When the Emperor was Divine

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When the Emperor was Divine Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Julie Otsuka's When the Emperor was Divine. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Julie Otsuka
Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. She studied art as an undergraduate at Yale University, and pursued a career as a painter for several years before turning to fiction writing at the age of thirty. She received her MFA in fiction at Columbia University in 1999. Her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, is based on Otsuka’s own family history. The FBI arrested her grandfather, a suspected spy for Japan, the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed (1941), and her mother, uncle, and grandmother spent three years at the Topaz internment camp. Nearly ten years after the publication of her first novel, Otsuka published The Buddha in the Attic, which is about a group of young Japanese women who sailed to America in the early 1900s to become the wives of men they have never met. Otsuka currently lives in New York City and spends almost every afternoon writing and reading at her neighborhood café.
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Historical Context of When the Emperor was Divine
The novel details one family’s experience of Japanese-American internment. The bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii by the Japanese Air Force on December 7, 1941 marked the beginning of America’s involvement in World War II. In the months after this attack, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the forced evacuation and incarceration of all people of Japanese ancestry living in the United States. The government feared that Japanese-Americans might ally themselves with Japan and engage in sabotage and espionage against the United States. Though the government never produced any evidence to suggest that this was an actual possibility, over 100,000 Japanese civilians and resident aliens were deported to internment camps. From spring 1942 to the end of the war in the summer of 1944, people were forced to live in these designated camps as if they were prisoners of war. In 1980, Congress condemned internment as unjust and motivated by racism and xenophobic ideas rather than by actual military necessity. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush issued a formal apology where he stated, “No nation can fully understand itself or find its place in the world if it does not look with clear eyes at all the glories and disgraces of its past. We in the United States acknowledge such an injustice in our history. The internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry was a great injustice, and it will never be repeated.”
Other Books Related to When the Emperor was Divine
Since the novel is a work of historical fiction, in writing it Otsuka immersed herself in mostly nonfiction histories and personal memoirs that described the events of Japanese-American interment. She read oral history collections, secondary sources on the detainees’ experiences, and old newspapers from the 1940s so that she could know as many details as possible. Some of these secondary sources include The Great Betrayal: The Evacuation of the Japanese-Americans During World War II by Audrie Girdner and Anne Loftis, and Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese-American Family by Yoshiko Uchida. With regard to the literary style of the novel, Otsuka has identified the direct, visual style of Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy as influences for her writing. Thematically, Otsuka’s novel draws from the themes of war, dislocation, and exile present in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Otsuka might also have in mind Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and its dark, spare, and almost apocalyptic writing about the American West.
Key Facts about When the Emperor was Divine
  • Full Title: When the Emperor was Divine
  • When Written: 1995-2002
  • Where Written: New York City
  • When Published: 2002
  • Literary Period: Contemporary Historical Fiction
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Setting: Berkeley, California and a Japanese-American internment camp in Topaz, Utah, during and after World War II
  • Climax: When the family meets the character of the father at the train station
  • Point of View: Third-person omniscient, first-person plural, and free indirect discourse
Extra Credit for When the Emperor was Divine

The Hallelujah Guy: Otsuka makes reference to man at the internment camp who would shout, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” Otsuka based this character on an actual neighborhood figure in the Morningside Heights area of New York.

A Painterly Process: Many critics of the novel have suggested that the book’s precise visual imagery is a result of Otsuka’s background as a painter, and Otsuka herself has suggested that this background also has a larger effect on her work ethic. As a painter, she went to the studio every day, methodically making small changes to her overall painting. She says she applies this same discipline to writing now.