When The Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

Reviewed by Wakako Yamauchi; posted August 2003, with the reviewer's permission.

For those who still haven't heard about this bizarre, historical, and unconstitutional event, briefly: On December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, America declared war on Japan. Within months, without due process, the Japanese and Japanese Americans in Washington, Oregon, California, and parts of Arizona were summarily sent off to ten internment camps in isolated areas of the United States.

I would know something about that; I was in one of them. All told, there were 120,000 of us. Some fathers who were involved in pre-war Japanese cultural activities (teachers, preachers, social and political activists, etc.) were arrested earlier and sent to detention centers. Stories of the incarceration proliferated after we were released from the camps, but now when Arab Americans are under the same blanket suspicion, we remember again and remind America not to repeat the errors of that other war.

Having gone through the incarceration experience, and having read a few stories based on it (I've written a couple myself), I approached "When The Emperor Was Divine" with a critical eye toward inaccuracies. I am also suspicious of a victim attitude that I've found in many "camp" stories written by sympathizers who weren't actually there. The Japanese of the era before the war (when the Emperor was divine), had a hard row to hoe, confronting racism at every other turn. We grew strong from it. We weren't so easily defeated. We are stoic people; we know when to back off (when to fold), when to persist and when to prevail even if it takes another generation to win justice for us.

So I confess I approached this novel with a "show me" attitude.

The novel begins: A woman goes to the hardware store. She buys tape and twine. The shovels are on sale, but she already has two and she needs only one. She tried to buy duffel bags at a department store. All out. Duffel bags all over town are sold out. The Japanese have bought them all for the "trip" -- our Diaspora.

We learn that the woman's husband was arrested earlier and sent to Missoula, Montana, a detention center, so the woman must do all the packing and preparations for closing the house by herself. The children are off to school -- their last day. No pets are allowed in camp so with the twine she bought, she ties White Dog to a tree, feeds him, pets him, calls him "good dog," digs a hole, asks him to play dead, kills him with one blow of a shovel and buries him.

When the children are asleep she strokes the girl's pet macaw, pushed him out the window, closed it, and turns away. The bird claws at the glass; he wants in. The woman turns her back. "Go," she says. Rain falls.

In this novel, just a few peripheral characters are called by name. The mother, the boy, seven, the ten year old girl, and the dad (who appears only in the last chapter) are nameless, but there's no mistaking who these people are. Otsuka uses the few words she needs to set the scene: the woman pets White Dog, calls him good dog, kills and buries him. The boy returns from school, calls for White Dog but gets no response. He remarks, "That dog gets deafer every day." Don't you know the mother's heart is breaking?

This is the style of the novel. Through abbreviated conversations, like the understated language we use with our siblings and parents, we understand what's going on in the interior of our characters. We learn about camp life from each separate point of view. The "outside" world encroaches - a battle is lost; an island is won; Dorothy Lamour is the current movie star; "Don't Fence Me In" is a favorite song; Dad is moved to yet another prison camp. Will he come back? Is that he at the door now? Will he be wearing shoes? The FBI had taken him away in his slippers.

Otsuka weaves this story with threads and colors sometimes thick and strong, sometimes so delicate, you can hardly see them. But you will feel them.

We are reminded that children are often more resilient than adults. They will live through all this madness. Otsuka doesn't say it of course, but we know. They'll wake up in the morning and what worried them yesterday will be half forgotten. Hurtful things happen but they will survive; things change all the time. Even the Dad that returns to them has changed -- the Dad who was taken away in his slippers.

The last chapter is devastating. Otsuka shows us what can alter a man so that he is no longer the Dad who haunted the children's dreams the whole three and a half years he was away.

Otsuka tells her story in the Nisei (the generation born to Japanese immigrants) syntax. I know because I'm one of them and I know the language. (END)

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