When the Emperor Was Divine

When the Emperor Was Divine

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, 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385721813
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/14/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 23,683
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.45(d)
Lexile: 810L (what's this?)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About 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.


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

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.

Reading Group Guide

“Mesmerizing. . . . [Otsuka has] lyric gifts and narrative poise, [a] heat-seeking eye for detail [and] effortless ability to empathize with her characters.”

The New York Times


The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine. We hope they will provide fruitful ways of thinking and talking about a book that brilliantly explores the experience of Japanese Americans during World War II.

1. When the Emperor Was Divine gives readers an intimate view of the fate of Japanese Americans during World War II. In what ways does the novel deepen our existing knowledge of this historical period? What does it give readers that a straightforward historical investigation cannot?

2. Why does Otsuka choose to reveal the family’s reason for moving—and the father’s arrest—so indirectly and so gradually? What is the effect when the reason becomes apparent?

3. Otsuka skillfully places subtle but significant details in her narrative. When the mother goes to Lundy’s hardware store, she notices a “dark stain” on the register “that would not go away” [p. 5]. The dog she has to kill is called “White Dog” [see pp. 9–12]. Her daughter’s favorite song on the radio is “Don’t Fence Me In.” How do these details, and others like them, point to larger meanings in the novel?

4. Why does Otsuka refer to her characters as “the woman,” “the girl,” “the boy,” and “the father,” rather than giving them names? How does this lack of specific identities affect the reader’s relationship to the characters?

5. When they arrive at the camp in the Utah desert—“a city of tar-paper barracks behind a barbed-wire fence on a dusty alkaline plain”—the boy thinks he sees his father everywhere: “wherever the boy looked he saw him: Daddy, Papa, Father, Oto-san” [p. 49]. Why is the father’s absence such a powerful presence in the novel? How do the mother and daughter think of him? How would their story have been different had the family remained together?

6. When the boy wonders why he’s in the camp, he worries that “he’d done something horribly, terribly wrong. . . . It could be anything. Something he’d done yesterday—chewing the eraser off his sister’s pencil before putting it back in the pencil jar—or something he’d done a long time ago that was just now catching up with him” [p. 57]. What does this passage reveal about the damaging effects of racism on children? What does it reveal about the way children try to make sense of their experience?

7. In the camp, the prisoners are told they’ve been brought there for their “own protection,” and that “it was all in the interest of national security. It was a matter of military necessity. It was an opportunity for them to prove their loyalty” [p. 70]. Why, and in what ways, are these justifications problematic? What do they reveal about the attitude of the American government toward Japanese Americans? How would these justifications appear to those who were taken from their homes and placed behind fences for the duration of the war?

8. What parallels does the novel reveal between the American treatment of citizens of Japanese descent and the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany?

9. Much of When the Emperor Was Divine is told in short, episodic, loosely connected scenes—images, conversations, memories, dreams, and so on—that move between past and present and alternate points of view between the mother, daughter, and son. Why has Otsuka chosen to structure her narrative in this way? What effects does it allow her to achieve?

10. After the family is released from the camp, what instructions are they given? How do they regard themselves? How does America regard them? In what ways have they been damaged by their internment?

11. When they are at last reunited with their father, the family doesn’t know how to react. “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” [p. 132]. Why do they regard him as a stranger? How has he been changed by his experience? In what ways does this reunion underscore the tragedy of America’s decision to imprison Japanese Americans during the war?

12. After the father returns home, he never once discusses the years he’d been away, and his children don’t ask. “We didn’t want to know. . . . All we wanted to do, now that we were back in the world, was forget” [p. 133]. Why do the children feel this way? Why would their father remain silent about such an important experience? In what ways does the novel fight against this desire to forget?

13. The mother is denied work because being a Japanese American might “upset the other employees” or offend the customers. She turns down a job working in a dark back room of a department store because she is afraid she “might accidentally remember who I was and . . . offend myself” [pp. 128–129]. What does this statement reveal about her character? What strengths does she exhibit throughout her ordeal?

14. Flowers appear throughout the novel. When one of the prisoners is shot by a guard, a witness believes the man had been reaching through the fence to pluck a flower [see p. 101]. And the penultimate chapter ends with the following sentence: “But we never stopped believing that somewhere out there, in some stranger’s backyard, our mother’s rosebush was blossoming madly, wildly, pressing one perfect red flower after another out into the late afternoon light” [p. 139]. What symbolic value do the flowers have in this final passage? What does this open-ended conclusion suggest about the relationship between the family and the “strangers” they live among?

