Stains are the presiding symbolic image throughout the first chapter of the novel. The first stain appears on Joe Lundy’s cash register. As Lundy and the woman talk indirectly about the imminent evacuation, he tries, in vain, to wipe away the stain. Here, the stain represents the forced evacuation of Japanese-Americans. As one of the United States’ greatest shames, the national relocation of Japanese-Americans will forever mar, or stain, American history. In this scene, Lundy’s friendliness to the woman suggests that he harbors no ill will towards her, but his vain attempt to erase the stain shows that all white Americans are complicit in this injustice, even those who disagree with the evacuations but do nothing to stop it. Later in the chapter, a bloodstain appears on the woman’s gloves when she kills White Dog. Though the woman kills White Dog out of mercy, so that it won’t starve when the family is gone, Otsuka suggests that even this action will have lasting psychological effects on the woman. The stain imagery implies that all violence leaves echoes and traces that affect us into the future. From the cash register that Joe Lundy just cannot get clean to the woman’s white gloves soiled by her dog’s blood, stains represent the enduring presence of past violence and transgressions.
The When the Emperor was Divine quotes below all refer to the symbol of Stains. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one: Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Anchor Books edition of When the Emperor was Divine published in 2003.).
The timeline below shows where the symbol Stains appears in When the Emperor was Divine. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1: Evacuation Order No. 19