When the Emperor Was Divine

by Julie Otsuka

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Why is chapter 4 of When the Emperor Was Divine called "In a Stranger's Backyard"?

Quick answer:

There are multiple reasons why the chapter is called "In a Stranger's Backyard." For one, they don't feel like this is their home anymore. They have been away in an internment camp for years. They also find that things have changed at their house, including the rosebushes and the trees. Lastly, they find that their house is trashed inside.

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Julie Otsuka's When the Emperor Was Divine is a 2002 novel about the experiences of a Japanese family who are interned in a camp during World War II. It is a work of historical fiction; approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans were sent to camps after Pearl Harbor. Chapter 4 is entitled "In a Stranger's Backyard" and is about the family's return to their home in California after the internment. When they return, they find that things have changed. For one, the rosebud the woman planted has vanished, and the trees are taller.

Though it is their house, so much has changed that it doesn't feel like home. Even though they are U.S. citizens, because of their race, they are the strangers here. There is the added stigma of their time away in the internment camp, which, even if it was unjust and unconstitutional, does mark them as "other." There is a different neighbor next door who acknowledges them when they come home, but it is also implied that their neighbors and, by extension, an entire nation, stood by silently as they were arrested and so are complicit in the crime.

Finally, once they get inside the house, they find it in disrepair. This just emphasizes that this doesn't feel like home anymore. It also emphasizes the perfidy of white Americans, as they had trusted a lawyer to take care of their home, and he ended up renting it out without their permission.

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