When the Emperor Was Divine

by Julie Otsuka

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What is the effect of Otsuka's use of withheld information in When the Emperor Was Divine? Could it be symbolic?

Quick answer:

Otsuka's withholding of information and narrative silence could be symbolic of themes surrounding identity, assimilation, and roles within the family and society.

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Something striking about Otsuka’s narration is that she never reveals the names of the main characters—she refers to them only as “the woman,” “the girl,” “the boy,” and “the father.” Typically, it’s important to the author to draw readers in and help them connect to the characters, but Otsuka intentionally withholds the characters’ names; this creates distance between the reader and the story. Even though the reader gets to know the characters through their words and actions, there is still a sense of unfamiliarity present throughout the work. Because the minor characters in the story do have names, there is a sense of contrast and separation between the main characters and the rest of their world.

This all ties in with several themes in the book—most notably the themes of cultural assimilation and uncertain identity (or even the complete loss of identity). Otsuka refers to the protagonists in very generic terms that apply to many people, essentially reducing them to their most basic roles in society. It’s possible that Otsuka is providing commentary here on how assimilating can remove all of the little nuances that make a person stand out from the crowd. This is reflected in the actions of the characters as well, for example, when the woman destroys Japanese things that are important to her in order to prove that she is loyal to America. In the internment camp, the characters become even less unique. Overall, Otsuka seems to focus on the loss of identity that results from the fear of standing out.

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