When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka is a historical fiction novel that follows a Japanese-American family during World War 2 as they are displaced from their home in Berkley, CA to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. There are three distinct stages that the novel follows: travel to Topaz, life at the internment camp, and the reverberating effect afterward.
The novel begins by following the mother, keeping the story grounded and practical as she must deal with the logistical problems of being uprooted. These activities range from burning items that tie them to Japan, packing or discarding their stuff, and killing their dog. Otsuka provides the characters distance from their own actions by supplying the narrative in third person while keeping the family members nameless. In effect, Otsuka is implying that it could be anyone that takes the place of these characters. Though that doesn’t mean that the characters are dimensionless. The son at first pass has an optimistic attitude towards the whole ordeal, but Otsuka may have used this as a thin veil to describe his obliviousness. This is because the son is young, while his sister is old enough to understand what is going on. She is more reactionary, which the mother interprets as rebellion throughout the train ride and their subsequent life in the camp.
Otsuka’s characters are painfully asked to wait: at an old horse race track, on a train to Topaz, at Topaz for the war to end, and for their father to come back. It is in these moments of waiting where Otsuka fleshes out the characters into whole beings with hope of their return, anxiety of the state of their home, and contempt for their living state. Otsuka forces the reader to realize how the immediate pause—or in some cases total destruction—of American lives should not have been justified by the government. But even so, these characters and those actually interned at the camps had to find a way to continue living. The mother in one scene after trying to be the stable foundation for her children breaks down by refusing to eat. While the sister separates herself from the family by being with other friends in the camp, and the son tries to act as the stable earth.
When the family is allowed to go back home, the experience then switches to the point of view of the son. And in this way, it reaffirms the idea that the characters tried to separate and distance themselves from their own experiences.
The backbone of the novel is the relationship between the family and the father. Otsuka provides flashbacks, letters, and stories of the father to build this idea of a strong, loving, and caring person. And throughout most of the novel, the father is experienced indirectly through memories of a rosier time. And without that hope to meet again, the characters would’ve broken down with no motivation to continue. Otsuka builds the father as one thing, but once reunited, the reader experiences the massive disconnect between reality and the idea of the father. This disconnect is also felt through the rejection of their friends, neighbors, and society as a whole when the mother tries getting a job.
The novel finishes with the payoff that Otsuka builds up to. The father, who had been taken in by the US government to be questioned about his allegiance and suspected of being a spy, is the focus of the final chapter. In the point of view of the father, who is innocent of all accusations, instead admits responsibility of the accused actions. And while the reader knows that he has done nothing of what he admits, the father’s willingness to take the fault shows his deep loyalty to America. It is a noble act to say sorry for something that one has never done, and Otsuka knows that making this the final sticking point makes an explicit comparison to the actions of the US government.
Final Rating: 4/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.