When the Emperor was Divine

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Inscrutability and the Unknown Theme Analysis

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.
Inscrutability and the Unknown  Theme Icon

At one point in the novel, the boy refers to all the Japanese-American people in the camp as “inscrutable,” which means that they are impossible to know. This “inscrutability” was the exact reason why the U.S. government locked up innocent Japanese-American citizens. Since the government could never know for sure the loyalties of these citizens, the government decided to just incarcerate them all.

Otsuka explores this idea of inscrutability in a number of ways in the novel. The family members’ lack of names—they are “the woman,” “the boy” “the girl” and “the man”—provides the most obvious example. Since Otsuka cannot write about every single Japanese person who went through internment, the family’s namelessness makes them more symbolic, as if the family is a stand-in for the thousands of Japanese-Americans who went through similar experiences during the war. But their lack of names also represents how racism erases people’s individuality. As mentioned in the themes of racism and assimilation, stereotypes make all the individuals in a group seem interchangeable, as if they were all the same. Finally, the family’s namelessness could represent the fundamental inscrutability of identity. Names and the act of naming allow us to identify and know the different elements that make up our world. Naming something is almost like possessing it in a way—it becomes more familiar, less unknown. The family member’s lack of names thus preserves their inscrutability, and in a way makes them seem more alive.

This namelessness and the inscrutability it suggests ultimately show that Otsuka wants the reader to become comfortable with the unknown. From the man’s censored letters and his untold experiences at the camps to the mysteriousness of the woman, so much in this novel is left in the shadows. With all these unknown elements, Otsuka seems to gesture towards the fundamental inscrutability of others—of all others, regardless of race or nationality. We can never truly comprehend the true feelings or experiences of other people, no matter how similar or close to them we are.

But instead of fearing this unknown, Otsuka suggests that we should accept it as an essential part of our reality. Fear of the unknown is essentially what caused the unjust incarceration of thousands of innocent Japanese-American civilians, and this same fear has caused untold tragedies throughout history—it motivated the Nazis to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe, and causes people today to denounce all Muslims or Arabs as terrorists. In contrast to this fear that leads to violence and persecution, Otsuka suggests we should empathize with the unknown, accept it, and recognize the fundamental inscrutability of existence—something common to all of us.

Inscrutability and the Unknown ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Inscrutability and the Unknown 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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Inscrutability and the Unknown 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 Inscrutability and the Unknown .
Chapter 2 Quotes

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.


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Chapter 3 Quotes

For it was true, they all looked alike. Black hair. Slanted eyes. High cheekbones. Thick glasses. Thin lips. Bad teeth. Unknowable. Inscrutable.

Related Characters: The Boy
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Boy arrives at the internment camp and immediately notices a long row of Japanese prisoners. The Japanese-American camp residents are all American citizens, but to the Boy, they all look exactly the same. It's hard to know how to interpret this observation. One could certainly argue that the Boy has internalized some of the racist ideas of his society--the old, offensive stereotype that all Asians look alike, and are somehow "inscrutable" (part of the reason why the Japanese Americans were imprisoned in the first place--the government felt it couldn't trust or understand them). One could also say that the Boy is responding to the dehumanizing effects of the internment program: the proud Japanese Americans have been dehumanized by their internment, and in the process they've lost some of their individuality and personality.

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.

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.)