National Endowment for the Arts - The 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.


  1. Each but the final chapter of Emperor begins with an image. Otsuka has said that her idea for the novel actually began with one: the image of the mother standing in front of the evacuation order. What do you imagine was going through the woman's mind when she read this evacuation order?
  2. What possible reasons might Otsuka have had in depicting in such detail the images of Americana (Woolworths, the YMCA, Lundy's Hardware, etc.) in the first chapter?
  3. What do you think about the United States government's choice of words like “evacuated,” “assembly center,” or “relocation center” to describe the internment camps?
  4. Shikata ga nai” is a phrase in Japanese that means “it cannot be helped now.” Does this phrase influence the mother's or father's behavior in the novel? What other factors might explain their behavior?
  5. The boy inscribes on his pet tortoise's shell his family's identification number. In another place, we learn that the girl “[p]inned to her collar...an identification number.” We also learn that “around her throat she wore a faded silk scarf.” What might Otsuka be suggesting about the experience of internment for these children?
  6. In an interview, Otsuka said that she “wanted [the novel] to be a universal story, although it happened to a particular group of people.” What universalities did you find present in the story or the characters' experiences?
  7. Compare the views of the family's neighbors from before the internment and after. Do you notice any differences in the family's interactions with their neighbors? In what ways does the family itself act differently?
  8. At one point in the fourth chapter, the narrator states, “we tried to avoid our own reflections wherever we could. We turned away from shiny surfaces and storefront windows. We ignored the passing glances of strangers.” How does this reflect one of the principal psychological effects of the internment on the family?
  9. The final chapter of the novel is told in a much different voice than the preceding chapters. What purpose might Otsuka have wanted to serve by constructing the father's voice in this way?
  10. What do you think the title means? How do you see it related to the experience of internment?
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