When the Emperor Was Divine

When the Emperor Was Divine

A Novel

Book - 2002 | 1st ed.
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Random House, Inc.
1. When the Emperor Was Divine gives readers an intimate view of the fate of Japanese Americans during World War II. In what ways does the novel deepen our existing knowledge of this historical period? What does it give readers that a straightforward historical investigation cannot? 2. Why does Otsuka choose to reveal the family’s reason for moving–and the father’s arrest–so indirectly and so gradually? What is the effect when the reason becomes apparent? 3. Otsuka skillfully places subtle but significant details in her narrative. When the mother goes to Lundy’s hardware store, she notices a “dark stain” on the register “that would not go away.” The dog she has to kill is called “White Dog.” Her daughter’s favorite song on the radio is “Don’t Fence Me In.” How do these details, and others like them, point to larger meanings in the novel? 4. Why does Otsuka refer to her characters as “the woman,” “the girl,” “the boy,” and “the father,” rather than giving them names? How does this lack of specific identities affect the reader’s relationship to the characters? 5. When they arrive at the camp in the Utah desert–“a city of tar-paper barracks behind a barbed-wire fence on a dusty alkaline plain”–the boy thinks he sees his father everywhere: “wherever the boy looked he saw him: Daddy, Papa, Oto-san.” Why is the father’s absence such a powerful presence in the novel? How do the mother and daughter think of him? How would their story have been different had the family remained together? 6. When the boy wonders why he’s in the camp, he worries that “he’d done something horribly, terribly wrong. . . . It could be anything. Something he’d done yesterday–chewing the eraser off his sister’s pencil before putting it back in the pencil jar–or something he’d done a long time ago that was just now catching up with him.” What does this passage reveal about the damage racism does to children? What does it reveal about the way children try to make sense of their experience? 7. In the camp, the prisoners are told they’ve been brought there for their “own protection,” and that “it was all in the interest of national security. It was a matter of military necessity. It was an opportunity for them to prove their loyalty.” Why, and in what ways, are these justifications problematic? What do they reveal about the attitude of the American government toward Japanese Americans? How would these justifications appear to those who were taken from their homes and placed behind fences for the duration of the war? 8. What parallels does the novel reveal between the American treatment of citizens of Japanese descent and the Nazi treatment of Jews? 9. Much of When the Emperor Was Divine is told in short, episodic, loosely connected scenes–images, conversations, memories, dreams, and so on–that move between past and present and alternate points of view between the mother, daughter, and son. Why has Otsuka chosen to structure her narrative in this way? What effects does it allow her to achieve? 10. After the family is released from the camp, what instructions are they given? How do they regard themselves? How does America regard them? In what ways have they been damaged by their internment? 11. When they are at last reunited with their father, the family doesn’t know how to react. “Because the man who stood there before us was not our father. He was somebody else, a stranger who had been sent back in our father’s place.” Why do they regard him as a stranger? How has be been changed by his experience? In what ways does this reunion underscore the tragedy of America’s decision to imprison Japanese Americans during the war? 12. After the father returns home, he never once discusses the years he’d been away, and his children don’t ask. “We didn’t want to know. . . . All we wanted to do, now that we were back in the world, was forget.” Why do the children feel this way? Why would their father remain silent about such an important experience? In what ways does the novel fight against this desire to forget? 13. The mother is denied work because being a Japanese American might “upset the other employees” or offend the customers. She turns down a job working in a dark back room of a department store because she is afraid she “might accidentally remember who I was and. . . . offend myself .” What does this statement reveal about her character? What strengths does she exhibit throughout her ordeal? 14. Flowers appear throughout the novel. When one of the prisoners is shot by a guard, a witness believes the man had been reaching through the fence to pluck a flower. And the penultimate chapter ends with the following sentence: “But we never stopped believing that somewhere out there, in some stranger’s backyard, our mother’s rosebush was blossoming madly, wildly, pressing one perfect red flower after another out into the late afternoon light.” What symbolic value do the flowers have in this final passage? What does this open-ended ending suggest about the relationship between the family and the “strangers” they live amongst? 15. When the Emperor Was Divine concludes with a confession. Who is speaking in this final chapter? Is the speech entirely ironic? Why has Otsuka chosen to end the novel in this way? What does the confession imply about our ability to separate out the “enemy,” the “other,” in our midst?
The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Julia Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine. We hope they will provide fruitful ways of thinking and talking about a book that brilliantly explores the experience of Japanese Americans during World War II. Julia Otsuka’s quietly disturbing novel opens with a woman reading a sign in a post office window. It is Berkeley, California, the spring of 1942. Pearl Harbor has been attacked, the war is on, and though the precise message on the sign is not revealed, its impact on the woman who reads it is immediate and profound. It is, in many ways she cannot yet foresee, a sign of things to come. She readies herself and her two young children for a journey that will take them to the high desert plains of Utah and into a world that will shatter their illusions forever. They travel by train and gradually the reader discovers that all on board are Japanese American, that the shades must be pulled down at night so as not to invite rock-throwing, and that their destination is an internment camp where they will be imprisoned “for their own safety” until the war is over. With stark clarity and an unflinching gaze, Otsuka explores the inner lives of her main characters–the mother, daughter, and son–as they struggle to understand their fate and long for the father who they have not seen since he was whisked away, in slippers and handcuffs, on the evening of Pearl Harbor. Moving between dreams, memories, and sharply emblematic moments, When the Emperor Was Divine reveals the dark underside of a moment in American history that, until now, has been left largely unexplored in

