NEA Big Read
When the Emperor Was Divine

When the Emperor Was Divine

by Julie Otsuka

Mostly though, they waited. For the mail. For the news. For the bells. For breakfast and lunch and dinner. For one day to be over and the next day to begin.

Introduction to the Novel

It all began with a sign. Posted on telephone poles, park benches, community centers, and a Woolworth's, Executive Order No. 9066—issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt—sought to prevent “espionage and sabotage” by citizens of Japanese descent in the wake of the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. Japanese Americans were arrested, rounded up, and transported to detention centers across the United States, where in some cases they were held for several years.

This sign, introduced in the first line of Otsuka's novel When the Emperor Was Divine, prompts “the woman” to begin packing important belongings. After her children return from school and work quietly on their homework, the woman tells them that tomorrow they “will be going on a trip.” That trip will take them from a comfortable existence at their home in Berkeley, California, to a sterile and uncomfortable internment site in Topaz, Utah, “a city of tar-paper barracks behind a barbed-wire fence on a dusty alkaline plain high up in the desert.”

Otsuka's novel unfolds in five different but interconnected narrative perspectives, and moves hauntingly through the family's internment experience in the voices of the mother, daughter, son, and father. The woman and her children recount, in sober detail, the daily events of their journey to—and time in—Topaz, where besides the internees, their barracks, and the soldiers, there was “only the wind and the dust and the hot burning sand.”

California House (Courtesy of the Otsuka family)

After the war, the family is permitted to return home. But they return to a neighborhood neither familiar nor hospitable. Their home has been vandalized, their neighbors are at best aloof or at worst hostile, and their sense of place in America is forever changed.

Though the novel tells a powerful story of the fear and racism that led to exile and alienation, Otsuka weaves a compelling narrative full of life, depth, and character. When the Emperor Was Divine not only invites readers to consider the troubling moral and civic questions that emerge from this period in American history but also offers a tale that is both incredibly poignant and fully human.

Major Characters in the Novel

The woman
Following her husband's arrest by the FBI after Pearl Harbor, the woman is faced with abandoning her family's comfortable home and abruptly becomes sole caregiver of her two children. With a sense of both resignation and resolution, she manages to hold her family together throughout their forced internment.

Listen to Julie Otsuka talk about the characters' namelessness, and to writer Maureen Howard talk about the animals in the novel.

“That evening she had lit a bonfire in the yard ... She smashed the abacus and tossed it into the flames. ‘From now on,' she said, ‘we're counting on our fingers.’”
—Julie Otsuka, from When the Emperor Was Divine

Julie Otsuka's mother (Courtesy of the Otsuka family)

The girl
A child of ten when the story begins, the girl's growing sense of the hard realities of the family's situation stands in sharp contrast to her brother's innocence. Although she wears Mary Janes, owns a doll from the Sears catalog, and enjoys black licorice and Dorothy Lamour, this sense of her American identity, as well as her heritage, will be challenged by the novel's events.

Listen to Julie Otsuka and to writer Maureen Howard talk about the girl.

“Her watch had said six o'clock for weeks. She had stopped winding it the day they had stepped off the train.”
—Julie Otsuka, from When the Emperor Was Divine

The boy
An eight-year old with a child's natural instincts to make the best of any situation, the boy struggles with the absence of his father, whom he sees everywhere, even in his dreams. He passes the time playing cops and robbers and war, and interests himself in the radio and magazine accounts of the conflict overseas, but his father's absence proves a deep sadness in his life.

Listen to writer Maureen Howard and to Julie Otsuka talk about the boy.

The father
Arrested and sent away prior to the opening of the novel, the father's presence through much of the story is seen at a distance through his letters to his wife and his children. After his extended detention at the Lordsburg Facility in New Mexico, he returns home to his family a hollow man. His narration in the novel surfaces angrily in the final chapter titled “Confession.”

Listen to Julie Otsuka and to writer Maureen Howard talk about the father.
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