When the Emperor was Divine

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Stains Symbol Icon

Stains are the presiding symbolic image throughout the first chapter of the novel. The first stain appears on Joe Lundy’s cash register. As Lundy and the woman talk indirectly about the imminent evacuation, he tries, in vain, to wipe away the stain. Here, the stain represents the forced evacuation of Japanese-Americans. As one of the United States’ greatest shames, the national relocation of Japanese-Americans will forever mar, or stain, American history. In this scene, Lundy’s friendliness to the woman suggests that he harbors no ill will towards her, but his vain attempt to erase the stain shows that all white Americans are complicit in this injustice, even those who disagree with the evacuations but do nothing to stop it. Later in the chapter, a bloodstain appears on the woman’s gloves when she kills White Dog. Though the woman kills White Dog out of mercy, so that it won’t starve when the family is gone, Otsuka suggests that even this action will have lasting psychological effects on the woman. The stain imagery implies that all violence leaves echoes and traces that affect us into the future. From the cash register that Joe Lundy just cannot get clean to the woman’s white gloves soiled by her dog’s blood, stains represent the enduring presence of past violence and transgressions.

Stains Quotes in When the Emperor was Divine

The When the Emperor was Divine quotes below all refer to the symbol of Stains. 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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Stains Symbol Timeline in When the Emperor was Divine

The timeline below shows where the symbol Stains 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
Social Class and the American Dream Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
...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... (full context)