Baker & Taylor
A story told from five different points of view, chronicles the experiences of Japanese Americans caught up in the nightmare of the World War II internment camps.

& Taylor

A story told from five different points of view--a mother receiving the evacuation order, her daughter on the train ride to the camp, the son in the desert internment camp, the family's return home, and the final release of the father after years in captivity--chronicles the experiences of Japanese Americans caught up in the nightmare of the World War II internment camps. A first novel. 40,000 first printing.

Publisher: New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2002.
Edition: 1st ed.
ISBN: 9780375414299
Characteristics: 143 p. ; 19 cm.


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Sep 11, 2016

I have read this book twice, and admired it's honest approach to the plight of so many. Written from the intimate perspective of one family's experience, it covers much ground and shares the pain and difficulty experienced by so many Japanese Americans. It made me think very hard about how I treat Muslim people in my home town in these times of mistrust and conflict. It's worth reading a bit of relevant WWII history after tackling this novel.

Sep 10, 2015

Because of the lack of names, I wasn't always clear on whose point of view I was getting. But that didn't matter, as the family were both universal and fragmented by their wartime experiences. Their story is both a quick read and very deep. History of the period is important. So is this kind of story, which can get so deep into the hearts and minds of what the internment did to the people who experienced it. The father's story was especially tragic, as we didn't experience it with him, but "only" the comparison of how he had appeared to his children before and after the war.

FW_librarian Jun 19, 2015

Each short chapter is the viewpoint of a family member as they are forced from their comfortable home in California (with only a suitcase), packed into decrepit train cars with no ventilation, no food or water, and sent to a desert in Utah to live in wooden shacks. This novel is written with a tone that doesn't question the what and why of Executive Order 9066, but movingly shows the human tragic consequences as a result of government fear without accountability.

PimaLib_StephanieM May 18, 2015

I agree with reviewers who found that the treatment of the topic of internment was not terribly deep. This did not bother me, though, as I found the strength of the book to be in the portrait it created of the emotional life of people who suffered this injustice. I can turn to a non-fiction book on this title if I want greater historical detail. This book, however, gives me some idea of what it felt like to be marginalized both during and after the war.

VV3 Feb 23, 2015

Told in the third person, Otsuka manages to create a powerful story about a Japanese-American family who are sent to an internment camp during WW2. While almost impersonal, the story is still lyrical and moving.

Sep 24, 2014

I'd recommend Farewell to Manzanar for a deeper story of the lives of American Japanese on the home front in WWII and after. This book is cleverly written to appeal to people who know little about the subject. I found it boringly superficial after the first two chapters, as well as predictable, repetitive, and contrived.

Aug 28, 2014

Another view of detainment, how it came about for this family, the journey, living conditions & surprisingly to me, the return to their home when so many had no home to return to. Many parts are hard to accept, the deprivation, humiliation, outcast & shunning of Americans by their country & government, by such uncharitable neighbors. Why weren't Germans detained? Skin color I surmise. Great book.

booklady413 Jul 24, 2014

This was a beautifully crafted piece of literature. On each page you felt the emotions of the characters coming through on the page,and not naming the charters made the story even more universal. Unfortunately, this was a very sad era in our history, hopefully never to be repeated again. Great read.

Mar 04, 2014

A slim volume about the Japanese internment during WW II. Well done but not exceptional.

Feb 21, 2014

Best book I read in 2013. Better than her Buddha's in the Attic. Her style in this one perfectly tells the story - well crafted and well written.

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booklady413 Jul 24, 2014

"I ' m. the slant-eyed sniper in the trees.
I'm the saboteur in the shrubs.
I'm the stranger at the gate.
I'm the traitor in your own backyard.
I'm your houseboy.
I'm your cook.
I'm your gardener.
And I've been living here,quietly, beside you,just waiting for Tojo to flash me the high sign."

mrsgail5756 Feb 27, 2013

“Never be afraid to try something new. Remember, amateurs built the ark, and professionals built the Titanic.” -Anonymous


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