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When the Emperor Was Divine [Paperback]

Julie Otsuka
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Oct. 14 2003
The debut novel from the PEN/Faulkner Award Winning Author of The Buddha in the Attic

On a sunny day in Berkeley, California, in 1942, a woman sees a sign in a post office window, returns to her home, and matter-of-factly begins to pack her family's possessions. Like thousands of other Japanese Americans they have been reclassified, virtually overnight, as enemy aliens and are about to be uprooted from their home and sent to a dusty internment camp in the Utah desert.

In this lean and devastatingly evocative first novel, Julie Otsuka tells their story from five flawlessly realized points of view and conveys the exact emotional texture of their experience: the thin-walled barracks and barbed-wire fences, the omnipresent fear and loneliness, the unheralded feats of heroism. When the Emperor Was Divine is a work of enormous power that makes a shameful episode of our history as immediate as today's headlines.

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From Amazon

A precise, understated gem of a first novel, Julie Otsuka's When the Emperor Was Divine tells one Japanese American family's story of internment in a Utah enemy alien camp during World War II. We never learn the names of the young boy and girl who were forced to leave their Berkeley home in 1942 and spend over three years in a dusty, barren desert camp with their mother. Occasional, heavily censored letters arrive from their father, who had been taken from their house in his slippers by the FBI one night and was being held in New Mexico, his fate uncertain. But even after the war, when they have been reunited and are putting their stripped, vandalized house back together, the family can never regain its pre-war happiness. Broken by circumstance and prejudice, they will continue to pay, in large and small ways, for the shape of their eyes. When the Emperor Was Divine is written in deceptively tranquil prose, a distillation of injustice, anger, and poetry; a notable debut. --Regina Marler --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

This heartbreaking, bracingly unsentimental debut describes in poetic detail the travails of a Japanese family living in an internment camp during World War II, raising the specter of wartime injustice in bone-chilling fashion. After a woman whose husband was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy sees notices posted around her neighborhood in Berkeley instructing Japanese residents to evacuate, she moves with her son and daughter to an internment camp, abruptly severing her ties with her community. The next three years are spent in filthy, cramped and impersonal lodgings as the family is shuttled from one camp to another. They return to Berkeley after the war to a home that has been ravaged by vandals; it takes time for them to adjust to life outside the camps and to come to terms with the hostility they face. When the children's father re-enters the book, he is more of a symbol than a character, reduced to a husk by interrogation and abuse. The novel never strays into melodrama-Otsuka describes the family's everyday life in Berkeley and the pitiful objects that define their world in the camp with admirable restraint and modesty. Events are viewed from numerous characters' points of view, and the different perspectives are defined by distinctive, lyrically simple observations. The novel's honesty and matter-of-fact tone in the face of inconceivable injustice are the source of its power. Anger only comes to the fore during the last segment, when the father is allowed to tell his story-but even here, Otsuka keeps rage neatly bound up, luminous beneath the dazzling surface of her novel.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars When the Emporor Was Divine Oct. 19 2003
By Loulou
"When the Emperor Was Divine" by Julie Otsuka tells the story of an anonymous family who suffers during the time of the internment of Japanese C American citizens during World War II. Right after the attack on Peal Harbor, evacuation orders was posted everywhere stating that whoever of Japanese background was supposed to move out of town. One evening, in the middle of the night, the father of the family was taken away from the FBI for questioning. The mother after seeing the evacuation poster decided to go to that internment with her son and daughter. It was a long and miserable train ride. They weren't used to the environment. They were surrounded by wired fences, wooden towers and guards. The two kids had nothing to do. The weather is always terrible. They had to go through harsh seasons in the desert. The environment started to drive them insane. The mother had no strength for anything, she didn't want to eat and slept all the time. After the war, they were sent home. Their home was vandalized. They had returned to their normal lifestyle. Except that there was still a Japanese hatred going on. For example, the boy's and the girl's friends whom they used to be very close were trying to avoid them or even discriminate them. At the end of the book, their father was sent back home. Their lives weren't really the same anymore. The father changed so much. His physical and mental appearances were not the same as before. He turned into a sorrow and a lost person not knowing what to do. The mother works will he stays at home and wonders. Their lives have been affected and have been changed by the prejudice and war.
I really liked this book because the author, Julie Otsuka, gave us the reader a very vivid portrait of the fears, confusion for the family in the internment camps.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A short but revealing novel July 16 2004
When the Emperor Was Divine was one of the required readings in a college English Lit. class I took last semester. It's well-written, touching, and revealing: each chapter gives us a view of the repercussions the internment had on the members of the Japanese-American family we follow throughout the short novel.
I would like to point out to "a reader" from Appleton, Wisconsin (2/22/04) that the author, Julie Otsuka, is narrating what happened to her own mother, who was the inspiration for the girl's character, and her family in the years between Pearl Harbor and the end of WWII. In that sense Otsuka becomes the voice of a first-person witness of the events.
This book sparked very lively discussions and a lot of research on the subject among the students; most of us, while understanding the war-time heightened need for security, agreed on the injustice of depriving thousands of people of their liberty without just cause: most internees had no contacts with the enemy, had never set foot in Japan, and were loyal Americans. For many of us this book represented a different view on a seldom talked-about period of our history.
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Throughout the reading I was very concerned with the names - or rather with the lack of names in the story. There is the Father, Mother, Boy and Girl. They have no names, as if no identity. I asked myself several times why the author has chosen to do so. Isn't it true we better understand a general story concerning a disaster that happened to many people when we hear the tale and hardships of one specific individual, one family? But maybe the author wanted to stress that this is not the story of one family but of many people the author knew, and the Father, Mother Boy and Girl are just four people amongst many whose fate was similar. The family members stand as symbols to many others. Or maybe she chose to do so in order to make the alienation and dehumanization experience more accentuated? The answer might be both. The alienation is a very central theme of this story and works also within the family as the members of the family seem to hold out a lot of feelings from each other (although they clearly love each other) as a self defense mechanism (or so I believe) and also as breaking down will not help the situation.
This is a story about the fate of the Japanese Americans during World War II, when each one of them was suspected as assisting the enemy. Although I am familiar with World War II stories this is an historical event I never heard about, which bears a bitter resemblance to the fate of Jewish people in Europe during same war. The Japanese were not sent to death camps but were closed in concentration camps from which they did not return the same people.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Heartbreaking. March 4 2004
The imprisonment of American citizens of Japanese descent, post Pearl Harbor, remains one of those open, gaping wounds of despicable behavior in our country's history. Most of the historical tomes and novels of WWII fail to address the country's overreaction to the Japanese Empire's aggression and terrorism. And, indeed, our government's "protection" of these citizens may have saved some of the Japanese populace from civilian attacks. Still, the actions of the government, and the silent response of the American people closely parallel the rise of McCarthyism in the next decade, and also harken some of the less-publicized aspects of today's Patriot Act.
Otsuka has chosen a more delicate approach to her tale than that of nonfiction writiers. "When the Emperor Was Divine" tells its story from the viewpoints of a family of four, torn apart by Evacuation Order #19. A young Japanes mother in Berkeley, left alone with an 11 year-old girl and an 8 year-old son begins to pack and to close her house as soon as she sees the order posted. Saddest of her tasks is how she must deal with the family's pets, all the while maintaining an air of normalcy for her children that masks her fear.
The children's father has been spirited away by the FBI in his bathrobe and slippers in the middle of the night, questioned endlessly, and imprisoned in Texas.
Otsuka's tale focuses on the journey of the mother and the children; an intermediate holding facility at the Tanforan race track in California is couched in memory as the family is transported by train to the deserts of Utah.
In stark passages - poetry in the form of prose, Otsuka conveys the pain and hopelessness of the three and a half years the family spends imprisoned.
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Good Read...A Bit Slow
Story Description:

