When the Emperor Was Divine

by Julie Otsuka
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In When the Emperor Was Divine, why does Otsuka refer to her characters as "the woman," "the girl," "the boy," and "the father," rather than giving them names?

In When the Emperor Was Divine, Otsuka refers to her characters as "the woman," "the girl," "the boy," and "the father" rather than giving them names because this anonymity represents many of the Japanese Americans who suffered in the internment camps and post-internment in the 1940s. The novel's major characters are seen as templates for many stories of thousands of Japanese families so that readers can understand how they all were part of a massive struggle together.

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The novel When the Emperor Was Divine was written by Julie Otsuka in 2003. It is a story about a Japanese American family’s struggles, pain, and sadness in the Japanese internment camps in the early 1940s. The anonymous family members are part of a class of people who would have experienced all the suffering that the characters went through, including discrimination, unpleasant conditions, social isolation, and lack of economic opportunities after being released from the camps. The story offers points of view from the mother, the daughter, the son, and the siblings together without reference to any specific names or identities. Throughout the whole novel, the characters form very broad classifications, which indicates that the anonymous family could represent the thousands of families who suffered, grieved in, and endured the internment.

Otsuka did not give the characters specific identities or names because of the literary impression that she wanted to convey to readers. She wanted readers to understand the large impact of the suffering, the sadness of the many families, and the incredible amount of pain that all the Japanese Americans felt, as embodied in the group of characters which could fairly represent the whole class of Japanese Americans. This style of writing was a contributing factor in readers' positive reviews of Otsuka's story. And Otsuka probably knew that the story's significance would be understated if she formed specific identities for the characters. It would have likely diluted the reality of the suffering of so many Japanese Americans, because the story would be told through the lens of one family with a few names of people.

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