When the Emperor Was Divine

by Julie Otsuka

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What does the search for the rosebush symbolize in When the Emperor Was Divine?

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In Julie Otsuka’s novel When the Emperor was Divine, the children’s search for the rosebush represents their search for the freedom and security they had enjoyed before the war. The family returns from the internment camp in the Utah desert to discover the plant missing, and “only a clump of dead weeds” where once it sat. The plant’s theft represents the loss of innocence and the search the struggle to reclaim the sense of freedom they once enjoyed.

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In the chapter titled “In a Stranger’s Backyard,” Julie Otsuka describes the family’s return home after their prolonged, enforced stay at the internment camp. Like thousands of other families of Japanese American descent, the family at the center of Otsuka’s novel, inspired by the experiences of the author’s real-life family’s treatment by the American government following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, is forcibly removed from the peaceful, almost idyllic existence in which they resided in Berkeley, California and transported to a barbed-wire-enclosed internment camp in the Utah desert. For this family, as with the others, the experience is understandably traumatic and has emotional repercussions that will last for the remainder of their lives. Treated as enemies of the state, they are imprisoned and, in some cases, as with Otsuka’s fictionalized family, separated, the father removed under suspicion of being an enemy agent. With the war’s end and Imperial Japan a defeated, humiliated nation, Japanese American families are allowed to return to their homes (at least, those whose homes had not been seized and occupied by families of European heritage). Home, however, will never be the same.

The rosebush in When the Emperor was Divine is a symbol in Otsuka’s narrative. It is a symbol of freedom and security. The plant had once occupied a place of prominence in the family’s front yard but is now missing. Its disappearance is a metaphor for the loss of innocence. Note in the following passage the narrator’s description of the family’s yard upon their return to the structure that once represented liberty:

We had left in the spring, when the magnolia trees were still in bloom, but now it was fall and the leaves on the trees were beginning to turn and where our mother’s rosebush had once stood there was only a clump of dead weeds.

The trauma that the family endured during their confinement far from home and the realities of the world in which they live are symbolized by the loss of a plant. For mother in particular the missing plant is a continuous reminder of that trauma and of the permanent disappearance of the freedom and sense of security that these families had once enjoyed and that had been unjustly taken away. In the following observation, the pain of the rosebush’s disappearance is again emphasized:

We’d go out in the hall and see our mother standing in the darkness by the window in her thin cotton nightgown, peering out through a gap in the curtains. “Just keeping an eye on things,” she’d say. Or she would motion us over and point to the dark empty spot in our front yard. “Where’s my rosebush,” she’d whisper.

The children search the community for the missing plant, envisioning it thriving in its new environment “blossoming wildly, madly.” The rosebush’s disappearance, replanted in some hidden plot in another family’s backyard, remains as a symbol of all that was taken by the family and will never be returned: freedom and security.

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