When the Emperor was Divine

When the Emperor was Divine Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Using the first-person plural of “we,” this chapter is written through the dual perspective of the boy and the girl. When the family arrives home after the war, the children notice that the trees seem taller and the rosebush the woman planted in the front yard is no longer there. As they walk towards their house for the first time since returning, the man next door, not the same man who was living there before the war, rakes leaves in his yard and nods to the family. The woman ignores him, making no response back. The children wonder if he is one of the men their mother warned them about, the men who would not be happy to see Japanese people returning to their homes.
The reappearance of the trees indicates that the family has finally been released (although the conflation of the children’s voices into a single “we” suggests a further loss of identity and individuality). The trees, however, are not like the children remember them—the children have returned with new experiences and perspectives, meaning that their former home will look different to them now. For example, though the neighbor is seemingly friendly, the woman does not trust him anymore—he is now just another white person complicit in her internment. The woman brings her own suspicions and memories of the camp to bear on her neighborhood, changing the way she interacts with the people around her.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom Theme Icon
Social Class and the American Dream Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity Theme Icon
At the front door, the woman takes out the key that has been hanging around her neck for the entire time they’ve been away. Once, when the woman thought no one was looking, the boy and the girl had seen her put the key in her mouth and smile with delight. Their mother opens the door. After three years and five months, they are finally home.
The key embodies the woman’s intense desire to return home. Secretly putting the key in her mouth also has erotic overtones that suggest that her desire to return home is mixed with her desire to be with her husband again.
Themes
Imprisonment and Freedom Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity Theme Icon
The family finds their house in disrepair. The paint is peeling, the floor is littered with broken bottles and empty food cans, and the furniture is all gone. Despite the mess, the children run through the house, yelling “Fire! Help! Wolf!” The woman walks out the back door and stands under the shade of the tree. The boy and the girl think about how they came from a place without any shade, where the only trees were the ones in their dreams.
The children revel in their freedom, yelling words that most American children are told not to yell unless they must. In the camp, the boy and girl had to follow strict rules about what they could do and say. Now, by yelling these forbidden words, the children reclaim some of the freedom and agency they lost in the camp—although they still speak with one undifferentiated voice in the narrative itself. Like the trees in the street, the backyard tree symbolically indicates the family’s long-awaited homecoming.
Themes
Imprisonment and Freedom Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity Theme Icon
On the day before the evacuation, a lawyer had come to their house and said that he would take care of their property when the family was gone. But instead he had rented the place to squatters and never sent the family any money. In the upstairs rooms, there are soiled mattresses and old magazines with pictures of naked men and women. The sunroom has been broken into, and the vacuum, the wedding china, and all the family’s valuables are gone. On the wall of one bedroom there are slurs written in red ink. Several months later, the woman gets the money to paint the walls over, but the words stay in the heads of the boy and the girl for a long time after that.
Before internment, the house was full of the signs of the family members’ identities as Americans with Japanese heritage. The war has stripped that all away, however, leaving their homes and their identities empty. At the camp they had to disavow their Japanese heritage, and now they most likely feel less sure about their identities as Americans, especially since the government turned on them, classifying them as disloyal and un-American. The war has left their identities as empty as their home. The lawyer clearly knew he could exploit the family without any repercussions, as they were the “enemy” and had no rights.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity Theme Icon
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On the first night back, the family all sleeps together in the room at the foot of the stairs. Long and narrow, this room resembled their room in the barracks. All night, the boy and the girl think of the stories they had heard about the people who had went home before them. One man’s house was doused with gasoline and set fire with him inside. The woman makes the children sleep in their clothes because, as she says, “We will not be caught dead in our pajamas.”
The family’s sleeping arrangement illustrates that they cannot let go of the past. By taking up the same positions as they did in the barracks, they transport the living space of the camp into the home. In essence, they’ve made their home into the camp. As we have seen previously, the family has internalized their status as prisoners and cannot simply move on even now that they are home.
