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When the Emperor Was Divine

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From the bestselling, award-winning author of The Buddha in the Attic and The Swimmers, this commanding debut novel paints a portrait of the Japanese American incarceration camps that is both a... This description may be from another edition of this product.

Customer Reviews

5 ratings


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 r

inventive and provocative, "Emperor" is spare and wrenching

Participants in the literature of oppression carry unique burdens and responsibilities. They are translators of broken dreams, betrayal, brutality. As writer and readers, they recreate and relive the crushing pain of dispossession, abandonment and exclusion. Their world is a distorted polarity of what ought to be in life. Members of this universe ask themselves the question of how people can endure historical pain: genuine hurt of the here and now whose roots are tangled in the soil of prejudice, repression and complicity.To this body of literature may now be added Julie Otsuka's incandescent "When the Emperor Was Divine." This spare, elegant and wrenching debut novel is destined to become a classic in any serious examination of the impact of the forced removal and relocation of over 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans during World War II. Otsuka's nameless protagonist family becomes representative, not only of the agonizing, degrading and damaging impact of racism but also of assault on racial identity. The family's coerced odyssey -- from forced removal to isolative segregation to bewildered return -- offers no happy ending, no comfort, no solace of redemptive suffering. The four members of this family, stripped of identity by a prejudice-saturated larger population, are victims and martyrs, made heroic by survival but not blessed or redeemed by enduring wrongful hardship, deprivation or ostracism.Otsuka is so masterful at her craft tht practically each sentence, each phrase carries an explosive impact. Why the Japanese-Americans? Their "crime," Otsuka explains, is their being "too short, too dark, too ugly, too proud." Who are they? "I'm the one you call Jap ... Nip ... Slits ... Slopes ... Yellowbelly. .. Gook." Through the lens of Otsuka's analysis, the Japanese-Americans suffered the dual curse of invisibility and ubiquity. Their very insignificance led to their perceived danger; their complete assimilation proved their insidious disloyalty. From this cauldron of psychological terrorization can only come horrible results. Shame. Apology for being. Bewildered submission. Denial. Rejection.By not permitting readers to know the names of the mother, father, son and daughter of her representative family, by enforcing a sense of anonymity, Otsuka creates a world of detached, impersonal horror, magnified by terribly real, painful, particular detail. The author's terse, precise and understated language intensifies imagery, metaphor and symbol. Even Otsuka's use of prepositional phrases shimmers. Topaz Relocation Camp is a city "of tar paper barracks behind a barbed wire fence on a dusty alkaline plain high up in the desert." Staccato one-sentence paragraphs hammer home the essence of this assualt on "time and space:" "No Japs allowed to travel..." or "No Japs out after eight p.m." In Otsuka's hands, the single-word epithet "Jap" embodies every indignity, slight and attack the Issei and Nisei faced.Symbolism in "Em

Lovely, Lyrical, Haunting

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.

Stunning In Its Simplicity

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.

Don't miss out

The day I received this book I read the first few pages, canceled my plans for the night and allowed myself to be taken by this book without any effort. "When the Emperor Was Divine" follows a Japanese-American family in 1942 as they are taken from their California stucco house to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. Having months earlier watched their father be sent away to a camp ''for dangerous enemy aliens'', the mother, daughter and son are left to speculate their own fate. Plunged in to a world where mess halls are to be called "dining halls" evacuees are to be called "residents" and the word freedom exists only outside the barbed-wire fence, each spends their time fantasizing over the reunion with their father. Although you never learn the names of any of the main characters you learn their grief and you will value the impact of the line "now he'll always be thirsty" and how it took my breath away. Even if up until that point you are not as convinced, the last three pages alone are enough to guarantee that you will be suggesting this book as soon as you close it.
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