When the emperor was divine : a novel

by Julie Otsuka

Paper Book, 2003





New York : Anchor Books, 2003.


Otsuka's commanding debut novel paints a portrait of the Japanese internment camps unlike any previously written--a haunting evocation of a family in wartime and an unmistakably resonant lesson for our times.

User reviews

LibraryThing member tututhefirst
Julie Otsuka writes with a simple, heartbreaking prose to give us a picture of one of the less glorious moments in America's history. It shows a typical Japanese American family (mother, father, daughter, son) living in California at the outbreak of hostilities in December 1941. These are adults who have been in the country as citizens for more than 20 years, children who were born in the US. The children do not speak or understand Japanese. They have piano lessons, they have pets, they have wedding china and silver, and lace curtains. The father works so his wife doesn't have to.

Just as the world is shattered by the attack on Pearl Harbor, so this nameless family finds its world splintered into pieces. The father is taken into custody by the FBI in the middle of the night. Shortly after that, the others are given very short notice to pack up whatever they can in one suitcase each, and report to a staging area, where they are eventually shipped to Utah to spend the war in an internment camp of tar paper shacks. The effects of this relocation of over 100,000 persons of Japanese descent are related through the eyes of the young boy (about 8-9 years old).

Using characters who remain nameless, the author enhances the depersonalizing impact this action had on those who were forced to give up their lives, possessions, and livelihoods.  The powerful storytelling enables the reader to feel the emotional, physical, and psychological results of this infamous episode in our country's history. The significance and consequences of actions on all sides are beautifully portrayed without political comment, without assessing blame or pointing fingers.  It is a quiet, quintessentially elegant depiction of a bleak and regrettable story.
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LibraryThing member Whisper1
This is one of those books that gently takes your breath away as you read page after page of stunningly beautiful writing.

The reader follows a Japanese-American family through their journey of internment in 1942 when their peaceful family life was uprooted, tossed and turned and split apart because of an irrational fear during WWII.

The writing is eloquent and the beauty lies in the way in which the story is told. It is softly written, like a breeze, yet all the while the reader feels the tempest and overwhelming sadness of the displacement of this gentle, loving family.

Each chapter has a voice of a different person. The journey begins with the sad, pragmatic realization of the mother who begins to pack the possessions.

We then follow the perspective of the children whose father was taken away before the government came for the family.

This is a look at the concept of US vs THEM. This is a look at how "the enemy" is defined. This is a sad look at a snapshot of American history during a troubling time.

The tale is not told in an angry voice, rather, the author takes us down the tearful trail of a Japanese-American family living the American dream in California to lonely, hot, humid, treeless Topaz Utah were they are herded like cattle to swat the flies in the God forsaken dessert.

Highly recommended
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LibraryThing member stretch
The internment of Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens during World War II is a disturbing chapter in American History, that doesn't receive much attention. Thousands of ethnic Japanese citizens and families were stripped of their freedom, homes, businesses, and sense of security overnight. Limited to what they could carry in a single suitcase, they were ushered from homes to temporary living facilities in horse stalls to their final destinations, tent cities in the harsh, remote desert regions of our country. If that wasn't shameful enough the government forced everyone to take loyalty tests, which if answered honestly could result in separation or deportation. They lost everything they had built before the war and during the war they lost their dignity. For their trouble each person was given a train ticket home and $25.00 (the same package given to convicted felons upon release) with which to start their lives over again. And yet their really isn't much written about this period.

When the Emperor was Divine is the story of one family as they struggle to prepare, adjust to live within the camp, and come home from a internment camp in the Utah desert. The story is told from the perspective of members of the family in alternating chapters. The first chapter is told from the mother's point of view as they are forced to prepare for the evacuation. The fear of the unknown and the struggle to maintain their pride is palpable. The second chapter is told by the daughter as they travel to their new home, and dealing with their loss sense of identity. The third chapter is from the young son's perspective as they adjust and learn to live within the camp. The final chapter is told from either a more mature son's perspective or a combination of both the boy and girls voices telling of a once proud father, who is now just a broken paranoid shell and a family struggling to put their life together in a world they are now very unfamiliar to the world they left.

Each chapter is unique and distinct. Normally a story told like this can be choppy, but here they flow together with no harsh transitions. This book is unrelentingly depressing and dark. The family makes the best of their situation, but they are clearly broken and they are never too far from crumbling under the stress. The only thing holding them together are their bonds. Hope is in short supply.

