When the Emperor Was Divine

by Julie Otsuka

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Why does Otsuka structure When the Emperor Was Divine with loosely connected scenes and alternating points of view?

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In this novel of the Japanese-American internment, Otsuka wrote in a “universal” style, aiming to appeal not just to Japanese-Americans but also to a broader American audience.

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Precisely why Julie Otsuka utilized the exact style she did in writing her debut novel When the Emperor Was Divine might be an exercise in psychoanalysis – a task beyond the purview of this service.  A key, however, may lie in Otsuka’s relationship to the story she relates in this...

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particular novel.  Otsuka’s own family, specifically her grandparents and parents, experienced the ordeal she describes in this story about the forced internment of Japanese-Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, and the seizure of the carefully cultivated farmland these families had nurtured for many years.  An article in the New York Times on the occasion of the novel’s publication noted that “With scrupulous historical research and a novelist's magic for channeling characters, Ms. Otsuka rendered her forebears' experiences in exact, quotidian detail . . .” [Samuel G. Friedman, “One Family’s Story of Persecution Resonates in the Post-9/11 World,”New York Times, August 17, 2005].  Otsuka did not, by her own telling, set out to write a publishable novel per se, but merely hoped that, by penning a story reflecting her family’s experiences during that difficult period, she could better understand what her mother had endured.  A further clue to the author’s decision to write in this particular style is provided in an interview she conducted for the August 21, 2011 edition of the Stockton (California) Record, which explained the novel’s prose as follows:

“There don't appear to be any wasted words in Otsuka's precise, meticulous and rhythmic prose. Clarity counts. Cliche-free, the images are consistently striking. . .’ It just naturally worked that way,’ she said. ‘I was reading a lot of (Ernest) Hemingway short stories. This book is a little looser (than her first). Maybe that's only to me. It's just my style. I really do focus on things that will interest me and the reader. A lot of it is what I decide to leave out.’" [“Write of Passage: Author Paints Vivid Portrait of Japanese-Americans in Valley,” Recordnet.com,http://www.recordnet.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110821/A_LIFE/108200307]

The characters in When the Empire Was Divine are anonymous Japanese-Americans, their anonymity serving to better universalize their common experience and to provide a warning to post-9/11 America about repeating the sins of the past when approaching the notion of collective guilt with regard to the nation’s Muslim American population.  Otsuka has been very open about the parallels between the experiences of the Japanese-American population following Pearl Harbor and the those of Arab-Americans after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  Otsuka’s narrative could relate to either era but for the obvious time-specific references.  When “the woman” returns to home after running errands, she continues the process of packing her family’s belongings in anticipation of a major dislocation.  The author’s description of these action are fully intended to emphasize the universal American appeal of the people at the heart of her novel, as in the following passage:

“Upstairs, in the boy’s room, she unpinned the One World One War map of the world from the wall . . . She wrapped up his stamp collection and the painted Indian with the long headdress he had won at the Sacramento State Fair.  She pulled out the Joe Palooka comic books from under his bed. . . She placed his baseball glove on his pillow.”

Note in this brief, truncated passage the symbolism Otsuka employed, the references to the comic books and the stamp collection and, most importantly, to the baseball glove – that quintessential symbol of Americana.  Otsuka is illuminating the fundamental injustice in these American citizens being forced to give up their freedom solely for the crime of being of a certain ethnicity.  The novel represents multiple perspectives within the family, but always with an eye towards the commonalities each member of the family shares with his or her contemporaries in an America fast reverting to the basest of instincts.  The prose is very much to-the-point, as the facts of the matter speak for themselves and little embellishment is needed.  The author recognized that her theme was more important than her ability to turn a phrase.

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