog the night before leaving for the camps-but still the narrative remains stubbornly at the surface, almost like an informational flow, causing the reader duly to acknowledge these many wrongs done to this unjustly uprooted and now appallingly deprived American family-but never finding a way to go deeper, to a place where the attentionwill be held rigid and the heart seized. Earnestly done, and correctly, but information trumps drama, and the heart is left out. First printing of 40,000

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.40(d)
810L (what's this?)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt


The sign had appeared overnight. On billboards and trees and the backs of the bus-stop benches. It hung in the window of Woolworth's. It hung by the entrance to the YMCA. It was stapled to the door of the municipal court and nailed, at eye level, to every telephone pole along University Avenue. The woman was returning a book to the library when she saw the sign in a post office window. It was a sunny day in Berkeley in the spring of 1942 and she was wearing new glasses and could see everything clearly for the first time in weeks. She no longer had to squint but she squinted out of habit anyway. She read the sign from top to bottom and then, still squinting, she took out a pen and read the sign from top to bottom again. The print was small and dark. Some of it was tiny. She wrote down a few words on the back of a bank receipt, then turned around and went home and began to pack.

When the overdue notice from the library arrived in the mail nine days later she still had not finished packing. The children had just left for school and boxes and suitcases were scattered across the floor of the house. She tossed the envelope into the nearest suitcase and walked out the door.

Outside the sun was warm and the palm fronds were clacking idly against the side of the house. She pulled on her white silk gloves and began to walk east on Ashby. She crossed California Street and bought several bars of Lux soap and a large jar of face cream at the Rumford Pharmacy. She passed the thrift shop and the boarded-up grocery but saw no one she knew on the sidewalk. At the newsstand on the corner of Grove she bought a copy of the Berkeley Gazette. She scanned the headlines quickly. The Burma Road had been severed and one of the Dionne quintuplets–Yvonne–was still recovering from an ear operation. Sugar rationing would begin on Tuesday. She folded the paper in half but was careful not to let the ink darken her gloves.

At Lundy's Hardware she stopped and looked at the display of victory garden shovels in the window. They were well-made shovels with sturdy metal handles and she thought, for a moment, of buying one–the price was right and she did not like to pass up a bargain. Then she remembered that she already had a shovel at home in the shed. In fact, she had two. She did not need a third. She smoothed down her dress and went into the store.

"Nice glasses," Joe Lundy said the moment she walked through the door.

"You think?" she asked. "I'm not used to them yet." She picked up a hammer and gripped the handle firmly. "Do you have anything bigger?" she asked. Joe Lundy said that what she had in her hand was the biggest hammer he had. She put the hammer back on the rack.

"How's your roof holding out?" he asked her.

"I think the shingles are rotting. It just sprung another leak."

"It's been a wet year."

The woman nodded. "But we've had some nice days." She walked past the venetian blinds and the black- out shades to the back of the store. She picked out two rolls of tape and a ball of twine and brought them back to the register. "Every time it rains I have to set out the bucket," she said. She put down two quarters on the counter.

"Nothing wrong with a bucket," said Joe Lundy. He pushed the quarters back toward her across the counter but he did not look at her. "You can pay me later," he said. Then he began to wipe the side of the register with a rag. There was a dark stain there that would not go away.

"I can pay you now," said the woman.

"Don't worry about it," said Joe Lundy. He reached into his shirt pocket and gave her two caramel candies wrapped in gold foil. "For the children," he said. She slipped the caramels into her purse but left the money. She thanked him for the candy and walked out of the store.

"That's a nice red dress," he called out after her.

She turned around and squinted at him over the top of her glasses. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you, Joe." Then the door slammed behind her and she was alone on the sidewalk and she realized that in all the years she had been going to Joe Lundy's store she had never before called him by his name. Joe. It sounded strange to her. Wrong, almost. But she had said it. She had said it out loud. She wished she had said it earlier.

She wiped her forehead with her handkerchief. The sun was bright and she did not like to sweat in public. She took off her glasses and crossed to the shady side of the street. At the corner of Shattuck she took the streetcar downtown. She got off at Kittredge and went into J. F. Hink's department store and asked the salesman if they had any duffel bags but they did not, they were all sold out. He had sold the last one a half-hour ago. He suggested she try J. C. Penney's but they were sold out of duffel bags there too. They were sold out of duffel bags all over town.

• *

when she got home the woman took off her red dress and put on her faded blue one–her housedress. She twisted her hair up into a bun and put on an old pair of comfortable shoes. She had to finish packing. She rolled up the Oriental rug in the living room. She took down the mirrors. She took down the curtains and shades. She carried the tiny bonsai tree out into the yard and set it down on the grass beneath the eaves where it would not get too much shade or too much sun but just the right amount of each. She brought the wind-up Victrola and the Westminster chime clock downstairs to the basement.

Upstairs, in the boy's room, she unpinned the One World One War map of the world from the wall and folded it neatly along the crease lines. She wrapped up his stamp collection and the painted wooden Indian with the long headdress he had won at the Sacramento State Fair. She pulled out the Joe Palooka comic books from under his bed. She emptied the drawers. Some of his clothes–the clothes he would need–she left out for him to put into his suitcase later. She placed his baseball glove on his pillow. The rest of his things she put into boxes and carried into the sunroom.