The only real problem with this book is that it is far too short. The four chapters only cover the first few months of the war and the aftermath for this one family. It's not enough to explore the entirity of the effects of forced relocation on the family. This book calls for a much more in depth exploration of internment. But really this is only a minor defect of a well written book, that I'm glad I was able to snipe off the wishlist.
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LibraryThing member kambrogi
This subtle novel tells with astonishing clarity a story of a family irreparably damaged by the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. The mother, father, son and daughter may survive, but from page one, it is clear that they will never be the same again. This vision of the dark side of the American dream is heartbreaking and true, without ever being sentimental. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member TimBazzett
WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE, by Julie Otsuka, is a starkly evocative look at the way Japanese-American citizens were treated - or, perhaps more accurately, MIStreated - during the Second World War. Camp Topaz, in the Utah Desert, was just one of many internment, or 'relocation,' centers where whole families were kept locked up behind barbed wire fences with armed watchtowers surrounding them. Such internment camps have often been compared to concentration camps, but I'm not sure that's a fair comparison. Nevertheless, a whole group of Americans were rounded up, dispossessed and imprisoned for 3-4 years simply because of their ethnic heritage.

Otsuka's novel is perhaps even more effective because her protagonists - four members of one family - are never named. They are simply, the mother, the father, the boy and the girl. The unnamed family members could be any Japanese-American family of that time. The father is spirited away in the night; the rest of the family is given only a few days to pack their suitcases and leave their homes, transported first to processing centers - in stables - and then to a desolate desert camp in Utah. The psychological, physical and emotional effects of this callous uprooting are devastating. Otsuka's eye for detail and ear for dialogue are simply superb. Her novel is a microcosmic look at what happened to tens of thousands of families across the western U.S.

I was immediately reminded of the excellent YA classic, FAREWELL TO MANZANAR, which I read many years ago, one of many books about the relocation camps. But Otsuka's WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE is especially stunning and unique in its multiple and anonymous points of view. This is an outstanding fictional look at a shameful episode in our country's history. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Aeyan
Otsuka's style is terse, yet rich; her characters' perspectives are blunt, yet dynamic. Offering a glimpse of a moment in history (one I failed to realize lasted for a much longer time than a mere moment) which is often elided in the history books, this book left me wondering if the blatant mistrust and discrimination has found new outlet in our country.… (more)
LibraryThing member mrstreme
This beautiful, concise story is one that I will think about for a long time. When The Emperor Was Divine is the story of an un-named family that is affected by the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The father is arrested by the FBI shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the mother, daughter and son are gathered up and sent to prison camps in New Mexico and Utah.

The progression of the story is told be all four family members, which adds a rich depth to this tale. The mother, at the beginning, systematically packs up her home. The daughter, on the voyage to Utah, is upset about her weathered scarf. The son, at the prison camp in Utah, dreams about reuniting with his father. The father, upon returning home, relives the interrogations and is madder than hell. And who could blame him?

This is an important book for all Americans to read, especially if you're interested in World War II fiction. Perhaps we can draw some lessons from these mistakes that were made not so long ago.
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LibraryThing member Marzia22
This spare novel is emotionally charged and brought me to tears at the end.
LibraryThing member cestovatela
When the Emperor Was Divine tells the story of a single, archetypical family sent to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. It's a compact but powerful book that often made me forget I was reading fiction. As the writer shifts from one family member's point of view to another, you see how the experience of internment scarred the lives of the characters - the mother losing her looks and gaiety to the constant battle to provide for her children; children terrified to stand out as Japanese even after the war; the bitter, broken father who speaks with the rage of every man unjustly accused of aiding the enemy. What really struck me about this novel was its universality. This last section seemed to me exactly what an Afghani or Iraqi person might have said in the wake of September 11. In a quiet, unassuming way it also speaks for the experiences of millions of immigrants from every country of the world, their longing for the American Dream and the extraordinarily high price some of them were forced to pay to live it.… (more)
LibraryThing member Rdra1962
Another short, beautifully written book. The book is narrated by each of the members of this family sent to Japanese interment camps. Very spare writing, a quick but moving read. The author manages to convey so much with few, carefully curated words.
LibraryThing member charbutton
This book tells the story of a Japanese family interned in the US in 1942, the father separate from the mother and their two children, with the narrative coming from each of their perspectives in turn.

