When the Emperor was Divine

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Trees Symbol Icon

In a novel rife with symbols, trees are perhaps the most recurring one. On the most basic level, trees represent home, one’s roots in the ground. On the evening before the family is relocated, the woman plucks a leaf from their tree in the backyard, as if taking with her a memento of home before she leaves for an unknown period of time. The trees then begin to take on more symbolic significance when characters throughout the novel—including minor characters like Teizo “Ted” Ishimoto—feel shocked at the total absence of trees at the camps. For them, the lack of trees is a clear sign that the camp will never be “home.” Trees are stable and require deep roots to live, but the camp is merely a temporary dwelling place, rather than a home, for the duration of the war. When the army actually tries to plant trees at the camp, they all die, illustrating the incompatibility of home with internment. With the trees dead, the army instead puts up street signs named after trees in a vain, superficial attempt to make the camp seem more like home. But the internment camp is only a real home inasmuch as the “Oak Street” sign is a real tree.

Trees Quotes in When the Emperor was Divine

The When the Emperor was Divine quotes below all refer to the symbol of Trees. 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 3 Quotes

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.

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Trees Symbol Timeline in When the Emperor was Divine

The timeline below shows where the symbol Trees 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
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Chapter 2: Train
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Social Class and the American Dream Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
Inscrutability and the Unknown  Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Chapter 3: When The Emperor Was Divine
Racism Theme Icon
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,... (full context)
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
All the trees die at the beginning of spring, and soon afterward a man is shot dead near... (full context)
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
When the following summer arrives, street signs with the names of trees appear throughout the camp. Seeing the signs suddenly appear,... (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
...the girl. When the family arrives home after the war, the children notice that the trees seem taller and the rosebush the woman planted in the front yard is no longer... (full context)
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
...Wolf!” The woman walks out the back door and stands under the shade of the tree. The boy and the girl think about how they came from a place without any... (full context)