Themes
Imprisonment and Freedom Theme Icon
In the following weeks, the family eats at the table and listens to the same radio programs that they had listened to before the war. The names of the streets are the same, and the fashions people wear are the same. The boy and the girl tell themselves nothing has changed, that the war had been an interruption and they can move on now. They decide to listen to the music everyone listens to, dress like everyone else, and change their names to sound more like everyone else’s names so that they will never be mistaken for the enemy again.
The boy and girl want slip into their past lives, not realizing that the camp and the memories they formed will live on inside them. The children cannot return to a time before internment, even if their neighborhood looks the same, because the children themselves are no longer the same. One way the children express this change is by giving up their connection to Japan so that they will appear more like everyone else. Here we see the seeds of the “model minority” taking root: the children want to conform to social norms because they fear being sent back to the camps.
Themes
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
The war relocation authority had sent each family home with train tickets and twenty-five dollars, which is the same amount given to criminals on the day they’re released from prison. With this money, the woman buys thick mattresses for the boy and the girl to sleep on in the front room—until the night someone throws a whiskey bottle through the window. After that, the children sleep in the back bedroom, the one with the slurs on the walls.
By giving the family the same amount of money given to criminals, the government has labeled the family members ex-convicts, even though they have done nothing wrong. Treating the Japanese citizens as criminals also anticipates the racist climate waiting for the family outside the camp. If the government still considers them criminals, then it’s not surprising that many white people will still treat them as enemies or dangerous strangers rather than neighbors and fellow citizens.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom Theme Icon
As American soldiers come back from war and tell gruesome stories of the torture they suffered at the hands of Japanese prison guards, the boy and the girl look at themselves in the mirror and see what they think is the face of the enemy. They feel guilty, but tell themselves that all they need to do is behave in order to convince everyone that they are loyal to America. From then on, they avoid their reflections in the mirrors.
Since the children have been assimilated into a deeply racist culture, they have adopted racist beliefs. Whenever they look into the mirror, they don’t see individuals, but Japanese soldiers. Even to themselves, they seem like dangerous aliens. In this way, they’ve internalized the stereotype that all Asian people look (and are) the same. To prove that they are good American citizens, then, the children decide to obey all the rules and become “model minorities”—essentially giving up their identities and individuality out of fear.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
The Model Minority Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity Theme Icon
The children’s classmates at school are polite, but are no longer friendly, and the boy and the girl keep mostly to themselves. If people whisper behind their backs or call them something unkind, the children pretend not to notice. They keep their heads down and don’t cause any trouble. They speak softly and follow all the rules. If they do something they feel is wrong, like accidently touch another person’s arm, they imagine themselves saying that they are sorry, that they never wanted to touch you, that they’ve always wanted to touch you, that they will never touch you again.
This fear of returning to the camp forces the children into constructing a new, psychological prison for themselves. To be part of the model minority, the children have to repress emotions like anger and frustration. They even have to accept the racism and intolerance of their white peers without complaint. To avoid drawing criticism or even attention onto themselves, the children have to restrict their behaviors, feelings, and desires. In the end, they have simply moved from a physical prison to a prison of the mind.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
The Model Minority Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity Theme Icon
The woman begins looking for work, but every time she applies for a job, the business owners say that they don’t want to upset the other employees or customers by hiring her. She eventually finds a job cleaning the houses of wealthier, white families. The woman tells the boy and the girl that it’s easy work. If they ask you scrub the floors, you get on your hands and knees and scrub.
With the father absent and no one bringing home a salary, the woman begins her pursuit of the “American dream” anew. With few opportunities for Japanese Americans, the woman takes a job as a domestic worker. Though her family achieved the dream of prosperity and stability before the war, she is forced to begin again from the bottom. Otsuka thus suggests that for minorities, the American dream is highly unstable. It can all be taken away in a flash. In essence, the “American dream” is designed to uphold the status quo of white superiority, and so it will always be just that—a fleeting dream—for minorities.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Social Class and the American Dream Theme Icon
A telegram soon arrives from the father, saying that he will arrive in a few days. On the day of his arrival, the family waits for him at the station. When the train comes to a stop, a small stooped man steps off. His face is wrinkled, his suit faded, and his head bald. Though the boy and the girl have been waiting for him for years, they don’t know what to do when they see him. The woman pushes them forward to give the man a hug, but they are unable to move because they fear that this man is not their father. Their father gets on his knees and hugs the children, uttering their names, but even then, they still can’t be sure it’s him.