I like Otsuka's style of unfolding the tale. She doesn't ram home that the family are Japanese and what that means during the period, chosing to slowly include bits about the prejudice that developed after Pearl Harbour. She also doesn't provide names for any of the family members, reinforcing the idea that they were interned because of what they represented, not what they had done, and also reflecting the commonly-held thought that all 'Japs' were the same, individual identities were unimportant. I also enjoyed the unemotional writing which leaves the reader to think their own way through what internment might have been like.

While this is a work of historical fiction, internment isn't history. Guatanamo Bay and, in Britain, detention under the Terrorism Act and the skewing of stop and search towards those who 'look like terrorists', make When The Emperor Was Divine a relevant and thought-provoking novel.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Imagine that a member of your family is taken away in the middle of the night, wearing only his robe and slippers. When the Emperor was Divine tells the story of a Japanese-American family immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Each chapter is written from a different point of view: the mother who, after reading a public notice, systematically packs belongings and hides beloved family treasures. The daughter, travelling by train to the internment camp. The son, coping with daily living in the camp. And both children, upon returning to their home, school, and town:

We used to try and imagine what it would be like when we returned home. Our phone would ring off the hook. (How was it?) Neighborhood ladies bearing angel food cakes would line up at our front door to welcome us back (Yoo hoo, we know you're in there!). ... We would accept all invitations. Go everywhere. ... But of course it did not happen like that.

Julie Otsuka's slim novel captures the emotion and trauma of this dark period in American history. The country was reeling from an attack on its own soil. Those resembling the attackers were considered evil spies. Citizens of specific ethnic origin were rounded up and sent to camps -- prisons, really -- ostensibly to protect the American people.

Is this really any different from the country's response to the events of September 11, 2001? Will we ever learn?
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LibraryThing member Cariola
This book is a reread for me, but I'm giving it much closer attention because I am teaching it as well. It's a beautiful, heartbreaking, understated, and very short novel about a Japanese-American family's evacuation and internment during World War II, based on true accounts. As I expected, few students in my class even knew that the US had evacuated these families and put them into what were, in effect, concentration camps. (The family in the story actually spent the first 4.5 months living in racetrack stalls while the camp barracks were being built.) Like the Nazi prisoners, they could take only what they could carry. Their homes were ransacked while they were gone, and they lived under guard inside walls topped with barbed wire.

The story is told in four chapters, each one from the point of view of one character. They are given no names, just "the woman," "the girl," "the boy," and "the man"--a device that at once makes them universal and nonentities--and each section is told in a unique voice.

A truly wonderful book. I was surprised that my students didn't like it as well as the last book, Girl with a Pearl Earring.
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LibraryThing member amystromboli
A closely knit story narrated by a Japanese family who are banished to a Utah internment camp to await the conclusion of WWII. I knew minimally about this & wondered how I could have missed hearing about this in a history class. It is a simple & short novel, but I found it to be so interesting & full of thought.
LibraryThing member Fourpawz2
I liked this little book – an especially spare tale of the lives of a family of Japanese-Americans interned in two different places – mother, sister and brother in one camp and father in another, apparently harsher camp locate in a different state. The story is so spare, that the names of these main characters are never given. Might have found that annoyingly pretentious if not for the fact that the story was very well written. Everything read very true – no hysteria here – but all the same it is very easy to see how sad it must have been for them. I got an idea of how small and powerless individuals can be made to feel when the world that they live in – government, neighbors, people they thought were friends – decides that they are untrustworthy and enemies to the life they had always believed they were a part of.

I would have given this book to my aunt to read for she enjoys good books as much as I do, but I knew that she would not want to read it. She, in a small way, is a victim of this time as well. My aunt, a most reasonable, fair-minded person in every other way, has lived all of her life since her childhood, unable to see movies, TV programs or read books like this one because she grew up in an atmosphere that preached total distrust of Japanese-Americans. She was a very solemn, obedient child; if society told her that she must suspect Japanese people of foul deeds and nefarious motives she did it because it was her civic duty. It's been nearly 70 years since the end of the war, but she has never been able to shake this prejudice, much though she knows how unfair it is. It is a part of her now and forever, just as the horrible experience of being sent off to prison camp was for the internees.
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LibraryThing member debnance
A Japanese American family is ordered to leave their home and is sent to a detention camp during World War II. The writing has a powerful immediacy that kept me turning pages to the end. Recommended.
LibraryThing member drpeff
I didn’t feel particularly attached to any character. It was ok.
LibraryThing member juliette07
This was, and will remain a very special book to me for a variety of reasons. Sent from one of my bookish friends across the pond, having been previously read by another mutual friend this book epitomises all that has been so wonderful about my venture into sharing reading lives through the internet. Here, I am thinking of so much more than the act of reading books. We are learning, not simply about the facts, the history and geography of place but about the viewpoints of others and the expansion of horizons that even as a teacher committed to life long learning never ceases to amaze me.

