Appearing in the title of the book, Emperor Hirohito plays a crucial symbolic role for the boy. In the Japanese culture of the time, the Emperor was considered divine like a god. However, at the end of World War II, the U.S. government required Emperor Hirohito to repudiate his divinity and declare himself human. In the context of this novel, the Emperor’s past divinity represents a time before the war, when the people of Japan had their national pride and their right to self-determination. For the boy, then, the Emperor and his divinity is a symbol for national pride and Japanese cultural identity. As an act of resistance, the boy repeats the name of the Emperor under his breath at the camp, proving to himself that he will not give up his heritage.
The Emperor’s change from the divine to the human also represents the shift the boy goes through in the camp. Before the camp, the boy’s life is full of wonder, imagination, and mystery, but the brutal reality of life at the camp slowly chips away at this imaginative spirit. Thus, we can understand the title of the novel as referring to a pre-war time of (relative) innocence and Japanese national pride, rather than the postwar time of jadedness and submission. For the boy, the loss of the magic and wonder of the world culminates when the Emperor is no longer divine.
The Japanese Emperor Quotes in When the Emperor was Divine
Whenever the boy walked past the shadow of a guard tower he pulled his cap down low over his head and tried not to say the word. But sometimes it slipped out anyway, Hirohito, Hirohito, Hirohito. He said it quietly. Quickly. He whispered it.
In the dream there was always a beautiful wooden door. The beautiful wooden door was very small—the size of a pillow, say, or an encyclopedia. Behind the small but beautiful wooden door there was a second door, and behind the second door there was a picture of the Emperor, which no one was allowed to see. For the Emperor was holy and divine. A god.