When the Emperor was Divine

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The Woman Character Analysis

The woman—who, like the other main characters, is never named—begins the novel as an upper middle-class Japanese-American housewife living in California. She is quiet, confident, and graceful, and keeps her inner emotional life to herself. Caring deeply about her absent husband and two children, she alone shoulders the burden of preparing the children to evacuate during the Japanese American internment, performing the necessary actions with methodical determination and a bit of resignation to her fate. At the internment camp, she loses this emotional strength and clear-sighted practicality as she psychologically disconnects from her children and the world around her, spending most days asleep and dreaming of her childhood in Japan. After returning home, she regains her composure and her pragmatism, eventually becoming a maid for wealthy white families so that she can provide for her family.

The Woman Quotes in When the Emperor was Divine

The When the Emperor was Divine quotes below are all either spoken by The Woman or refer to The Woman. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Anchor Books edition of When the Emperor was Divine published in 2003.
Chapter 1 Quotes

“You can pay me later,” he said. Then he began to wipe the side of the register with a rag. There was a dark stain there that would not go away.

Related Characters: Joe Lundy (speaker), The Woman
Related Symbols: Stains
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the unnamed Japanese woman goes to a store, where she buys some materials from the store's owner, Joe Lundy. The woman realizes she doesn't have money to pay, but Joe generously says she can pay him back later. The passage is symbolically loaded: Joe seems like a good, regular American guy, sympathetic to people in need. And yet he's also scrubbing a mysterious stain on his register, symbolizing the "black mark" on American history that is the Japan Internment Program. Joe might be a good man, but as a white American, he's partly responsible for (or at least complicit in) the outrage of the racist internment program.

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She took The Gleaners out of its frame and looked at the picture one last time. She wondered why she had let it hang in the kitchen for so long. It bothered her, the way those peasants were forever bent over above that endless field of wheat. “Look up” she wanted to say to them. “Look up, look up!” The Gleaners, she decided, would have to go. She set the picture outside with the garbage.

Related Characters: The Woman (speaker)
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Woman packs her things, preparing to be taken off to a Japanese internment camp. The woman notices one of her old possessions, a reproduction of a famous painting by Millet, depicting two women gleaning for scraps in the fields of wheat. The Woman feels frustrated with the two women--she wants to tell them to look up and (perhaps) see the economic exploitation they're the victims of. The Woman can see this about the painting, but as of yet she's still seemingly unaware of the way her own government abuses her: on a whim, she's been sent to an internment camp, despite the fact that she's never done anything wrong. For now, she assumes that being a good American citizen just means doing what she's told--she trusts that the government won't do her any harm if she doesn't do anything wrong.

White Dog rolled over and looked up at her with his good eye. “Play dead,” she said. White Dog turned his head to the side and closed his eyes. His paws went limp. The woman picked up the large shovel that was leaning against the trunk of the tree. She lifted it high in the air with both hands and brought the blade down swiftly over his head…She picked up White dog and dropped him into the hole…She pulled off her gloves and looked at them. They were no longer white. She dropped them into the hole and picked up the shovel again. She filled the hole.

Related Characters: The Woman
Related Symbols: Wild and Domesticated Animals
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

In this shocking passage, the Woman kills her beloved dog because she won't be able to take care of it, and doesn't want it to starve: she's being taken off to a camp, and she's not bringing any pets with her. The passage is symbolically loaded: the Woman's killing is the first potentially immoral action we've seen her take in the novel--as if to symbolize her moral compromises, her gloves are no longer pure and white. Furthermore, the passage could be said to symbolize the way the American government turned on its own people: like the Woman turning on her dog, the Roosevelt administration turned on its loyal Japanese citizens and imprisoned them.

In a few hours he and the girl and their mother would wake up and go to the Civil Control Station at the First Congregational Church on Channing Way. Then they would pin their identification numbers to their collars and grab their suitcases and climb up onto the bus and go to wherever it was they had to go.

