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on October 19, 2003
"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. This book gives us another point of view not from an American but from Japanese. It is written in a melancholic vocabulary. Throughout the book, the tone of this book is somewhat sad. It is showed by the descriptions of the nature and weather. But there is only one passage of the book where there is a bright happiness. It is one of the boy¡¯s dream where there is ¡°a beautiful wooden door the size of a pillow. Behind it is a second door, and behind that is a picture of the emperor that no one is allowed to see because the emperor is holy and divine ¨C a god.¡± I have learned a lot from this book. How the internment prisoners were treated and how there life had affected their lives.
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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 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 homes 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 thick-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.

My Review:

Overnight signs appeared on trees, billboards, bus stop benches, and store windows in Berkeley, California, in 1942 ordering Japanese Americans to a dusty internment camp in the Utah desert. They had been "reclassified" as enemy aliens. This novel follows one family's story; Mom, Dad, and two young children, a girl and a boy.

The father had been taken a few months prior by the FBI in the middle of the night in his bathrobe and slippers and imprisoned leaving Mom and the children alone to face the internment camp.

Everyone was given an identification number to pin on their shirt and boarded a bus that would take them to a train. The train was slow moving and old and hadn't been used in years. Broken gas lamps hung from the walls and the train was fuelled by a coal burning broiler. Some of the passengers were sick from the uneven rocking of the train cars. The compartments were crowded and smelled of puke and sweat making the nausea people felt even worse.

The train finally stopped in Delta, Utah where the people were led off the train by armed soldiers and led onto a bus. The bus drove slowly until it reached Topaz where the passengers saw hundreds of tar-paper barracks sitting beneath the hot blazing sun. They saw nothing but telephone poles and barbed wire fencing. As they stepped off the bus they were assaulted by clouds of fine white dust that choked them, which had once been the bed of an ancient salt lake. The white glare of the desert was blinding.

Each new day brought the smells of food: catfish, horsemeat, beans, Vienna sausage. Inside the barracks there were iron cots, a potbellied stove and a single bare bulb that hung down from the ceiling. There was a table made out of crate wood, an old Zenith radio and no running water and the toilets were half a block away.

In early autumn farm recruiters arrived to sign up new workers, and the War Relocation Authority allowed many of the young men and women to go out and help harvest the crops. Some went to Idaho to top sugar beets, some went to Wyoming to pick potatoes, some went to Tent City in Provo to pick peaches and pears. Some of the people returned wearing brand new Florsheim shoes while others came back with the same shoes saying they were shot at and spat on and would never go back. They reported that there were signs posted all over the town that read: NO JAPS ALLOWED.

Every week there were new rumors in the camp. They heard that men and women would be put in separate camps; they would be sterilized; they would be stripped of citizenship; they'd be taken out on the high seas and shot; they would be taken to a desert island and left alone to die; they would all be deported to Japan; and on and on the rumors went. The people took these assaults on their mental and emotional health in stride.

In mid-October a school was opened in the barracks for the children. Each morning they had to sing: "Oh, beautiful for spacious skies" and "My country `tis of thee."

After 3 years and 5 months the war was over and they were finally home! The house had changed; paint was peeling from the walls, it smelled, the window frames were black with dry rot and their furniture was gone, probably stolen. Although many people had lived in their house during their time away, they had not received one single cheque from the lawyer who promised to rent their home for them. It was a difficult readjustment for them to suddenly just pick up their lives where they left off and try to continue on and reintegrate.

When their father finally returned home after more than 4 years he looked much, much older than his age of 56. His face was lined with wrinkles, his suit was faded and worn, his head was bare, he moved very slowly and carefully using a cane. Their father never spoke about his years in prison and never said what they eventually accused him of - sabotage? Selling secrets to the enemy? Was he innocent? He was a much changed man who was suspicious of everyone, even the paperboy. He never returned to work. The company he had worked for before he left had been liquidated and nobody else would hire him: "he was an old man, his health was not good, he had just come back from a camp for dangerous enemy aliens."

