When the Emperor was Divine

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Themes and Colors
Racism Theme Icon
The Model Minority  Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Social Class and the American Dream Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
Inscrutability and the Unknown  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in When the Emperor was Divine, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon

While reading When the Emperor was Divine, some readers might ask themselves why Japanese-Americans did not resist their own unlawful incarceration. The novel answers this question in the opening scene, when the woman obligingly follows the evacuation order displayed in the post office window. For the woman, being a good citizen entails following the nation’s laws. Having lived as a law-abiding citizen her entire life, she does not need a police officer or a soldier to force her to evacuate because she has already internalized the value of obeying the law. The novel therefore suggests that people quickly learn to normalize the laws of their society, even when these laws are unjust towards the very people defending and obeying them.

As the novel progresses, Otsuka provides numerous examples of how people come to consent to their own imprisonment. The boy blames himself rather than the government for getting his family sent to the camp. The prisoners tell themselves they prefer the camp over the outside world of racism and discrimination, and no one even complains about or questions their internment itself. Instead of struggling against the injustice through acts of resistance, most people simply accept their imprisonment because they feel as if they have no other choice.

Even after the family’s literal imprisonment is over, the family cannot escape the psychological affects of their traumatic experience—essentially a mental prison that is much harder to escape. On the first night home, the family sleeps in the same arrangement as they did in the camp. In this way, they turn their own home into a reflection of the camp—like the family’s pet bird, they have gotten used to their cage, and find it difficult to give up what is familiar. On a deeper level, the characters want to forget their time in the camp, but the past won’t let them go. By the end of the novel, they become prisoners of their own memories, unable to move on from the experience. As mentioned in the previous theme, the children also try to conform to the ideal of the “model minority” and, as a result, construct new psychological restrictions for themselves.

Freedom, though never truly attained, is always a possibility just beyond the characters’ reach, an ideal for which they yearn. In one of the final scenes of the novel, the rosebush represents that ideal of freedom. Unlike the family, the rosebush is “blossoming madly, wildly, pressing one perfect red flower after another out into the late afternoon light.” The rosebush’s wild growth is its freedom, representing people’s potential when they are not constricted by oppressive laws or discrimination. The novel concludes with this image of wild freedom, a freedom the characters long for despite the various prisons that confine them.

Imprisonment and Freedom ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Imprisonment and Freedom appears in each chapter of When the Emperor was Divine. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Imprisonment and Freedom Quotes in When the Emperor was Divine

Below you will find the important quotes in When the Emperor was Divine related to the theme of Imprisonment and Freedom .
Chapter 1 Quotes

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.


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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

All summer long they had lived in the old horse stalls in the stables behind the racetrack. In the morning they had washed their faces in the long tin troughs and at night they had slept on mattresses stuffed with straw…On their first night there her brother had plucked the stiff horse hairs out of the freshly white-washed walls and run his fingers along the toothmarks on top of the double Dutch door where the wood was soft and worn.

Related Characters: The Girl, The Boy
Related Symbols: Wild and Domesticated Animals
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Japanese-American families are herded into horse stables and treated like animals. They're forced to sleep and live in the same quarters that used to house horses--moreover, the younger Japanese-Americans see evidence of the link between their own lives and those of the horses, as here, the Boy sees the bite marks that the horses have made in the wooden doors of the stables.

The passage underscores the dehumanizing effects of the Japanese Internment program. The Japanese families who were imprisoned during World War Two had committed no crime, and many of them were proud Americans. And yet they were treated like dangerous criminals, and imprisoned for their potential disloyalty to America. In the process, the Japanese came to see that their government didn't think of them as people at all--just dangerous animals.

“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.

She pulled back the shade…and saw a herd of wild mustangs galloping across the desert…The dark bodies of the horses were drifting and turning in the moonlight and wherever they went they left behind great billowing clouds of dust as proof their passage. The girl lifted the shade and pulled her brother to the window and pressed his face gently to the glass and when he saw the mustangs…he let out a low moan that sounded like a cry of pain but was not. He watched the horses as they galloped toward the mountains and he said, very softly, “They are going away.” Then a soldier with a flashlight and a broom came walking down the aisle. The girl let the shade fall back against the glass and told the boy to return to his seat.

Related Characters: The Boy (speaker), The Girl
Related Symbols: Wild and Domesticated Animals
Page Number: 45-46
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the train passes by a herd of wild horses, which the family sees from its train car. The Boy and Girl peer out of the window and sees the horses, and they are moved by their beauty and freedom. There is something sublime about this moment, particularly in its contrast of the horses' wildness to the family's situation on the train. The horses have the freedom to "go away" as they please, while the Japanese Americans on the train are imprisoned. At the same time, the passage also suggests a similarity between the horses and the people on the train: like the horses, the family is "going away" to an internment camp--a place that's just as foreign and mysterious to the Boy as the destination of the wild horses.

At Topaz the bus stopped. The girl looked out the window and saw hundreds of tar-paper barracks sitting beneath the hot sun. She saw telephone poles and barbed-wire fences. She saw soldiers. And everything she saw she saw through a cloud of fine white dust that had once been the bed of an ancient salt lake. The boy began to cough and the girl untied her scarf and shoved it into his hand and told him to hold it over his nose and mouth. He pressed the scarf to his face and took the girl’s hand and together they stepped out of the bus and into the blinding white glare of the desert.

Related Characters: The Girl, The Boy
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, the family finally gets off the bus and prepares to enter the internment camp. The first vistas of Topaz, the family's new home, are pretty grim: the air itself is hard to breathe, since it's full of dust. The passage is symbolic for a couple reasons. The Girl urges her brother to protect himself from the dust by breathing through cloth--a rare moment of maturity and selflessness for the Girl, as she seems to connect with her family in this moment of fear and confusion. Furthermore, the blinding whiteness of the dust is potentially a subtle symbol for the racist ideology that allows white Americans to blindly and ignorantly send Japanese-American citizens to camp.

