When the Emperor was Divine

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When the Emperor was Divine Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In third person, the opening chapter follows the perspective of an unnamed, Japanese American character: the woman. In Berkeley, California, on a sunny day in the spring of 1942, the forty-year-old woman sees a sign in the post office window. There are signs just like this one plastered all over town, all of them having appeared overnight. She reads the sign from top to bottom and then goes home to pack.
After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the forced evacuation and internment of all people of Japanese ancestry living in the United States. The government feared that Japanese Americans would side with Japan during the war and engage in acts of sabotage and espionage against the United States. The chapter title refers to the official name given to signs just like the one the woman reads. These signs announced that the U.S. Army would deport all Japanese Americans to military camps, thus commencing Japanese American internment. From the start, the woman (like all the main characters) is unnamed. This highlights the universality of the story, but also suggests how white Americans saw all Japanese Americans as essentially the same—suspicious characters without individual identities.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
Nine days later, the woman is still not finished packing. She pulls on her white silk gloves and goes to the local hardware store to buy packing supplies. She brings a ball of twine and tape to the counter to pay, but the owner of the store, Joe Lundy, says that she can pay him later. As he says this, Lundy vigorously tries to clean a stain from the side of the register. He then gives the woman two candies for her two children. The woman wishes she had gotten to know the storekeeper better during all the years she has been coming to his store. She thanks Lundy by name before leaving for home.
Since white gloves were associated with the middle class at this time, the woman’s gloves reveal her class status. Though the woman’s economic class will shift over the course of the novel, this early scene firmly cements her initial role in the middle class. The stain is also the first major symbol to appear in the novel. As one of the United States’ greatest shames, Japanese American internment will mar, or stain, American history forever. While Lundy’s friendliness suggests that he does not believe the woman is a dangerous spy, his vain attempt to erase the stain symbolically suggests that all white Americans are “stained” by internment, even those who disagreed with the evacuations but did nothing to stop them.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Social Class and the American Dream Theme Icon
When the woman gets home, she finishes packing: she rolls up the Oriental rug in the living room, takes down the mirrors, and plants the tiny bonsai tree in the yard. She goes upstairs to pack up her son’s stamp collection, his comic books, and his toys. She only leaves out his baseball glove and his clothes so that he’ll remember to put them in his suitcase later. In the kitchen, she takes down a picture of Jean-François Millet’s The Gleaners, which shows peasants bent over an endless field of wheat. She feels bothered by the picture and wants to tell the peasants to “Look up, look up!” She decides that she always hated the painting and throws it into the garbage.
The woman responds to the news of internment with little outward emotional distress. She packs casually as if for a trip rather than for a forced evacuation. Trusting that her government will do no wrong towards its citizens, she does not even consider resisting the order. The woman also seems to transfer a repressed urge to resist onto the image of the peasants. She urges them to “look up!” and recognize the economic oppression they endure. But the peasants—like the woman—still consent to their own oppression. This theme of accepting injustice will be explored throughout the novel. Descriptions of the woman’s house all seem deliberately mundane—she has essentially achieved the “American Dream” of owning a house in the suburbs, having children, a boy who plays baseball, etc. But soon we learn that the American Dream is not designed for minorities, as not even the family’s wealth and “normalcy” can protect them from racism.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Social Class and the American Dream Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
The woman packs everything in her house into boxes and carries them into the sunroom. She locks the doors with two padlocks and then goes outside and lights a cigarette. The house is empty expect for the piano and the furniture that she can’t transfer to the locked room. Tomorrow, she thinks, she and her children will be leaving their home. She doesn’t know where they’re going, or for how long. From reading the sign outside the post office, the woman knows she can bring clothes and bedding but not much else. She cannot bring pets. She has given their cat to the neighbors. She caught the chicken, which had been running wild in the yard since the fall, snapped its neck, and served it for dinner.