At 144 pages this was an interesting and quick read and gives a very good picture of a rather embarrassing part of American history.
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on 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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on June 28, 2004
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. There is clearly a large difference but the details of the earlier notices limiting the Japanese Americans actions, the long train rides where uncertainty prevails, the concentration camps - all sound like many Holocaust accounts, a fact that makes this story hard to bear.
It took me some time to understand the name "When the emperor was divine", which relates to the religious belief that the Emperor is a god; a belief the American Japanese had to hide during World War II.
The fact that neither the family (the children) nor the reader knows what the father underwent during his long confinement and seperation from the family (in spite of the last part "confession" that can give us a few hints) makes his missing for four years stay incomplete and unexplained. The children grew up in a very vague understanding of what happened, and probably had to fill up the rest of the information by their own. I can only imagine the conflict of loyalties created after the war when the country you live in is the one responsible to your family's suffering.
The power of the book is the fact that there is a shortage in overflow of emotions, which could have been a very easy way to deal with the very difficult subject. The author chose to tell her story in a dry, somewhat documentary language. The horrors are told very subtly and in a somewhat "side look" fashion - "she read the sign from top to bottom... she wrote down a few words on the back of a bank receipt." as if what the sign says concerns someone else and not the end of your life as you knew them. I believe that holding back your emotions is also a very Japanese way to which the author remained loyal. The language is a combination of a dry account with dreams and thoughts that sometimes turn the prose into lyrical poetry.
Not an easy read but a very good historical, important account.
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on 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. From the third person she writes primarily from the viewpoint of each child as the mother retreats into herself. Long days without hope mingle with cruel weather conditions in the desert...
" Summer was a long hot dream. Every morning, as soon as the sun rose, the temperature began to soar. By noon the floors were sagging. The sky was bleached white from the heat and the wind was hot and dry. Yellow dust devils whirled across the sand. The black roofs baked in the sun. The air shimmered..."
Their days are punctuated with memories of the father, small incidents of camp life, endless waiting for the war to be over, with cold and shortages, and with the endless alkaline wind and dust of their surroundings. Desolate in the summer, frigid in the winter, it seems that the desert mirror their souls as their hope for the future dies.
Otsuka uses the writer's convention of never naming her protagonists ("the girl", "the boy", "the mother", "his father"). In using this language she is able to convey the dehumanization effort they have undergone in a way that mere words cannot usually describe.
It is with a sense of wonder and letdown that the reader observes their return to Berkeley, their reunification with the father, and the semblance of life that remains to them after America has stolen their souls.
Otsuka, in her first novel, astonishes you with her ability to capture not only the hearts and minds of her characters, but also that of her readers.
A marvelous debut that will break your heart.
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on January 12, 2004
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, their telephone line was cut & their bank account frozen.
Then the notices appear telling the Mother what she must do & where she must take her children. Along with thousands of strangers, they must journey by train into the middle of nowhere to a barbed wire internment camp to live through blazing summers & freezing winters with nothing to do in uninsulated, barren barracks.
In a handful of flawless chapters, Julie Otsuka has drawn the mother, the daughter, the son & finally the father as they suffer & survive.
Exquisite, infuriating, heartwrenching & unsentimental, WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE is an astonishingly moving testament to both the dreadful deeds a society can condone, & the impeccable dignity of the truly innocent.
The parallels between what happened to the Jews, Gypsies & other "undesirables" in Nazi Germany & what is happening today to American Muslims makes WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE a profound read.
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on May 1, 2003
The book offers nothing much other than bits of historical information. The language is a little too plain, incapable of invoking any feeling from readers, no any click, no any spark. And the way the characters are addressed "the woman", "the boy", "the girl"... never feel good about that way...
The execution of dog at the beginning is indeed disturbing, unnecessarily odd.
Also, not sure what Emperor here means. If it means the Emperor in Japan during II world war, then it's never Divine. Just look at what that Emperor had done to people in Asia during II world war, how the people there were slaughtered, women were forced to be military prostitutes, etc., or even the suffering of this Japanese American family was somewhat contributed by that Emperor... So mention of that Emperor or any similar things or sayings for that concept certainly make it much harder for the book to collect sympathy from the readers, not even mention the plain language, choppy flow of the book... just not much feeling registered with the book.
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on April 12, 2003
I plucked this book off the shelf at the library yesterday, flipped it open to see if I liked the writing style and almost forgot to pick the kids up at school half an hour later because I had completely fallen into the world of this novella and lost track of time.
When the Emperor was Divine is the literary equivallent of ikebana -- elegant in its spareness and revealing great beauty beneath the simple balance of form and substance. Author Julie Otsuka doesn't miss a step in this compelling, disturbing story of a Japanese American family torn apart, interred in separate camps; mother, daughter and son in one, father in another.
Confused, helpless, longing for each other, yearning for the comforts of home, hearth, and happier days, the family spends three and a half years waiting. Waiting for release, waiting to be reunited, waiting for a tulip to grow in an old tin can. Ms. Otsuka doesn't give us the details -- she walks us right into the bodies, hearts and minds of each of her characters and makes us live with them. And in the end of the endless waiting we return with them to the scattered remains of a life that is less than what is normal, necessary or desirable. My heart broke a hundred times in the few short hours it took to read this slim book.
It is particularly compelling to think of the men interred in Cuba right now and wonder if a future generation will tell their story as poignantly. I recommend this book for the quality of the writing and the timliness of the story.
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on February 11, 2003
WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE tells the gripping tale of a Japanese-American family sent away to an internment camp in 1942. Their devastation begins when the father was arrested while still in his slippers and bathrobe on the night of Pearl Harbor. Months later flyers are posted throughout Berkeley announcing the mandatory deportation of all individuals of Japanese hertitage. The mother and her two small children are sent on a long train ride and eventually settle in a camp in Utah for three years and five months.
Julie Otsuka's prose is excellent and convincing. She writes in a style that kept me fully engaged and I was anxious to find out what happened to this anonymous family. Will they ever see the father again? How will they be able to rebuild their lives when they are eventually released after the end of the war? I most enjoyed the insights of the little boy as he endured the time spent in the detention camp. His imagination and seriousness are beyond his years. Their return home was most sad.
WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE tells the story of one of the darker chapters in American history. The horrors that they have endured must have been awful. Their only crime was of being of Japanese hetitage. This book is small but don't let that fact put you off since Julie Otsuka packs a bunch in her debut novel. Simply put, this book is well worth reading.
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on January 18, 2003
When people--any people--cease to be seen as individuals, they become "them"--the faceless, nameless "enemy." In this exquisite short novel, a shameful episode of American history is re-examined--the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. It was a time when everyone of Japanese descent was somehow "them"--the enemy. And in becoming "the enemy" they lose much of what it means to be human.
The tiny family--mother, son, daughter--is devastated when their father is suddenly taken away in his robe and slippers, suspected of who knows what. A few months later they are forced to give up everything and move to a dusty prison camp somewhere in Utah.
After more than three years they return home, changed and traumatized. Eventually they are reunited with the father, but he too is changed, a broken shadow of himself.
The story is told in eloquent, simple, spare prose, in small but telling details, in the fragmented but powerful insights of the two children and their mother. It is never over-stated, never sentimental, yet it will bring you to tears.
The book concludes with a short but powerful epilogue, a fierce and powerful essay on what it means for anyone to be "them," to be "the enemy."
This is a painful book, but it is important for you to read it. I cannot recommend it too strongly. Reviewed by Louis N. Gruber.
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