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.

In early autumn farm recruiters arrived to sign up new workers, and the War Relocation Authority allowed many of the young men and women to go out and help harvest the crops…They said they’d been shot at. Spat on. Refused entrance to the local diner. The movie theater. The dry goods store. They said the signs in the windows were the same wherever they went: NO JAPS ALLOWED. Life was easier, they said, on this side of the fence.

Page Number: 66-67
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage conveys the extent of the hostility to Japanese-American in the United States at the time. Some of the Japanese internment camp residents go out to work outside the camp and harvest crops. But when these workers return to the camps at the end of the season, they say they don't want to leave the camps again. The world outside the fences of the internment camp has become even more harsh and racist to Japanese-Americans. America is locked in a deadly war with the nation of Japan, and Japanese-Americans are considered traitors.

While this is a depressing example of vicious racism in America, the passage also provides another view on imprisonment and "domestication." Like the family's bird that didn't want to leave its cage, some of the Japanese Americans come to find comfort in their imprisonment--they aren't free or fulfilled, but at least they're protected from some of the dangers and cruelties of the wider world. Of course, this is no justification for the Internment program itself, but here Otsuka does offer an interesting view on the psychology of imprisonment.

In the dream there was always a beautiful wooden door. The beautiful wooden door was very small—the size of a pillow, say, or an encyclopedia. Behind the small but beautiful wooden door there was a second door, and behind the second door there was a picture of the Emperor, which no one was allowed to see. For the Emperor was holy and divine. A god.

Related Characters: The Boy , Emperor Hirohito
Related Symbols: The Japanese Emperor
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Boy has a recurring dream about the Emperor of Japan, Hirohito. Hirohito is a clear symbol of the Boy's Japanese heritage, in all its strengths and weaknesses. The fact that the Boy can only access his Japanese heritage in dreams is a sad reminder of his present situation: he lives in camps where Japanese culture of any kind is frowned upon and even considered treacherous.

The Boy's dreams suggest that he acutely feels the struggle between his American citizenship and his Japanese heritage. Americans have thrown him in a camp under the delusion that he's a danger to the country, and yet the Boy is clearly pretty ignorant of Japanese culture; he has only the vaguest idea who the Emperor is or what he symbolizes (if the Boy knew a little more about Hirohito's life, he might not like him so much). In short, the passage sums up the ironies of the internment program: the American soldiers were guarding the Japanese people who were least likely to feel any strong connection with Japan, or be traitorous to America in any substantive way.

“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.

He traced out an SOS in huge letters across the firebreak but before anyone could read what he had written he wiped the letters away.

Related Characters: The Boy
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Boy traces an SOS in the ground, having heard that prisoners and castaway will sometimes do so in an effort to be rescued by passing airplanes. Of course, the Boy realizes his mistake: no airplanes are going to rescue the Japanese-Americans--they've been confined to the internment camps on the orders of the President himself.

The passage could also be taken more symbolically: an echo of the scene earlier in the novel in which the Boy writes his name in the dust. The Boy is beginning to realize that no external forces are going to save him from his depression or loneliness--he's going to have to take care of himself. Thus, the passage is a sign of both the Boy's growing maturity and the danger of him losing his sense of self, both changes precipitated by the internment process.

Chapter 4 Quotes

We put down our things and ran from one room to the next shouting, “Fire! Help! Wolf!” simply because we could.

Related Characters: The Girl, The Boy
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the family returns from the internment camp to the house where they used to live. Predictably, the house has fallen into disrepair—it’s full of trash and broken bottles, and has been vandalized with racist slurs. While the Japanese internment program was initiated for supposedly noble reasons—the protection of American citizens—its most tangible result is far more vulgar: the robbery and vandalism of Japanese-American houses.

The children have a fascinating reaction when they realize their house was robbed: they run through the halls screaming about the damage. It’s as if the children have been forced to keep silent about their problems for so long (who could they complain to when the American soldiers forced them to leave their homes?) that it’s satisfying just to yell things that are usually forbidden (like crying "fire" when there is no fire).

Nothing’s changed, we said to ourselves. The war had been an interruption, nothing more. We would pick up our lives where we had left off and go on. We would go back to school again. We would study hard, every day, to make up for lost time. We would seek out old classmates…We would listen to their music. We would dress just like they did. We would change our names to sound more like theirs. And if our mother called out to us on the street by our real names we would turn away and pretend not to know her. We would never be mistaken for the enemy again!

Related Characters: The Girl, The Boy
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chilling passage, the children of the Woman return to their old lives—and they find that little has changed: the radio programs are the same, their food is the same, their street is the same, etc. The children are young enough to think that their lives can go on, exactly as they had before the war, without any further problems, as long as they try to deny their Japanese heritage and fit in with their white peers.

Of course, there is a very dark undercurrent to the false optimism of this passage. The Japanese-American community has come to see how fragile its place in the U.S. really is: at the drop of a hat, the President can sign an executive order and pull the people away from their houses. Granted, many Japanese-American families returned to their old lives after being released from the camps, and found prosperity and acceptance within the American mainstream. But this passage suggests that they partly were so desperate for American success because of a desire to avoid being interned again. They believed (whether consciously or not) that if they kept their heads down, didn't make trouble or demand justice, and succeeded in school and work (i.e., became the "model minority" of America) they’d never be "mistaken for the enemy again." This shows how the very idea of the "model minority" is flawed and racist, and the result of an internalized "imprisonment" (suppressing one's culture and true desires out of fear) that is just another incarnation of the literal imprisonment of the internment camps.

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.)