When the Emperor was Divine

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The Model Minority 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.
The Model Minority  Theme Icon

The term “model minority” refers to minority groups that have supposedly achieved high levels of socioeconomic success in America. The term initially was used to describe Japanese-Americans, but has since extended to include people from Jewish, East Asian, and South Asian communities as well.

In this novel, Otsuka suggests that the experience of internment acted as a sort of cultural trauma in the minds of Japanese-Americans, causing them to react by seeking conventional forms of success in the United States. For example, as a result of their traumatic experiences in the camp, the boy and girl decide to be obedient and work extra hard so that they will never be mistaken for “the enemy” again. The children hope that by conforming to conventional American definitions of success, they will appear as upstanding citizens and thus be safer from future discrimination.

This fear of returning to the camp essentially forces the children to construct a new, psychological kind of prison for themselves. To be part of the model minority, the children have to repress emotions like anger and frustration—anything that might be seen as negative and used as an excuse for discrimination. They even have to accept the racism and intolerance of their white American peers without complaint, so as not to appear that they want to change the racial status-quo. To conform to the ideal of the model minority, the children have to restrict their behaviors, feelings, and desires. In the end, however, they have simply moved from a physical prison to a prison of the mind.

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The Model Minority ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Model Minority 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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The Model Minority 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 The Model Minority .
Chapter 3 Quotes

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."


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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.).