The door to the girl's room was closed. Above the doorknob was a note that had not been there the day before. It said do not disturb. The woman did not open the door. She went down the stairs and removed the pictures from the walls. There were only three: the painting of Princess Elizabeth that hung in the dining room, the picture of Jesus in the foyer, and in the kitchen, a framed reproduction of Millet's The Gleaners. She placed Jesus and the little Princess together facedown in a box. She made sure to put Jesus on top. She took The Gleaners out of its frame and looked at the picture one last time. She wondered why she had let it hang in the kitchen for so long. It bothered her, the way those peasants were forever bent over above that endless field of wheat. "Look up"' she wanted to say to them. "Look up, look up!" The Gleaners, she decided, would have to go. She set the picture outside with the garbage.

In the living room she emptied all the books from the shelves except Audubon's Birds of America. In the kitchen she emptied the cupboards. She set aside a few things for later that evening. Everything else–the china, the crystal, the set of ivory chopsticks her mother had sent to her fifteen years ago from Kagoshima on her wedding day–she put into boxes. She taped the boxes shut with the tape she had bought from Lundy's Hardware and carried them one by one up the stairs to the sunroom. When she was done she locked the door with two padlocks and sat down on the landing with her dress pushed up above her knees and lit a cigarette. Tomorrow she and the children would be leaving. She did not know where they were going or how long they would be gone or who would be living in their house while they were away. She knew only that tomorrow they had to go.

There were things they could take with them: bedding and linen, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, cups, clothes. These were the words she had written down on the back of the bank receipt. Pets were not allowed. That was what the sign had said.

It was late April. It was the fourth week of the fifth month of the war and the woman, who did not always follow the rules, followed the rules. She gave the cat to the Greers next door. She caught the chicken that had been running wild in the yard since the fall and snapped its neck beneath the handle of a broomstick. She plucked out the feathers and set the carcass into a pan of cold water in the sink.

Meet the Author

Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. She is a graduate of Yale University and received her M.F.A. from Columbia. She lives in New York City.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
May 15, 1962
Place of Birth:
Palo Alto, California
B.A., Yale University, 1984; M.F.A., Columbia University, 1999

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When the Emperor Was Divine 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 76 reviews.
brookie11037 More than 1 year ago
"When the Emperor Was Divine" by Julie Otsuka is a non-fiction story about a Japenese family during WW2 whose father was taken from their California home and they were sent to an internment camp in Utah. It is a story of their struggles and everything they had to endure. A huge message through out the book is being postive and finding the good in things even when times are hard. Having and learning acceptance and tolerence toward everyone is the main theme through out this book. Although the family is stuck in an internment camp they still try to be postive and make the best of it. The only thing in the book I did not like was that the characters did not have names. I really enjoyed reading "When the Emperor Was Divine" because I learned a lot and it was extremly interesting. If you are interested in the World War 2 time period you should definetly read this book.
gmanpma More than 1 year ago
A very troubling look at a time in our past. You will carry this around inside for a good while.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was incrediblly disappointed in this book. To me this book was a skeleton, or better yet a shell. A beautiful shell that could have been filled with so much more. I wanted the book to delve deeper into the lives of this family in the internment camps. What stories did they hear, who was the girl hanging around with and why? Stories like how she scraped her knee or what did the neighbors fight about? But the most disappointing part of this is that the author had a wonderful chance to have a second part of the book. What the father went through. But the book just ends on his confession. What a misses opportunity! It would have made for a compelling part two.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel shows a great side to the Japanese internment camps during World War Two while following the story of one family. The Japanese Americans were sent to camps because of fear of spies after Pearl Harbor, The story will follow you and it certainly will stay with me. There are several unsettling moments in the book, like the scene with White Dog on page 11. The family is sent to a barracks in the Utah desert and has to suffer through their life their. This book enlightened me to a different side of the war and it¿s an eye-opening book. The only thing that surprised me was the second to last chapter which starts on page 140 where the entire tone of the book flip flops and becomes much more direct. I never really knew much about the Japanese internment camps and we didn¿t cover much of that subject in history, this book allowed me to see what actually happened to the Japanese-Americans. With the help of this book and photos we looked at in class, I found myself becoming more and more angry at how we acted so irrationally during a time of panic. A great book for anyone who would like a new insight on the internment camps.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This little book is one of the most powerful I have ever read. There is not an extraneous word in it. I felt like I held my breath through the first four chapters -- and when I started into the fifth, I cried through every word. I am buying this book for each of my adult children. I am not sure they were ever taught anything in school about this dreadful, shameful episode in our history. They need to know, and this book will show them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Quite possible the worst book I've ever read. This book only sells because English teachers love to make their students lives awful. The story has no plot whatsoever, and I don't recommend reading it at all. This book sucks. 
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There were good and bad parts in it. I did not like the killing of the dog or those condintions. Since I am a history geek I liked all the historical aspects. If you are a history geek or a normal history lover, I recomend it. Just have your tissues ready! (not kidding either!)
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Highly reccomend
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful, quick easy read.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What evil lurks inside the heart of our nation? This book is gentle sledgehammer, a beautiful nightmare, a gift you want to give back but can't. I understand it is required reading in many 21st century schools. Boomers, catch up with the kids and read this book!
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This book follows the hardships forced upon Japanese Americans without excessively ridiculing or shaming. Nice read.