Related Characters: The Woman, The Girl, The Boy
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, the Woman and her family prepare to go off and report to the Civil Control Station. The Woman knows that she's going to be sent to the internment camps soon, and she's frightened: still, she doesn't have many other options. She's a law-abiding citizen, and so even when her government orders her to go to prison unjustly, she follows her orders to the letter. The passage is especially chilling because the Japanese internment program occurred at the same time as another forced-imprisonment program that occurred along racial lines--the mass imprisonment of the Jews and other minorities in Hitler's Germany. The narrator subtly emphasizes the similarities between Japanese internment and the Holocaust by noting the "identification numbers" that the Japanese had to wear, and the uncertain future that the Japanese-Americans faced as they climbed aboard mass transportation.

Chapter 2 Quotes

“I forgot my umbrella. I thought I brought it but I didn’t.”
His mother gave him an orange. “You can’t remember everything,” she said.
“And even when you can you shouldn’t,” said the girl.
“I wouldn’t say that,” said her mother.
“You didn’t,” said the girl.
“We’ll find you another umbrella when we get off the train,” said his mother.
“We’re never getting off this train,” said the girl.
“We are,” said her mother. “Tomorrow.”

Related Characters: The Woman (speaker), The Girl (speaker), The Boy (speaker)
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Girl and her family are on a train, speeding toward in uncertain future. The Boy notices that he has forgotten his umbrella back at home, and laments this. The fact that Boy is mourning something as trivial as an umbrella reminds us of the fact that the Woman's family has left behind something much more important: freedom. The scene is also poignant because the Girl, cynical and precocious, claims that they're never going to get off the train--they'll be trapped there forever. Childish though the Girl's fears are, they reflect the very relatable fear (surely a very common fear among the Japanese-American families in the camps) that they'd never see freedom again. The Woman acts as a role model for her children, telling them to remain optimistic, even when the future doesn't look good.

Chapter 3 Quotes

One evening as the boy’s mother was hauling a bucket of water from the washroom she ran into her former housekeeper, Mrs. Ueno. “When she saw me she grabbed the bucket right out of my hands and insisted upon carrying it home for me…I tried to tell her that she no longer worked for me. ‘Mrs. Ueno,’ I said, ‘here we’re all equal,’ but of course she wouldn’t listen. When we got back to the barracks she set the bucket down by the front door and then she bowed and hurried off into the darkness. I didn’t even get a chance to thank her.”

Related Characters: The Woman (speaker), The Boy , Mrs. Ueno
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

In this surprising passage, the Woman reunites with Mrs. Ueno, the woman who used to work as a maid for the Woman. Although the Woman and Mr. Ueno are now social equals--they're both prisoners within the internment camp--Mrs. Ueno insists on acting like a maid around the Woman: here, for example, she carries a heavy bucket for the Woman.

Why would Mrs. Ueno voluntarily continue to act as a maid to the Woman? Perhaps the easiest answer is that there's comfort in routine--by acting the part of a maid, Mrs. Ueno is trying to forget her present situation and pretend the usual divides of social class are present in the camp (even though she herself belonged to a lower class). There's comfort in remembering a time when she at least had a regular job, and was treated like a regular citizen of the United States.

“I lost an earring on the train. Did I ever tell you that?”
He shook his head…
“What did it look like?”
“It looked like a pearl,” she said. “It was a pearl.”
“Maybe it rolled behind the seat.”
“Or maybe,” she said, “it’s just gone. Sometimes things disappear and there’s not getting the back. That’s just how it is…I had no business wearing those earrings in the first place,” she said after a while. “No business at all.”

Related Characters: The Woman (speaker), The Boy (speaker)
Page Number: 85-86
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Mother remembers losing a beautiful pearl earring on the train to the camp. The Mother brings it up to the Boy, but immediately she comes to a cynical acceptance: she's lost the earring and she's not getting it back. The Mother's next choice of words is interesting: she claims that she has "no business" wearing earrings at all.

The passage could be said to symbolize the loss of Japanese identity and pride in the course of the internment program. The Mother loses her pearl earring (in Japan, pearl is a highly prized form of jewelry, and it's not unreasonable to guess that the Mother's pearl earrings came from her old life in Japan, not her new life in America). Just as the Mother loses her earring, she loses her contact with Japanese culture and heritage--she's lost it and she's (seemingly) never getting it back. Furthermore, the Woman has now internalized the racist idea that she herself is somehow dangerous or "wrong," and so she feels that she had "no business" showing off or making herself stand out in any way by wearing pearl earrings. The camps have robbed her not only of a connection to Japanese culture, but also of her own pride as an American and a human being.

