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.
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.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:May 15, 1962
Place of Birth:Palo Alto, California
Education:B.A., Yale University, 1984; M.F.A., Columbia University, 1999
Read an Excerpt
EVACUATION ORDER NO. 19
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?