Based on Julie Otsuka’s own family history, where her mother, uncle, and grandparents were sent to Japanese internment camps after the Pearl Harbor bombings, When the Emperor Was Divine paints a vivid picture of a grim moment in history that America would rather forget and pretend never happened. The story begins in 1942, following an unnamed family from Berkeley, California when a forty-one-year-old mother of two starts packing up their belongings after evacuation orders that reclassified all persons of Japanese ancestry as enemy aliens. She has been living alone with her ten-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son ever since her husband was taken away by the FBI on the night of the Pearl Harbor bombings itself. She seems calm and collected as she carefully selects what she will manage to take with her in her small duffel bag, hides the remainder of their possessions, and gets rid of their family pets. Her inner turmoil isn’t readily apparent – it feels like she’s in a haze, unable to believe what has happened to them. They had migrated to America almost two decades ago – so this is their home, even though, overnight, they have been deemed “internal enemies” by the government. As they relocate to an internment camp in the Utah desert, a different camp from her husband’s, we witness her resigned acceptance while her son struggles to understand. The third chapter written from the son’s perspective is particularly heart-wrenching for this reason. He thinks they have been sent away to live behind barbed wires because of something he did – only he doesn’t know what he did wrong. What could he have done to deserve their father to be dragged off in his bathrobes and slippers in the middle of the night? He is haunted by the image of their father’s “arrest,” unable to get it out of his mind, and his sorrow renders the injustices these American citizens faced due to their confinement without due process.
When the Emperor Was Divine reads like a fever dream, and the beauty of this book remains in its subtlety. Otsuka doesn’t dwell or become sentimental about the matters of discrimination or prejudice, opting for a matter-of-fact writing style, and the plot benefited a great deal from it. It doesn’t take long for the family’s suffering to start gnawing at you, especially when they return home after three and half years in the camps with a measly twenty-five dollars each (the same amount that was given to prisoners when re-entering society) as compensation. The family had been an affluent one before, and upon their return, they find that their house has been vandalized, and most of their possessions have been stolen by their neighbors. The parents also have a very difficult time finding work – no one would hire them, fearing a backlash. Yet, at the camps, they had been warned to keep their heads down going forward and not to make waves, so that’s exactly what they do. One of the harrowing moments in this novella comes after their return, when the children are asked to write about what they wish to become when they grow up for a school assignment. Other children write about glamorous professions they wish to pursue, but for the brother and the sister, the answer is much more simple – they wish to become “you,” the ‘other’ Americans, who shared none of the burdens that the Japanese-American community faced. The father’s “confession” that concludes the novella also has a similar gut-punch effect.
… go ahead and lock me up. Take my children. Take my wife. Freeze my assets. Seize my crops. Search my office. Ransack my house. Cancel my insurance. Auction off my business. Hand over my lease. Assign me a number. Inform me of my crime. Too short, too dark, too ugly, too proud. Put it down in writing – is nervous in conversation, always laughs loudly at the wrong time, never laughs at all – and I’ll sign on the dotted line. Is treacherous and cunning, is ruthless, is cruel. And if they ask you someday what it was I most wanted to say, please tell them, if you would, it was this:
There. That’s it. I’ve said it. Now can I go?
It’s a sobering novella that’s well worth the read.
Note: Many thanks to Anchor Books for sending me a review copy of When the Emperor Was Divine.