When the Emperor was Divine


Julie Otsuka

Teachers and parents! Our Teacher Edition on Emperor was Divine makes teaching easy.

When the Emperor was Divine Summary

On a spring day in 1942 in Berkeley, California, the unnamed character of the woman reads a sign, Evacuation Order No. 19, in the post office. The sign says that all people of Japanese ancestry living in the city will be evacuated in the next couple of weeks. The woman returns home to pack and to get her two preadolescent children—known as the girl and the boy—ready to evacuate. Last December, the woman’s husband was detained by the U.S. government under suspicion of being an “alien enemy.” On the night before the evacuation, when her children are in bed, the woman sits on the floor of her kitchen and cries at the thought of leaving with no idea if she will ever come back.

The woman, girl, and boy travel through Nevada on a train to a relocation camp in Utah. The train is full of people of Japanese ancestry and the armed guards who accompany them. The train passes through a town, and everyone must close their shades—the last time they passed a town with their shades up, someone threw a rock through the window. A few hours after she falls a sleep, the girl wakes up to see out the window a group of wild mustangs galloping across the desert. She wakes her brother and pushes his face gently to the glass. In a soft moan, he says, “They’re going away.” The next morning, soldiers with bayonets escort the family off the train and into a camp called Topaz, where hundreds of tar-paper barracks are lined up in a dried up salt lake. The camp is surrounded by barbed-wire fences.

At the beginning of the internment, the boy thinks he sees his father in the faces of all of the other adult male prisoners. To him, they all look alike. He remembers how the day after the FBI took his father away, his mother burned all their relics from Japan: the letters from family, the Japanese flag, and the records of Japanese opera.

In the winter, the boy asks the girl where their captors get the meat they’re eating. The girl says the army rounds up the wild horses and shoots them. The girl starts going through a rebellious phase, spending less time with her family, eating her meals with the other girls, and smoking cigarettes. Meanwhile her mother spends all her days inside, staring at the stove or sleeping.

In April, a man is shot near the fences for supposedly trying to escape, but the prisoners claim he was only reaching out to pluck a flower. Often at night, the boy imagines sitting next to his father and telling him everything that he has missed out on.

When the family is finally released and returns home, they find their house in disrepair. The rosebush out front has been uprooted. Broken bottles, soiled mattresses, and empty food cans litter the floor, and someone wrote a racist slur in the bedroom. On the first night back, they sleep together in a room that looks almost like the one in the barracks. In class, the children behave very well so that no one will mistake them for the enemy ever again. Their mother looks for work, but few people will hire her since she is Japanese. She eventually finds a job as a maid. One day, a telegram arrives saying that the father will arrive home soon. When they meet him at the train station, he is a toothless, bald old man. The kids don’t recognize him, even when he gets on his knees and hugs them, uttering their names. At home, he is either silent or flying into rages over the smallest things. He spends most of his days in his room, scribbling in his journal. In May, when the roses burst into bloom, the children wander the streets looking for their mother’s rosebush. They cannot find it, but imagine that in some stranger’s backyard, the rosebush is blossoming wildly.

In the final chapter, written like a journal entry, the man tells his story. He sarcastically says that everything is true: he engaged in sabotage and spied on his neighbors. He says that Japanese traitors are all around: the priest, the reverend, the shoeshine boy, and more. He says that his crime was being too short, too dark of skin, too proud. The novel ends with him apologizing for these “crimes” before writing, “There. That’s it. I’ve said. Now can I go?”