When the Emperor was Divine

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When the Emperor was Divine Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
This chapter follows the perspective of the girl. As the train slowly moves through the Nevada desert, it passes a dry lakebed. The girl asks for a lemon and the woman gives it to her. The soldiers had left a crate of lemons and oranges at the back of the train. The girl throws the lemon out the window and hits a tree. The woman tells her not to lose her arm sticking it out the window, and the girl sasses back that she wasn’t planning to. The girl has lived in California all her life, but now the train is taking her to Utah. The rocking of the train makes the girl sick, and she heaves into a brown brag that her mother gives her.
In this chapter, trees gain symbolic importance. Previously, trees in the novel were part of the background, or everyday features of the suburban landscape. Now, as the family travels to the internment camp, the trees begin to thin out, eventually disappearing all together. The trees, with their stability and roots in the ground, will come to represent home. The absence of the trees is thus an overt reminder that the family is no longer home, but in a seemingly transitory “in-between” place.
Themes
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
The train whistles and a soldier comes through the compartment, telling everyone to pull the shades down. A man next to the girl says something to her in Japanese and she responds that she is sorry, she only speaks English. The girl notices that the train is passing through a town. The last time the train passed through a town with the shades up, someone threw a rock through the window.
The brief conversation the girl has with the old man emphasizes her assimilated American identity. Though she and her family are being treated as spies, the girl has little connection to her Japanese heritage. The fact that she is a typical American girl makes it clear how racist it was to believe that Japanese people cannot assimilate, and therefore must be Japanese spies.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
The girl pulls up the shades when the soldiers tell them it’s okay again. As she looks out the window, the boy asks if she thinks they’ll see any horses. The girl remembers reading a National Geographic article about how Nevada has the most wild horses of any state. She tells her brother that they’ll probably see some horses. The boy lays his head on her lap to sleep, while the girl thinks about the first time her brother started to ask about horses.
This racism appears even more absurd when we realize that soldiers are being employed to guard the Japanese Americans as if they were captured enemy combatants rather than families with children. The military presence on the train shows just how cruelly and stupidly racism and fear of the unknown can make people act.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
Inscrutability and the Unknown  Theme Icon
After the family left their house, the army had moved them to the horse stables behind the city racetrack. Families upon families of Japanese Americans crowded into the racetrack, each living in one of the stables. In the morning they washed their faces from long troughs and at night they slept on straw mattresses. The boy would often stare at the teeth marks left in the wood by the horses. One night, the boy had told the girl that he wanted to be a jockey. A man in the neighboring stall called out that jockeys were small. The man yelled that the boy should eat a lot, grow strong, and ride horses like an American cowboy.
By putting the families in stables, the U.S. Army takes away their agency and dehumanizes them, treating the Japanese Americans as animals rather than human beings. Since it’s easier to harm and commit injustices against a dehumanized person, the Army uses this process to strip the Japanese Americans of their human dignity. The teeth marks on the wood also illustrate the pain of forced confinement for actual horses. Here, the domesticated horse becomes a symbol of the injustice of incarcerating living beings that are meant to be free—whether human or animal.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
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Back on the train, the girl goes to use the toilet in the late afternoon. As she takes her place in line, she pulls out a ribbon from her hair that her mother had tied there, and she throws it on the ground. A man next to her asks if she’s all right. The girl responds by saying that it’s hot in here, but it was cold last night. She says that everything is changing. The man agrees, and wipes his head with a handkerchief. The girl notices two gold letters stitched into the cloth, and asks what they stand for. The man says “Teizo Ishimoto,” but that his friends call him Ted. She asks if he’s a rich man, and he says “not any more.”
The girl’s comment about everything changing refers to more than just the weather. In this novel, notions of home are synonymous with stability and permanence (as symbolized by trees), while internment is associated with dislocation and unpredictable change. Characters will long for the stability of home since their lives are in unstable flux. The character of Ted also introduces the effects of war on social class. While he was wealthy before the war, he suggests that internment has caused him to lose his wealth. Social divisions like class will continue to disappear among Japanese Americans as race becomes the most important marker of identity.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Social Class and the American Dream Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
Ted compliments the girl on her blue scarf, and the girl says that her father got it for her from Paris, but that she already had a blue scarf from when he went to Paris the last time. Ted asks if her father is on the train, and she says no, that he’s being transported all around the United States. She says he’s in New Mexico now. Remembering what her father had told her in a letter, the girl tells Ted that there are no trees in New Mexico. Ted responds, “No trees!” and shakes his head sadly, as if this were a strange and terrible thing.