Written from the point of view of unnamed characters this short elegantly written novel taught me about events that were previously unknown to me. How can writing be so direct yet so deep and unashamedly honest, almost point blank? There were moments when it felt as if this was not a work of fiction and with a sudden jerk you are catapulted into the reality that this did actually happen to real people and all not so very long ago.
As someone who has read a number of wartime experience type of books I realised that I was woefully ignorant about the plight of American Japanese aliens during the second world war.

I wonder how we can learn from this novel … wherever we are in the world …
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LibraryThing member CasualFriday
When the Emperor was Divine is a short and understated portrayal of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Events are viewed through the eyes of one family, never named. We see the initial evacuation through the eyes of the mother, the ride to the camp through the eyes of the girl, and everyday life in the camps through the eyes of the boy, who aches for his father, imprisoned in a camp for disloyals.

What strikes me about the book is the author's superb control of tone: plain and unsensational, suggesting a superficial sense of resignation that masks a clear-eyed anger about the injustices these internees suffered. My only criticism is that sometimes the technique of deliberate understatement serves to distance the reader from the characters. I wish I knew more about the mother, in particular, who is the most fully drawn character in the book. She comes off as pragmatic and tough as nails, and her descent into depression is very sad.
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LibraryThing member cameling
After Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese in WWII, thousands of American Japanese were arrested and held for questioning or made to board up their businesses and homes, taking only what they can carry and put on trains which took them to internment camps set up around the country.

The author concentrates on the lives of 1 American Japanese family during this period. The father, a successful businessman, was taken away in his bathrobe and slippers one night after men knocked on the door of their family home. He writes cheerful letters to his children and wife, not letting on what tortures and questionings he was subjected to. Months later, his family are made to board a train that would take them to an internment camp in the desert with other American Japanese.

This slim volume is told through separate narratives by the wife, their teenage daughter and their young son. The stark narratives provide intense poignancy into their physical and emotional stress, not only during the period leading up to and during their 4 year confinement, but also to what they had to endure when they returned to their home without so much as an apology from the government and with merely $25 with which to restart their abruptly disrupted lives.

Some lives were irretrievably damaged while others found hidden strengths to overcome the trials in their paths.
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LibraryThing member porch_reader
In When the Emperor Was Divine, Otsuka tells the story of a Japanese American family in an internment camp during World War II. Many stories of injustice are told in horrific detail, making readers cringe as they imagine the horrors. This story is different. It is told in spare, simple prose. The family remains unnamed, and their experiences are told in a matter-of-fact voice. This style makes the book's story even more powerful. As small details of life in and after the internment camp are revealed in the book's 160 pages, Otsuka creates a vivid picture of this period in history that will stay with me for a long time.… (more)
LibraryThing member JEOCantoni
Japanese Americans-Evacuation and relocation, 1942-1945-Fiction
World War, 1939-1945-California-Fiction
Japanese American families-Fiction
Concentration Camps-Fiction
LibraryThing member Othemts
A thin novel tells the story of one Japanese-American family in an internment camp in the Second World War. Each chapter tells the story from the point of view of a different character. The writing at first is stark, almost minimalist, (reflecting the barren Utah landscape of the camp) and while detailing the mundane reveals the psychological suffering of the family. Later in the book Otsuka’s writing starts to get too symbolic (like a paragraph about the mother keeping her house key tied around her neck and touching it each morning and night) and then positively maudlin. A sad, sad book though, it makes you think.

(The mother declining a job offer after the war): “I was afraid I might accidentally remember who I was and … offend myself.” (p. 129)
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LibraryThing member jopearson56
Very good book, quick read, compelling story of one Japanese-American family's experience during the War; very sad to think about how the U.S. treated its own citizens during this difficult time and how these families' lives were forever changed.
LibraryThing member nittnut
Simply written and spare, this is the story of a Japanese American family whose father is arrested and without him, they go to an internment camp in Utah. The author captures the sense of loss and longing very well. She never names her characters, which gives a sense that they could be anyone.

I loved the "everyday" quality to the narrative. I did not love the transition from camp to home, it felt too abrupt. I wanted to know more of the father's story. I get why we were not told, but still, I wanted to know. This is very different from other books of the same genre. Worth a read.… (more)


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