So far we’ve learned little about this woman other than that she is middle class and of Japanese descent, and it becomes more clear that she will remain unnamed—thus standing in for the hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens who, like her, read signs and learned about internment. The chicken’s loss of freedom also foreshadows the woman’s imminent internment. Animals in the story represent varying degrees of imprisonment and freedom, starting here with the chicken.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Inscrutability and the Unknown  Theme Icon
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In the kitchen, the woman prepares some eggs and salmon in a bowl and lays it out on the front porch. She claps her hands a few times and an old white dog comes limping out of the trees. “Eat up, White Dog,” she says. The woman thinks about how the grass hasn’t been mowed for months. Her husband usually mowed, but she hasn’t seen him since he was arrested last December as an “Alien Enemy” and transferred to a detention camp at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
During internment, the U.S. government rounded up many Japanese adult men for interrogation without first producing evidence that they committed any crimes. Today, it is widely agreed upon that the U.S.’s actions were motivated by anti-Asian racism rather than by legitimate concerns that Japanese Americans were spying for Japan.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
The woman puts on her gloves and with the twine she bought from the store, she ties the dog to the big tree in the backyard. She tells the dog to play dead and it rolls over. She then takes a shovel and brings it down swiftly onto the dog’s head, killing it. Beneath the tree, the woman digs a hole for the dog and drops him in along with her white gloves, which are now stained and no longer white. The woman feels very tired, and her back is drenched in sweat. She plucks a leaf from the tree and goes back inside the house.
The woman kills White Dog out of mercy so that it won’t starve when the family is gone, but the stain suggests that even this act of violence will have lasting psychological effects on her. In this way, all violence appears to leave stains, echoes, and traces that affect us into the future. White Dog also represents the Japanese Americans themselves. Like the Japanese Americans who trust the government to protect them, White Dog—a pet and domesticated animal—trusts the woman even as she kills it.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
When her children come home from school, the woman reminds them they’re “going on a trip” tomorrow. The girl, who is ten, says she knows. Like a typical American girl, the girl likes boys, candy, and Dorothy Lamour. She wears Mary Jane shoes and her favorite song on the radio is “Don’t Fence Me In.” The boy is seven and he wears a black fedora tilted to one side of his head. The hat was a present from his father, and he wears it everyday. The boy opens the door to the backyard and calls White Dog’s name, but the dog doesn’t appear. The boy says that the dog is getting deafer all the time, and then he heads back inside.
The different family members seem to represent different degrees of assimilation into American culture. The girl, for her part, is the most “assimilated,” as she is steeped in American culture and seems to have no real sense of Japanese identity. Her love of the song “Don’t Fence Me In” also foreshadows the approaching internment.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Social Class and the American Dream Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
As they sit down for dinner, the girl looks into her spoon and asks the woman if anything is wrong with her face. The girl says that people stared at her all day. The woman says she looks fine, that she has a fine nose and a fine set of teeth. The girl then asks if her mother would tell if there were something wrong with her face. The woman responds by looking the girl in the eyes and saying she has the most beautiful face that she has ever seen.
The girl’s anxiety about her appearance probably stems from an “inferiority complex.” Because she is surrounded by standards of beauty that emphasize whiteness, and the white people in town stare at her because they consider her part of the “enemy,” she internalizes this constant racism and assumes that something is wrong with her, not with them. The mother tries to be affirming, but she probably can do little in the face of an entire society that condemns the very idea of being Japanese.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
After the children go to sleep, the woman takes their pet macaw from the birdcage. The bird says, “Get over here,” and the woman thinks its voice sounds like her husband’s. She imagines her husband with an arm flung over his eyes, lying on a cot in a tent at Fort Sam Houston. The woman kisses the bird on its head before opening the window and placing it on the ledge outside. When she closes the window, the bird taps on the pane with its claw, and then flies into a tree. The woman takes a broom and goes outside, shaking the branches and yelling at the bird to leave. The bird flies off into the night.
The bird’s refusal to be free illustrates the psychological power of incarceration. The bird has learned the safety and security that comes with imprisonment. It doesn’t have to worry about predators or where its next meal is coming from, and the cage is now its “home.” Because of these advantages, the bird has consented to its imprisonment and must be forced to accept its freedom. The bird therefore foreshadows how the family will struggle with learning to reclaim their freedom after internment.
Themes
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
The woman takes a bottle of plum wine, sits down on the floor, and drinks. Without the bird in the cage, the house feels empty to her. After a few sips, she begins to laugh at the ridiculous emptiness of her house, but her laughter soon turns to tears. She wipes her mouth with a white cloth and her lips leave a dark stain. In a few hours, the three of them will go to the Civil Control Station near the First Congregational Church. They will pin their identification number to their collars, climb onto the bus, and “go to wherever it was they had to go.”
Throughout the chapter, the woman has prepared for internment with aloof practicality. Now, however, seeing her home emptied of all its possessions—all the signs of her stable and happy life—causes her to realize the full emotional impact of their leaving. Even though she has finally realized her feelings, the woman still feels as if she has no other choice than to obey the orders. Having lived as a law-abiding citizen her entire life, the woman has been conditioned to obey the government. Thus, we already see that she—like most citizens—has internalized behaviors that will lead her to accept her own imprisonment.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon