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 perspective does it offer readers that a straightforward historical investigation cannot?
When the Emperor Was Divine provides a personalized approach to Japanese internment during World War II. It enables the reader see this experience first-hand, and in doing so, creates a greater impact than a straightforward historical investigation.
The historical record of Japanese internment states its existence. A historical account would focus on the numbers or location of internment. It might emphasize how the government justified it and how the event was "bad." Yet, Japanese internment is considered a smaller part of the wider World War II narrative. Historical record traditionally treats the battles in Europe, the existential threat of the Nazis, or the Holocaust as more important. While these events are seismic, the result is relegation of Japanese internment.
Through Otsuka's personalized approach, Japanese internment is moved from periphery to the center. She explores the human element within internment that allows for greater understanding. For example, there is painful detail rendered in how Japanese-Americans confronted internment's reality:
Tomorrow she and the children would be leaving. She did not know where they were going or how long they would be gone or who would be living in their house while they were away. She knew only that tomorrow they had to go.
This sense of uncertainty is not immediately communicated in a straight historical approach to internment. Rather than simply stating that "Internment happened," Otsuka captures the first-hand the pain and insecurity that thousands of people experienced.
Another way in which Otsuka's work deepens the reader's existing knowledge of internment is to provide specific details that history books might often omit. For example, the actual procedure that governed internment is not discussed in historical texts. The rules that people had to follow as they were being interned are revealed through Otsuka's personalized approach:
There were things they could take with them: bedding and linen, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, cups, clothes. These were the words she had written down on the back of the bank receipt. Pets were not allowed. That was what the sign had said...She gave the cat to the Greers next door.
What to take, what to leave behind, what had to be given away are all details that increase the reader's understanding of internment. It allows the reader to understand how people had to reduce the complexity of their lives to a list of items. That enables individuals to really grasp the horror of internment. How can anyone reduce their entire existence to a few items, discarding other objects that represent one's identity? Such a question is not the concern of a straightforward, historical text. However, Otsuka deems it as important. As a result, the reader gains more understanding of internment.