Book Review: WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE, a richly symbolic tale of WWII internment camps

Otsuka, Julie - When the Emperor Was Divine (3)When the Emperor Was Divine
Julie Otsuka

Immediately following Pearl Harbor, men of Japanese descent were arrested and detained indefinitely. The young boy of When the Emperor Was Divine remembers the humiliation of his father being led off in his robe and house shoes. The next fall, the mother sees signs announcing Evacuation Order No. 19 instructing all residents of Japanese ancestry to report for “evacuation.” Calmly and without objection, the mother readies her home and her children for departure. Asians not of Japanese descent erected signs proclaiming they were Chinese in the hopes they would be protected from the racism that accompanied the fear and anger associated with the war.

The family first are housed in a stall at a racetrack and then are sent via train to a camp in Topaz, Utah, where they stay over three years. Regardless of their status outside the camp, they are equalized inside, though the hierarchies are difficult to forget. When mother sees her old housekeeper, the housekeeper slips into a helping role despite the mother’s objections. They quickly learn the rules of the camp: stay away from the fence and don’t admit to worshiping the emperor. The boy can’t help whispering the Hirohito when he walks past a guard tower. Another man is shot ostensibly trying to escape. Those who know him said that was impossible. He was only approaching the fence to gaze at a beautiful flower on the other side.

Unlike most Japanese who were detained, they were able to return to their house, but they realize they’d been betrayed by their neighbors. Former bonds were dissolved. The children had grieved that no one wrote them in the camp; they learned that the local postman had said writing to anyone in the camps was aiding the enemy. The family was at once joyous and sorrowful when their father arrived home, alive but diminished, a shadow of his former self.

When the Emperor Was Divine, a brief novel, is so well-written and economical in its prose, it’s easy to overlook the rich symbolism, though nearly every page transmits more than one meaning, showing not just the events in the train, or at the camp, or in the neighborhood after the war. That the characters remain nameless reflects how much the Japanese were required to jettison their identities and renunciate their heritage to prove their loyalty.

“We would join their clubs, after school, if they let us. We would listen to their music. We would dress just like they did. We would change our names to sound more like theirs. And if our mother called out to us on the street by our real names we would turn away and pretend not to know her. We would never be mistaken for the enemy again!”

Although white “Americans” occupy only the periphery of the story, they are indicted as silent co-conspirators of the atrocity. Sadly, this situation is little changed today, though instead of Japanese being incarcerated, it is undocumented immigrants who are people of color. As When the Emperor Was Divine illustrates, only when we strip other groups of their humanity can we allow them to be treated in such a manner.

One way to advocate for undocumented immigrants is to support the work of the International Rescue Committee and the Immigration Advocates Network. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is also committed to migrant justice.