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|October 14, 2003|Trade Paperback|ISBN 978-0-385-7281-3

The debut novel from the PEN/Faulkner Award Winning... Read more
Published on May 20 2012 by Louise Jolly
4.0 out of 5 stars Perspectives
This was a wonderfully simplistic book. It gives a child's perspective of what was happening the family. Read more
Published on Nov. 15 2007 by V. Tran
4.0 out of 5 stars Back to the WWII
This is a great book. "When the EMPEROR Was Divine" by Julie Otsuka written in the year 2002. This book is divided in five different chapters. Read more
Published on March 28 2004 by Kevin
4.0 out of 5 stars A dishonorable moment in American history . . . in brief
If someone had recommended a book about the struggles of a Japanese-American family during WWII, I definitely would have declined. Read more
Published on Feb. 23 2004
2.0 out of 5 stars Oh, jebus
I admit that I do not feel much sympathy for Japan around the time of World War II. I understand that the principle of sending the Japanese to internment camps was wrong. Read more
Published on Feb. 22 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic Debut Novel
Lovely novel about the internment of Japanese ancestry but American citizens by the military during WWII. Read more
Published on Feb. 16 2004 by John I. Provan
4.0 out of 5 stars divine prose
Terrific read ~ clearly more nonfiction than imaginary in text and scope. The effects of war are not devastating on soldiers only; war tears through the whole fabric of humankind. Read more
Published on Jan. 15 2004 by T. Kepler
5.0 out of 5 stars a radiant read!
Life in balmy Berkeley, California for the Mother & her family in 1942 was charmed. Then one dreadful winter morning the FBI took her husband away still in his slippers & robe,... Read more
Published on Jan. 12 2004 by Rebecca Brown
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful!
I would recommend you read this book, place it back on the shelf, and then read it again in two weeks. Read if first for the simple joy. Read more
Published on Nov. 11 2003 by D. Blankenship
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