Just as the family members have lost large chunks of their identities during the war—their cultural identities, their right to be unique and emotionally complex humans, and their class status—so too has the father lost his health and his youth. Because of all he has lost, he appears like an unknown stranger to the children. The father’s identity will continue to diminish until there is practically nothing left of him.
Themes
Imprisonment and Freedom Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity Theme Icon
Inscrutability and the Unknown Theme Icon
When the father comes home, he wears dentures because he lost all his teeth while detained, and he never sings or reads stories to the boy and the girl like he used to do. He never says a word about the years he has been away, and never talks about politics or how he lost his teeth. But the children are happy he never says anything, as they don’t want to know—they just want to forget.
The father’s lost teeth and his change in personality reinforce how imprisonment has chipped away at his identity. The children’s desire to forget will be futile, since their memories of the camp are now part of them, changing the way they act whether they know it or not.
Themes
Imprisonment and Freedom Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity Theme Icon
When he first returns home, the father wanders from room to room, picking up objects in bewilderment, as if he has never seen them before. He is suspicious of everyone, and tells the boy and the girl never to trust others. Small things like a misplaced pen or a dog barking send him into a rage. No one will hire him because his health isn’t good, and because he came from a camp for dangerous enemy aliens. The man spends his days scribbling in notebooks. When he asks the children about their days, he seems to be thinking about something else when they give their answers. They wonder if he is thinking of the woman, about how she is at work cleaning another person’s house. Or maybe he is thinking of the headline in the newspaper he’s reading: “Jap Emperor Repudiates His own Divinity!”
The father continues to slip away from the family, losing all the qualities that made him a loving figure in the children’s memories. At the end of WWII, the U.S. government required the Emperor to repudiate his divinity and declare himself human. In the context of this novel, the Emperor’s loss of divinity coincides with the family members’ loss of identity. In both cases, the U.S. government has forcefully stripped away what made them unique and dignified. In the postwar era, Japanese people are marked by what they lost rather than what they have.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity Theme Icon
The father begins spending more time in his room. He stops reading the newspaper and his handwriting in his notebook grows smaller and fainter until it disappears altogether. Some days he gets dressed, but never leaves the house. He goes to sleep right after dinner because he “might as well get the day over with.” He sleeps poorly, always dreaming of being locked outside the barracks five minutes past curfew, fearing that he will never get back inside.
While the children lose their original identities during a process of frightened assimilation, the chapter concludes with the father losing everything that made him an individual—and without the aspect of assimilating into another culture. The gradual diminishment of his handwriting metaphorically reflects the diminishment of his own life and identity. Though he did not physically die in those camps, he still comes back a ghost.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity Theme Icon
In May, when the roses everywhere burst into bloom, the boy and the girl wander the streets looking for their mother’s rosebush. They go to other gardens and inspect other people’s roses, but they never find her rosebush. Even after they give up, they never stop imagining that in some stranger’s backyard, the rosebush is blossoming “madly, wildly.”
Here, the rosebush represents a hypothetical world where the family never faced internment and could grow freely without restraint. Yet, in the real world of the novel, the rosebush, and the freedom it represents, was stolen from them. Now the mother works long hard hours, the children conform to the strict rules of the model minority, and the father has withdrawn almost entirely from the world. Though they are technically “free” because they are no longer in the camp, they still do not have the freedom to live their lives as they desire. They can only imagine the wild, creative freedom of the rosebush (or the wild horses), as they cannot ever claim this freedom for themselves again.
Themes
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