She’d been in America for almost twenty years now. But she did not want to cause any trouble—“The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”—or be labeled disloyal. She did not want to be sent back to Japan. “There’s no future for us there. We’re here. Your father’s here. The most important thing is that we stay together.”…
Loyalty. Disloyalty. Allegiance. Obedience.
“Words,” she said, “it’s all just words.”

Related Characters: The Woman (speaker), The Boy , The Man / The Father
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Woman makes a difficult choice. The army has come to the internment camps and asked for "volunteers" to join the military. there's a pretty clear program of coercion going on here (as evidenced by the fact that men who refuse to join the armed forces are sent to a different, presumably harsher camp), and so the Mother is understandably frightened that something bad will happen if she doesn't agree to the loyalty pledge.

In the end, the Mother agrees to pledge her loyalty to the U.S., because she thinks that her pledge is meaningless. She isn't particularly interested in the abstract notions of allegiance or obedience to U.S. authority--her real priority is her children, and therefore she'll do whatever she needs to do to stay with them, even if this means compromising her ideals and "keeping her head down."

Years later the boy would recall standing beside his mother at the service, wondering just what kind of flower it was the man had seen.
A rose? A tulip? A daffodil?
And if he had plucked it. Then what?
He imagined exploding ships, clouds of black smoke, hundreds of B-29s falling down in flames from the sky.

Related Characters: The Woman, The Boy
Page Number: 101-102
Explanation and Analysis:

In this bitterly sardonic passage, the Boy watches as a Japanese internment camp resident is buried--he was shot for trying to venture outside the camp to pick a flower.

The passage reinforces the absurdity of the interment program itself: despite minimal evidence of espionage in America, Japanese-Americans were sent into camps under the delusional belief that they'd plot the destruction of the American military. This absurdity is both emphasized and made tragically beautiful in the Boy's imagination--he sees the dead man's quest for the flower as something meaningful and powerful, an act that could destroy the American army, or, perhaps, simply bring an end to the war itself.

Several days later, the street signs appeared. Suddenly there was an Elm Street, a Willow Street, a Cottonwood way… “It doesn’t look like we’ll be leaving here any time soon,” said the boy’s mother.
“At least we know where we are,” said the girl.

Related Characters: The Woman (speaker), The Girl (speaker), The Boy
Related Symbols: Trees
Page Number: 1021
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the American guards try to make the internment camp "homier" and more enjoyable for the Japanese-American residents. First they plant trees, but these soon die. Then in their place they put up street signs named after trees: there's an Elm Street, a Willow Street, and probably a Maple Street, too. On one level, this shows how unnatural the camp is--the families there aren't in any kind of real "home," any more than a street named "Elm Street" is an elm tree. But in another sense, these street names are very much "American," emphasizing the overpowering whiteness and Americanness of the camp: all traces of Japanese culture are wiped out, replaced by bland American place names.

The Girl sarcastically comments, "We know where we are," when in fact, the Japanese-American prisoners have no idea where they "are"--they're displaced from their Japanese heritage, as well as their American citizenship.

Chapter 4 Quotes

And when our mother pushed us gently, but firmly, from behind, and whispered, Go to him, all we could do was stare down at our shoes, unable to move. Because the man who stood there before us was not our father. He was somebody else, a stranger who had been sent back in our father’s place. That’s not him, we said to our mother, That’s not him, but our mother no longer seemed to hear us…He got down on his knees and he took us into his arms and over and over again, he uttered our names, but still we could not be sure it was him.

Related Characters: The Woman (speaker), The Girl (speaker), The Boy (speaker), The Man / The Father
Page Number: 131-132
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Boy and Girl reunite with their Father. Yet when they see him, he’s been so utterly transformed by his experiences (experiences which we’ve yet to hear about) that his children can’t even tell who he is. Although the passage is narrated from the perspective of the Girl and the Boy, it’s the Mother and Father who bear the real burden of sadness: when the children say they can’t even recognize their own father, it’s a safe guess that both parents feel crushed. Furthermore, the Father's strangeness to his children suggests that he has become just as "inscrutable" as the other male Japanese prisoners, those whom the Boy long ago felt "all looked the same." His role as a dehumanized prisoner has actually robbed him of his identity and individuality.