15. When the Emperor Was Divine concludes with a chapter titled “Confession.” Who is speaking in this final chapter? Is the speech ironic? Why has Otsuka chosen to end the novel in this way? What does the confession imply about our ability to separate out the “enemy,” the “other,” in our midst?

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When the Emperor Was Divine 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 104 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 14 days ago
It's been years since a book as hit me this hard and made me think about life
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
AP WORLD HISTORY REVIEW: i loved this book. it was such a wonderful sorrowful book. the author did a great job. i loved how she made the characters nameless to reflect the loss of their identities as individuals. i love how it gives the whole fmilies poit of view starting from the mother to her kids and finally her husband. i loved how the book ended with the dad 'confessing" telling them what they want to hear and ending the story book with "there. thats it. ive said it. now can i go. that was just so deep. i would 100% recommend it to everyone. its a great real story but with tragic. The author completes his purpose because she shows the tragic story of the japanese in america during ww2. Families were forced to leave their homes and never know if it would still be there when they came back. she did a great job of showing how that would be like from a japanese point of view and how tragic and difficult it was for them. And to show how the family changed and become distant from each other. You can tell there was so many emotions going on all over the book. it was sad but a great book.
kambrogi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This subtle novel tells with astonishing clarity a story of a family irreparably damaged by the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. The mother, father, son and daughter may survive, but from page one, it is clear that they will never be the same again. This vision of the dark side of the American dream is heartbreaking and true, without ever being sentimental. Highly recommended.
CasualFriday on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When the Emperor was Divine is a short and understated portrayal of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Events are viewed through the eyes of one family, never named. We see the initial evacuation through the eyes of the mother, the ride to the camp through the eyes of the girl, and everyday life in the camps through the eyes of the boy, who aches for his father, imprisoned in a camp for disloyals. What strikes me about the book is the author's superb control of tone: plain and unsensational, suggesting a superficial sense of resignation that masks a clear-eyed anger about the injustices these internees suffered. My only criticism is that sometimes the technique of deliberate understatement serves to distance the reader from the characters. I wish I knew more about the mother, in particular, who is the most fully drawn character in the book. She comes off as pragmatic and tough as nails, and her descent into depression is very sad.
nyiper on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Hauntingly, beautifully told. This is about what human beings can do to other human beings as innocence is crushed by a fear mentality stoked in the masses. Does history ever do anything but repeat itself? This is such a sad story because it is so true.
Aeyan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Otsuka's style is terse, yet rich; her characters' perspectives are blunt, yet dynamic. Offering a glimpse of a moment in history (one I failed to realize lasted for a much longer time than a mere moment) which is often elided in the history books, this book left me wondering if the blatant mistrust and discrimination has found new outlet in our country.
PinkPandaParade on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The international conflict that eventually became known as World War II affected more just than the soldiers fighting it: Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, victims of war and victors of war are all touched by the war and its devastation. It is possible that no novel reflects this so poignantly or poetically as Julie Otsuka's When the Emperor Was Divine, which takes on the point of view of various members of a Japanese family in California during the time of Japanese internment in the early 1940s. The family members remain anonymous, though certainly not unfamiliar ¿ Otsuka's method of keeping the family members nameless has the effect of making the readers identify and sympathize with the characters, but also helps readers to view these characters simply as human beings outside of their political, economic or racial identities. While oftentimes only hinted at, the rage surrounding the Japanese during the war is pervasive. Rocks, bricks and bottles are thrown through windows on multiple occasions, and the Japanese (or even other Asians perceived as possibly being Japanese) find themselves losing jobs and being denied basic services. In spite of this constant discrimination, the picture of the family before the war is a typical one: the nameless characters are depicted by Otsuka as being the all-American family engaged in all the images associated with being American. The disconnection implied by the anonymity of these characters is in effect both a narrowing of their boundaries to the reader as it is a distancing, both of which appear to be intended by the author. When the family returns home after nearly three-and-a-half years confined to the camp, the mother keeps her head down, unwilling or maybe unable to acknowledge herself to others unless absolutely necessary. In a lecture given to them, the children are taught to become anonymous as a way of self-preservation ¿ to not answer questions in class even when they know the answer, to follow all rules no matter how unusual they may seem, and to remain common, unmemorable, and nameless. The novel's title, When the Emperor was Divine, hearkens back to a time before the war, when the Japanese American person was allowed to be both Japanese and American without having to contend with the possibility that being Japanese could be construed as being un-American. The family comes out of the experience of the war and the interment as wholly changed and seemingly unrecognizable. The novel exists as a warning that this kind of devastation can be avoided only if people are seen as something more than their names and racial identities.
