“When the Emperor was Divine” by Julie Otsuka Book Analysis

June 14, 2021

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The book When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka describes an experience of Japanese-American internment by showing a complete evacuation of one Japanese family. The author, a Japanese-American woman, is trying to deliver not only the aftermath of the World War II, but also to portray a chaotic situation that Japanese would encounter in the US at that time. Thus, this novel is centered on a family of Japanese refugees who are forced to live in California. Besides, this family needs father’s attention and support. However, Julie Otsuka decides to concentrate on the relations between a father and a son. She skillfully develops the son’s character to show the identity crisis of the entire Japanese nation.

The structure of a book helps readers track the father-son relations as the plot uncovers. Moreover, the story is divided into three significant parts, namely a train journey due to the evacuation order, life in temporary resident camp in Utah, and repatriation to Japan. The last part describes the family life and reunion after three years and five months of living in the camp. The family consists of a mother, daughter, son, and their father who is always invisibly present. The author references the status of the Japanese Americans indirectly by describing the boy’s behavior in the train and in the camp. Following these big three parts, Julie Otsuka illustrates the significant personality change of the boy. Particularly, he keeps recalling his father, and the connection between these two close people was highlighted with short sentences and repeated words usage. Obviously, this evacuation journey has had a great impact on the boy’s identity and world outlook. Besides, his loss of identity has occurred due to poor relationship with his father, and the author uses it for a special purpose. Therefore, Julie Otsuka demonstrates how the boy’s change represents the loss of the entire Japanese-American identity.

The author depicts initial identification of the boy and whole nation through several means. First indicator refers to his outward appearance. One example from the first part is his black fedora, father’s gift, now detained in Texas. The readers first meet the boy wearing this black hat. Although he shares typical interests for the Americans, like baseball, he is different from his peers. For a boy, the hat is a sign of closeness to his father, and it has symbolical meaning too. Describing the boy’s appearance in that way, Otsuka tries to indicate what is hidden under the surface. She attempts to show the connection between the nation and their origin. It seems that Japanese were convinced of returning back home soon after Pearl Harbor. Therefore, they wore clothes that clearly indicated their loyalty to Japan.

Furthermore, the author demonstrates the hope for a fast return among Japanese, who are still loyal to their country. According to the plot, a boy easily agrees to take a trip, because he is assured that they would come back home soon. He identifies himself with his country, town, and house. Besides, he desperately wants to see his father again. At the beginning of this book, the boy embodies nation’s unawareness of the far-reaching consequences of their camp life. He misses his native country, but he has optimistic vision of his future and his life. When they arrive at the camp, the boy thinks that their life is nothing but a dream. Moreover, he personifies all Japanese who cannot grasp the tragic of their current situation. The only excuse for that is their hope for a quick return to their motherland. Hence, his attitude signifies that Japanese are clearly not ready to leave Japan forever because they identify themselves with it.

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For most of the novel, the author describes how the family keeps memory of their father, especially his son. It means that the nation still remembers their home and strongly identifies with the picture they have in their heads. In particular, the son symbolizes the father with the image of a loving, gentle, and caring man. It means that people remember only good things about their country. As the boy misses his father, the people do miss Japan as well. Meanwhile, people keep things that remind them of their home. For instance, he solicitously keeps his father’s boots in a trunk. Every day he puts his hand inside the boots just to feel the smell of his father. Therefore, one can observe a symbolic connection between a citizen and his country. Second, the boy decides to keep the envelope with his father’s hair forever. This sentimentalism is not surprising since people tend to store the things that remind them of something or someone they love. As long as the boy guards the things that remind him of his father, he feels a strong link with his father.

The author chooses other means to underline the true Japanese identity and loyalty to their country. Tight family bonds between a father and a son are seen not only through careful storage of things, but also through his behavior. For instance, while the family was traveling to the internment camp, the boy showed a weird attachment to the umbrella and murmured a taboo word, such as ‘Hirohito,’ a Japanese Emperor’s name. All these acts indicate his resistance of not to forget about his past and always remember about his father. The boy feels a close tight with Japanese people especially comparing to his older sister who quickly assimilates into new culture. At this point, Japanese still strongly identify themselves with their origin.

However, the nation’s identity has been distorted after spending several years in the camp. Otsuka admits the shift in national self-perception through the character of a son. The boy’s sadness about his father is so deep that he sees him in every stranger. During the first days in the camp the boy sees many men with the dark hair, narrow eyes, and thick glasses. That was how his father’s appearance. Gradually, the boy realized that his father was a typical Japanese man, and they all looked similar. That was the moment when the boy came to realize his father was not unique. Therefore, he was one of the average representatives of Japanese nation. At that exact moment, he was conscious of who he was and what his identity was.

The author skillfully depicts how the process of rethinking one’s identity occurs. Consequently, the boy’s self-perception was broken, and he becomes anxious and worrisome. At night, he often has a bad sleep and wonders where he is and why he should live there for an endless time. Furthermore, Otsuka marks the shift in boy’s self-identity through one episode with the boots. One day the boy put his hand inside of the father’s boots as usual but something has changed. They have lost their smell. His hand does not remind of his father anymore. It means that in the course of time the nation starts to forget their country and their previous life. Therefore, their memories are hard to preserve under stressful living conditions in another country for a long period of time.

The next stage after forgetting Japan is a rejection of Japanese self-identity. Otsuka portrays the new Japanese American boy’s identity through the following episode. The boy develops specific image of his father in his head. In boy’s imagination, his father is a cowboy who wears cowboy boots and a hat, and he is riding a horse. Other days, the boy imagines his father on the bicycle, train, airplane or a car. In his dreams, the boy’s father would not wear Japanese clothes but a blue suit. He can have a cowboy or a usual hat or a nimbus on his head. Undoubtedly, these images clearly show that he does not identify his father with Japanese no more.

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The author continues to track self-identity changes among Japanese through the boy’s life. After the family comes back from the camp, the chaos of the boy’s identity worsens. First, he learns that his father is not that loving and caring person he used to be. Vice versa, he is a stranger that rarely laughs to him now. Thus, he is not a boy’s hero anymore. Second, he learns that identifying with Japanese is dangerous. After returning home, they still hide as most of other Japanese do. Their mother instructs them to tell everyone they are Chinese. They cannot trust their neighbors and they lost all their friends. It shows the difficulties Japanese had to deal with after their arrival home. Even when they had all rights to live in their old houses they no longer felt it was their property. Therefore, the entire generation happened to be ashamed of whom they were, and that is a very dramatic episode of Japan’s history.

In conclusion, Julie Otsuka portrays the loss of self-identity through the father-son relationship in her book When the Emperor was Divine. The character of a boy serves as a symbol of the entire generation. This is not just about life of a young child but about all the Japanese Americans who had to leave their stable life in Japan. By describing the boy’s anxious emotions and deep sorrow about his father, the author is trying to deliver the message of how the young generation of the Japanese Americans suffered and lost their identities during the World War II.