The passage is a tragic refutation of the idea that the Japanese-American families will be able to “go back to normal” after internment, as the Boy and Girl childishly tried to believe. In fact, internment has changed family so utterly that normality will never be possible again. (The passage is also a good example of the way that internment has wiped out Japanese heritage in the young generation of Japanese-American children: the young Boy and Girl feel little to no connection to their “father land,” as symbolized by their confusion when facing their own father.)

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The Woman Character Timeline in When the Emperor was Divine

The timeline below shows where the character The Woman appears in When the Emperor was Divine. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1: Evacuation Order No. 19
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Social Class and the American Dream Theme Icon
Nine days later, the woman is still not finished packing. She pulls on her white silk gloves and goes to... (full context)
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Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
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Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
When the woman gets home, she finishes packing: she rolls up the Oriental rug in the living room,... (full context)
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Inscrutability and the Unknown  Theme Icon
The woman packs everything in her house into boxes and carries them into the sunroom. She locks... (full context)
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In the kitchen, the woman prepares some eggs and salmon in a bowl and lays it out on the front... (full context)
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Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
The woman puts on her gloves and with the twine she bought from the store, she ties... (full context)
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Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Social Class and the American Dream 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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
Imprisonment and Freedom  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... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
The woman takes a bottle of plum wine, sits down on the floor, and drinks. Without the... (full context)
Chapter 2: Train
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Social Class and the American Dream Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
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Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
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...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... (full context)
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Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Imprisonment and Freedom  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... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Inscrutability and the Unknown  Theme Icon
...soldier comes through the train again, telling everyone to put their shades down. The girl’s mother tells her to try to sleep. (full context)
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Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Social Class and the American Dream Theme Icon
Inscrutability and the Unknown  Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Chapter 3: When The Emperor Was Divine
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Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
The woman, the girl, and the boy are assigned a room in a barrack not far from... (full context)
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Social Class and the American Dream Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
...owned a small nursery, and the cook had always been a cook. One evening, the woman is carrying a bucket of water back to the barracks when she runs into her... (full context)
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Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
...out of the house while he was still in his slippers. The next day, the woman lit a bonfire in the yard and burned all the letters from their family in... (full context)
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Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Social Class and the American Dream Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
In late November, the army plants full-grown trees at the camp. As the woman looks at the trees from the barrack room window, she says that the soil is... (full context)
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Inscrutability and the Unknown  Theme Icon
While the girl withdraws from the family, the woman withdraws almost completely into herself. The woman spends all day inside, staring at the stoves... (full context)
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One day, the woman says she cannot bear the endless waiting. She hangs a white sheet around her cot... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
The Model Minority  Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
...is sent with his wife to a different camp for the “disloyals.” In response, the woman tells the children that they shouldn’t cause trouble because the “nail that sticks up gets... (full context)
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...with the names of trees appear throughout the camp. Seeing the signs suddenly appear, the woman tells the boy and girl with resignation that it doesn’t look like their family will... (full context)
Chapter 4: In a Stranger’s Backyard
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Social Class and the American Dream Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
...after the war, the children notice that the trees seem taller and the rosebush the woman planted in the front yard is no longer there. As they walk towards their house... (full context)
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At the front door, the woman takes out the key that has been hanging around her neck for the entire time... (full context)
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...gone. Despite the mess, the children run through the house, yelling “Fire! Help! Wolf!” The woman walks out the back door and stands under the shade of the tree. The boy... (full context)
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...them. One man’s house was doused with gasoline and set fire with him inside. The woman makes the children sleep in their clothes because, as she says, “We will not be... (full context)
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...amount given to criminals on the day they’re released from prison. With this money, the woman buys thick mattresses for the boy and the girl to sleep on in the front... (full context)
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The woman begins looking for work, but every time she applies for a job, the business owners... (full context)
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...for him for years, they don’t know what to do when they see him. The woman pushes them forward to give the man a hug, but they are unable to move... (full context)
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...something else when they give their answers. They wonder if he is thinking of the woman, about how she is at work cleaning another person’s house. Or maybe he is thinking... (full context)
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The Model Minority  Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
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...everywhere burst into bloom, the boy and the girl wander the streets looking for their mother’s rosebush. They go to other gardens and inspect other people’s roses, but they never find... (full context)