Otsuka cements the family’s middle class status when the girl says that her father has gone to Paris twice, a sign that the family has achieved the economic prosperity associated with the American dream. Yet, their wealth cannot protect the family from racism and internment. As soon as the government turns on its Japanese American citizens, the family’s wealth and perceived security offer little protection. Ted’s exclamation at the lack of trees also signals how trees symbolize familiarity and home. A land that lacks trees seems strange and terrible, foreign and unfamiliar.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Social Class and the American Dream Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
Inscrutability and the Unknown  Theme Icon
The girl goes into the bathroom, looks at herself in the mirror, and thinks that she is a plain girl with a plain scarf. She smiles at the corner of her lips, which she thinks makes her look like her mother, but also less mysterious. When she walks out, the girl tells Ted that her father never writes to her. This is a lie, though, since her father has written to the family every week since his arrest. Ted says that’s a shame, and then excuses himself to go into the bathroom.
As an assimilated American, the girl has internalized white beauty standards. Since her facial features do not align with the standard image of beauty in America, she is critical of her physical appearance. In this way, Otsuka suggests that children will adopt the prevailing beliefs of their culture, even when those beliefs are overtly racist and psychologically harmful.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
Inscrutability and the Unknown  Theme Icon
As the girl walks back to her seat, she passes a young child playing with a doll that has curly yellow hair and big eyes. The girl remarks that the doll is beautiful, and the child says that the girl can’t have it. The girl says that’s all right, and she continues down the aisle back to her seat. The girl looks at her mother and notices lines around her eyes that the girl hadn’t noticed before. The girl looks to see if Ted came out of the bathroom, but instead she sees an old woman come out. She thinks that Ted must have disappeared.
The beautiful doll then illuminates how even young children come to adopt those beauty standards. Since nearly all dolls, celebrities, and public figures were white at this time, this idea of beauty becomes ingrained in a child’s mind. Told by popular culture that blonde hair, white skin, and large eyes are beautiful, some Asian children like the girl will believe that they can never be beautiful.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
The boy looks through his bag and says he’s forgotten his umbrella. The woman tells him that you can’t remember everything. The girl interjects, saying that even if you can remember everything, you shouldn’t. The woman ignores her and tells the boy that they’ll find him another umbrella when they get off the train. Continuing to contradict her mother, the girl says that they’re never getting off the train. The woman turns to her and says that they’re getting off tomorrow.
As a pre-teen, the girl is going through a rebellious stage common among American teenagers. Openly contradicting her mother, the girl turns an everyday conversation about a forgotten umbrella into a deeper discussion on loss. The girl argues—though indirectly—that we should forget the memories that pain us.
Themes
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Toward evening, the girl takes out a letter that her father wrote to her. Most of the time, her father writes about the weather and his good health before asking questions about the family. In this letter, however, he wrote a P.S. note, but it was blackened out by the censors. The soldier comes through the train again, telling everyone to put their shades down. The girl’s mother tells her to try to sleep.
This belief about memories is what might have prompted the girl to tell Ted that her father never writes to her. The girl might prefer if her father never sent letters at all, since it might be less painful to just not think about him than to receive his censored letters. The censoring of these letters also introduces the connection between the father and theme of the unknown. Since the father has yet to appear, he is an unknown figure for the reader. The highly censored letters emphasize how little access we have to this character’s true thoughts and feelings.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Inscrutability and the Unknown  Theme Icon
The girl wakes up to the sound of a window breaking—someone has thrown a brick through the window. Startled and confused, the girl asks her mother where White Dog is. The woman says he’s at home. The girl then pulls up the shade to see a group of wild mustangs galloping across the desert. She wakes her brother and gently puts his face to the glass pane. The boy lets out a low moan that sounds like a cry of pain. Very softly, he says, “They are going away.” As the soldier passes by, the girl lets the shade fall again.
In contrast to the domesticated White Dog, the wild mustangs running across the plain represent utter freedom. Looking out the window, the boy admires and longs for this ideal state of wild independence. The use of the pronoun “they” in “They are going away” also allows for the boy to link the horses to the family, even to all the Japanese Americans. The family, like the horses, are going away, but instead of running to freedom, the train hurdles toward internment.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Social Class and the American Dream Theme Icon
Inscrutability and the Unknown  Theme Icon
The next morning, armed soldiers with bayonets escort the passengers off the train. They board a bus and drive to a place called Topaz, where hundreds of tar-paper barracks are lined up in the middle of dried-up salt lake, surrounded by barbed-wire fences. Everything is dusty and the boy begins to cough. As they get off the bus, the girl tells him to put her scarf against his mouth. They step off the bus together into the “blinding white glare of the desert.”
The descriptive focus on the bayonets and the barbed wire underline, once again, the absurdity of imprisoning children and families. However, like dehumanizing the families by putting them in stables, using these security measures might make the prisons guards feel more justified in treating innocent citizens like war criminals. An innocent man in a prison jumpsuit and handcuffs will look guilty in the same way that innocent Japanese Americans behind a barbed-wire fence will look like dangerous spies—as if both of them deserve the punishment.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Social Class and the American Dream Theme Icon
Inscrutability and the Unknown  Theme Icon