When the Emperor was Divine

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Social Class and the American Dream 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.
Social Class and the American Dream Theme Icon

The novel opens with the family having achieved the economic prosperity and success associated with the “American dream.” Wealthy enough not to have to work, the woman’s life is full of traditional American signs of prosperity and class. She owns her house in the suburbs, wears white gloves, and hires a maid to clean her house. For all intents and purposes, she has achieved the American dream of a secure, middle-class lifestyle.

It quickly becomes clear, however, that the woman’s class status and wealth cannot protect her or her family from racism and internment. As soon as the U.S. government turns on its Japanese-American citizens, the woman’s wealth and perceived security all disappear. Overnight, the government freezes her bank accounts and takes away the family’s civil liberties. This sudden and staggering injustice, especially compared to the family’s previous status in America, suggests that the “American dream” might only be a fantasy for minority groups. Because they don’t have the security of being a part of the dominant white majority, Asian-Americans and other minorities can easily be turned against and demonized as “other” or not “real” Americans.

Interestingly, at the internment camp class divisions within the Japanese-American community become more blurred. Businessmen become janitors and the wealthy have no access to their money, so there is no real way to back up any elite status they might want to maintain. In this way, institutional racism paradoxically equalizes the Japanese-American community by uniting everyone under the same shared struggle. There are still exceptions to this, however: even after the woman loses her wealth, her former maid—who is also interned at the camp—continues her social role as lower-class “help” when she helps carry the woman’s bucket of water to the barracks. This small interaction suggests that class divisions do not ever fully disappear, even when a community shares a common race, ethnicity, and living situation, and is also struggling against a single mutual oppressor.

When the family returns home after the war, the woman begins anew her pursuit of the American dream. With few job opportunities for Japanese-Americans after the war, the woman takes a job as a domestic worker in order to provide for her children. Having achieved the “dream” and then having had it snatched away from her, she is forced to begin again from the bottom. The novel ultimately suggests that for people of color, the American dream is something of a mirage, or perhaps a nightmare.

Social Class and the American Dream ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Social Class and the American Dream 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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Social Class and the American Dream 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 Social Class and the American Dream.
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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She was ten years old and she knew what she liked. Boys and black licorice and Dorothy Lamour. Her favorite song on the radio was “Don’t Fence Me in.”

Related Characters: The Girl
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator emphasizes the total normalcy and "Americanness" of the characters in the novel: here, we're introduced to the Girl, who's totally innocent, but has the misfortune of being Japanese. The Girl loves all-American things, and couldn't possibly be considered a danger to anyone: and yet because of the Roosevelt administration's internment policy, she's sent to live in a camp with her parents.

The narrator's anger is palpable in the dark sarcasm of this passage. "How is it possible," Otsuka seems to ask, "that she could be sent to a camp? What danger could she possibly pose?" And while the girl's "Americanness" is presented as an example of just how far-fetched the racist suspicions of Japanese Americans were, it also shows how fully she has assimilated--she feels little to no connection to the Japanese culture of her parents.

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.

“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.

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.