bcquinnsmom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Every so often there is a book that really makes you think. This is one of them. What blew me away was the story that was packed into a mere 144 pages. Without having to lengthen out the novel, the author manages to provide the points of view of all of the nameless family members (Mother, sister, brother) during their stay at and return from a Japanese Internment camp in the Utah desert from 1942 to 1946. The father also has a story after having been incarcerated in various federal institutions harboring "dangerous enemy aliens" for "disloyalty." Otsuka's novel is so clean, so quiet yet so eloquent at the same time. It is not filled with a lot of unnecessary verbiage; just a wonderful story.I highly recommend this one to anyone, especially anyone with an interest ina) how humans can turn out to be inhuman in the name of "patriotism" (still apropos after all this time) andb) the internment camps from the inside point of view.
nittnut on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Simply written and spare, this is the story of a Japanese American family whose father is arrested and without him, they go to an internment camp in Utah. The author captures the sense of loss and longing very well. She never names her characters, which gives a sense that they could be anyone.I loved the "everyday" quality to the narrative. I did not love the transition from camp to home, it felt too abrupt. I wanted to know more of the father's story. I get why we were not told, but still, I wanted to know. This is very different from other books of the same genre. Worth a read.
debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A Japanese American family is ordered to leave their home and is sent to a detention camp during World War II. The writing has a powerful immediacy that kept me turning pages to the end. Recommended.
charbutton on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book tells the story of a Japanese family interned in the US in 1942, the father separate from the mother and their two children, with the narrative coming from each of their perspectives in turn.I like Otsuka's style of unfolding the tale. She doesn't ram home that the family are Japanese and what that means during the period, chosing to slowly include bits about the prejudice that developed after Pearl Harbour. She also doesn't provide names for any of the family members, reinforcing the idea that they were interned because of what they represented, not what they had done, and also reflecting the commonly-held thought that all 'Japs' were the same, individual identities were unimportant. I also enjoyed the unemotional writing which leaves the reader to think their own way through what internment might have been like.While this is a work of historical fiction, internment isn't history. Guatanamo Bay and, in Britain, detention under the Terrorism Act and the skewing of stop and search towards those who 'look like terrorists', make When The Emperor Was Divine a relevant and thought-provoking novel.
tututhefirst on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Julie Otsuka writes with a simple, heartbreaking prose to give us a picture of one of the less glorious moments in America's history. It shows a typical Japanese American family (mother, father, daughter, son) living in California at the outbreak of hostilities in December 1941. These are adults who have been in the country as citizens for more than 20 years, children who were born in the US. The children do not speak or understand Japanese. They have piano lessons, they have pets, they have wedding china and silver, and lace curtains. The father works so his wife doesn't have to.Just as the world is shattered by the attack on Pearl Harbor, so this nameless family finds its world splintered into pieces. The father is taken into custody by the FBI in the middle of the night. Shortly after that, the others are given very short notice to pack up whatever they can in one suitcase each, and report to a staging area, where they are eventually shipped to Utah to spend the war in an internment camp of tar paper shacks. The effects of this relocation of over 100,000 persons of Japanese descent are related through the eyes of the young boy (about 8-9 years old). Using characters who remain nameless, the author enhances the depersonalizing impact this action had on those who were forced to give up their lives, possessions, and livelihoods.  The powerful storytelling enables the reader to feel the emotional, physical, and psychological results of this infamous episode in our country's history. The significance and consequences of actions on all sides are beautifully portrayed without political comment, without assessing blame or pointing fingers.  It is a quiet, quintessentially elegant depiction of a bleak and regrettable story.
mmadamslibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Short, more of a novella about a Japanese family that was sent to an internment camp during World War II. Quick reading, loved the different perspectives
JolleyG on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of the best books about the internment of the Japanese in the US during World War II.
LMHTWB on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When the Emperor was Divine traces the experiences of a fictional Japanese American family through their relocation in internment camps during World War 2. The father had already been taken away for questioning when the story begins. The mother, son, and daughter then are sent to a camp in Utah and held for the duration of the war. After the war ends, they are then allowed to return home and wait for the father's return.The writing in this novel is superb. In some areas, the details are minimal yet the feelings are strongly evoked. This book is like a Japanese rock garden -- minimum is maximum.I did not like the very end and it would be hard to explain without ruining the story for others. Let me just say, I didn't think the tone fit with the story.Overall, this is a powerful and disturbing book about prejudice and hate. The emotions evoked are not easy to deal with, but being challenged is a wonderful thing at times.
cameling on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
After Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese in WWII, thousands of American Japanese were arrested and held for questioning or made to board up their businesses and homes, taking only what they can carry and put on trains which took them to internment camps set up around the country. The author concentrates on the lives of 1 American Japanese family during this period. The father, a successful businessman, was taken away in his bathrobe and slippers one night after men knocked on the door of their family home. He writes cheerful letters to his children and wife, not letting on what tortures and questionings he was subjected to. Months later, his family are made to board a train that would take them to an internment camp in the desert with other American Japanese. This slim volume is told through separate narratives by the wife, their teenage daughter and their young son. The stark narratives provide intense poignancy into their physical and emotional stress, not only during the period leading up to and during their 4 year confinement, but also to what they had to endure when they returned to their home without so much as an apology from the government and with merely $25 with which to restart their abruptly disrupted lives. Some lives were irretrievably damaged while others found hidden strengths to overcome the trials in their paths.
Clara53 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was prompted to read this debut novel by Julie Otsuka after reading her second book "Buddha in the Attic" which had amazed me by its boldness and honesty. The two books are of the similar theme, that of the treatment of people of Japanese origin in US during the Second World War. "When the Emperor was Divine" is a fine novel as well, and touched me by its profound sadness, disappointment, and helplessness on the part of the main characters, but was less of a triumph, as far as writing, in my view, compared to "Buddha in the Attic" - except, I would say, for the last chapter called "Confession", which caused goose bums on my skin, as I was reading it. We need to know these things - thanks to the writer for bringing it to our attention with such clarity and skill.
Whisper1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is one of those books that gently takes your breath away as you read page after page of stunningly beautiful writing.The reader follows a Japanese-American family through their journey of internment in 1942 when their peaceful family life was uprooted, tossed and turned and split apart because of an irrational fear during WWII.The writing is eloquent and the beauty lies in the way in which the story is told. It is softly written, like a breeze, yet all the while the reader feels the tempest and overwhelming sadness of the displacement of this gentle, loving family.Each chapter has a voice of a different person. The journey begins with the sad, pragmatic realization of the mother who begins to pack the possessions.We then follow the perspective of the children whose father was taken away before the government came for the family.This is a look at the concept of US vs THEM. This is a look at how "the enemy" is defined. This is a sad look at a snapshot of American history during a troubling time.The tale is not told in an angry voice, rather, the author takes us down the tearful trail of a Japanese-American family living the American dream in California to lonely, hot, humid, treeless Topaz Utah were they are herded like cattle to swat the flies in the God forsaken dessert.Highly recommended
SqueakyChu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wow, this is a beautiful book. It¿s tender and full of grace. However, deep down, it¿s also very painful. This is the story of an American family ¿ mom, dad, daughter, and son. It takes place during World War II, and, unfortunately for this family, their life changes when the father is taken away hatless and in slippers without notice and, later, the mother and her two children are sent to a hot, dusty camp to dwell with others families during the rest of the war years. You see, this American family from Berkeley, California, is labeled the enemy because it, along other families thus displaced, are of Japanese heritage. What is so utterly disturbing about a book such as this is the truth it tells and the horrors it cushions in its soft language. We must ask ourselves the question whenever we confront the ¿enemy¿ as to exactly what we mean by this word. Julie Otsuka brings this question to the forefront as she describes one family¿s situation through the narrative voices of the mother, daughter, son, and, in the end, the father.
Fourpawz2 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I liked this little book ¿ an especially spare tale of the lives of a family of Japanese-Americans interned in two different places ¿ mother, sister and brother in one camp and father in another, apparently harsher camp locate in a different state. The story is so spare, that the names of these main characters are never given. Might have found that annoyingly pretentious if not for the fact that the story was very well written. Everything read very true ¿ no hysteria here ¿ but all the same it is very easy to see how sad it must have been for them. I got an idea of how small and powerless individuals can be made to feel when the world that they live in ¿ government, neighbors, people they thought were friends ¿ decides that they are untrustworthy and enemies to the life they had always believed they were a part of. I would have given this book to my aunt to read for she enjoys good books as much as I do, but I knew that she would not want to read it. She, in a small way, is a victim of this time as well. My aunt, a most reasonable, fair-minded person in every other way, has lived all of her life since her childhood, unable to see movies, TV programs or read books like this one because she grew up in an atmosphere that preached total distrust of Japanese-Americans. She was a very solemn, obedient child; if society told her that she must suspect Japanese people of foul deeds and nefarious motives she did it because it was her civic duty. It's been nearly 70 years since the end of the war, but she has never been able to shake this prejudice, much though she knows how unfair it is. It is a part of her now and forever, just as the horrible experience of being sent off to prison camp was for the internees.