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.
Racism Theme Icon

Beginning in February, 1942, the United States government sent over 100,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps for the duration of World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government feared that Japanese-American citizens would ally themselves to Japan and engage in acts of sabotage and espionage against America. In the 1980s, however, a congressional commission reviewed the situation and found little evidence of Japanese-Americans having expressed any disloyalty to the United States. The committee concluded that internment was a product of racism against Asian-Americans rather than of a legitimate concern about national security.

In its recounting of one family’s experience of internment, Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine explores the various racist stereotypes surrounding Asian identity that contributed to the unjust incarceration of so many people. On one level, Otsuka demonstrates how the fear of Japanese-American disloyalty stems from the racist tendency to lump all Asian people together as the same. For the U.S. government, there was no difference between the Japanese air force pilot bombing Pearl Harbor and the Japanese American citizen filling a prescription at the local pharmacy. Both were labeled as enemy aliens: foreign, different, and dangerous. It was this belief that Japanese-Americans were perpetual foreigners—never fully able to assimilate into American culture—that led to the fear of their disloyalty to the American government.

Otsuka illustrates the prevalence of these beliefs at the time by showing how even the unnamed character of the boy has internalized the same racist beliefs as white Americans. Since the boy has lived his entire life in America, he is so assimilated into American culture that he adopts the prevalent racist beliefs about Japanese people. When he first arrives at the internment camp, he uses racially-insensitive terms to describe how all the Japanese men look the same. Indoctrinated in the American belief system, he holds the same stereotypes as the average American who fears that Japanese-Americans are no different than enemy Japanese soldiers.

Even the main characters’ namelessness embodies how racism eradicates individuality. Racism works by applying a stereotype or judgment to an entire group of people, erasing the individual identities of the people in the group. The lack of names, therefore, represents how racism can make individuals appear like the same nameless members of a minority group—a demonized “other.”

Racism ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Racism 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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Racism 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 Racism.
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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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.

In the middle of the aisle a young girl of five or six was playing with a dirty doll on the floor. The doll had curly yellow hair and big china eyes that opened and closed.
“What’s your doll’s name?”
“Miss Shirley.” The young girl held the doll up shyly. “Mama bought her for me from the Sears catalog.”
“She’s beautiful.”
“You can’t have her.”
“That’s all right.” The girl continued down the aisle.

Related Characters: The Girl (speaker)
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, a young Japanese girl sees another girl playing with a doll. The doll depicts a beautiful American girl (seemingly named after Shirley Temple, a cute American child-star of the period).

The passage underscores how assimilated many of the Japanese-Americans in the camp became in the years leading up to their interment--which makes the fact that they've been sent to the camp all the more absurd. The passage also shows young people internalizing Western beauty standards: because they're surrounded by American dolls ordered at American department stores, they're subtly taught that whiteness equals beauty, and their aesthetic standards are based on blonde hair and blue eyes--leading to internalized inferiority complexes for those who don't fit into such categories.

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

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.

Whenever the boy walked past the shadow of a guard tower he pulled his cap down low over his head and tried not to say the word. But sometimes it slipped out anyway, Hirohito, Hirohito, Hirohito. He said it quietly. Quickly. He whispered it.

Related Characters: The Boy , Emperor Hirohito
Related Symbols: The Japanese Emperor
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Boy passes by some of the American guards who run the camp--he's walking by the huge guard tower that looks down on the Japanese-American camp residents. In spite of the fact that he's so close to Americans, the Boy mutters the name "Hirohito" to himself--the name of the Japanese Emperor, considered a divine presence. Hirohito was the Emperor during World War II, and he was popular even among Japanese-Americans. Thus, for the Boy to mutter Hirohito's name is a quiet act of rebellion: he's naming the spiritual leader of America's enemy, and he's showing his allegiance with Japanese culture. The Boy is frightened of the guards, but he finds tiny ways to rebel against their authority and retain his dignity and culture in an environment of racism and dehumanization.

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.

“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.

Chapter 4 Quotes

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.

Chapter 5 Quotes

I spied on you—you get up at six, you like bacon and eggs, you love baseball, you take your coffee with cream, your favorite color is blue.

Related Characters: The Man / The Father (speaker)
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Man sarcastically confesses to his supposed “crimes.” He claims that he planted dynamite on train tracks, sabotaged the American war effort, etc. He adds that he’s been spying on Americans—watching them take their coffee, watch baseball, and so on. The truth, of course, is that the Man has done nothing of the kind: he’s just a regular American citizen who’s being scapegoated by the racist, intolerant American society of the 1940s.

The novel has used sarcasm and irony to make a point before, but never as bitterly as in this closing chapter. The Man knows he’s done nothing wrong: he’s lashing out in impotent rage against the powerful American officials who’ve arranged for him to be detained. More subtly, the passage implies that in being detained by American officials for his supposedly un-American behavior, the Man has actually become more anti-American: he’s come to resent the Americans who’ve stripped him of his rights, and now hates American culture, too (baseball, bacon and eggs, etc.).