Typically, assimilation refers to a group of people with their own heritage, traditions, and values adopting the culture of another group. But rather than the mingling of two cultural identities, When the Emperor was Divine depicts Japanese-American assimilation as more like the gradual loss of one’s identity altogether.
Before the war, the family’s home was full of the markers of their assimilated, Westernized life (a grand piano, a framed picture of a classic Western artwork, a baseball glove) and also of their Japanese heritage (a bonsai tree, pictures of a family member in Japanese military regalia, a Japanese flag). Containing a multiplicity of cultural objects, their home illustrates the possibility of the coexistence of Japanese and American cultural identities. In this home, the characters do not need to sacrifice one side of their identity in order to conform to the other.
This coexistence does not last, however. As soon as the government detains her husband under suspicion of being a spy, the woman destroys all the cultural links to Japan in their home. The war with Japan causes the family to give up their Japanese heritage in order to demonstrate their sole loyalty to the American side of their identities. As a result, assimilation causes them to eradicate a crucial part of their selves—and even this doesn’t save them from internment.
This loss of identity also occurs on a more personal level. Internment causes the woman to become a shell of her former self—she either spends hours in total silence or sleeps away her days. In the camp, she loses the strength that marked her personality in the first chapter. The children are more resilient, holding onto their identities for longer, although they too eventually succumb. The girl, who never showed much of a connection to Japanese cultural identity, holds onto her assimilated American identity. She appears to go through the normal stages of growing up: distancing herself from her family, spending more time with friends, and testing social boundaries. In contrast, the boy tries to keep his Japanese heritage. At one point, the boy mutters the name of the Emperor under his breath when passing the guard tower as an act of personal resistance against giving up his Japanese identity.
But after the war, the children, like their mother, begin to lose their cultural identities and even their unique personalities. For fear of returning to the camps, the children conform completely to assimilated norms. They follow all the rules and avoid sticking out. Otsuka formally illustrates this conformity and lack of identity by writing the second to last chapter through the shared perspective of both children. Though the boy and girl were previously very distinct characters, Otsuka writes this chapter with the pronoun “we” to show that the two children have become essentially interchangeable, a unit of two personalities that are no different from one another. Internment and this fearful kind of assimilation, therefore, rob them of everything that made them complex and nuanced human beings.
The novel concludes with the father, who likewise loses his original identity. After his detainment he is no longer kind and easygoing as he was before—he becomes an angry man who slips deeper and deeper into his interior world, eventually barely speaking to his family. By the end of the novel, he is a ghost of his former self, an empty void in the family. The novel thus illustrates how the horrors of institutionalized racism and oppression can cause a complete loss of identity, as being dehumanized by others for so long eventually makes one dehumanize one’s own self.
Assimilation and Loss of Identity ThemeTracker
Assimilation and Loss of Identity Quotes in When the Emperor was Divine
White Dog rolled over and looked up at her with his good eye. “Play dead,” she said. White Dog turned his head to the side and closed his eyes. His paws went limp. The woman picked up the large shovel that was leaning against the trunk of the tree. She lifted it high in the air with both hands and brought the blade down swiftly over his head…She picked up White dog and dropped him into the hole…She pulled off her gloves and looked at them. They were no longer white. She dropped them into the hole and picked up the shovel again. She filled the hole.
All summer long they had lived in the old horse stalls in the stables behind the racetrack. In the morning they had washed their faces in the long tin troughs and at night they had slept on mattresses stuffed with straw…On their first night there her brother had plucked the stiff horse hairs out of the freshly white-washed walls and run his fingers along the toothmarks on top of the double Dutch door where the wood was soft and worn.
In the middle of the aisle a young girl of five or six was playing with a dirty doll on the floor. The doll had curly yellow hair and big china eyes that opened and closed.
“What’s your doll’s name?”
“Miss Shirley.” The young girl held the doll up shyly. “Mama bought her for me from the Sears catalog.”
“You can’t have her.”
“That’s all right.” The girl continued down the aisle.
For it was true, they all looked alike. Black hair. Slanted eyes. High cheekbones. Thick glasses. Thin lips. Bad teeth. Unknowable. Inscrutable.
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.
“I lost an earring on the train. Did I ever tell you that?”
He shook his head…
“What did it look like?”
“It looked like a pearl,” she said. “It was a pearl.”
“Maybe it rolled behind the seat.”
“Or maybe,” she said, “it’s just gone. Sometimes things disappear and there’s not getting the back. That’s just how it is…I had no business wearing those earrings in the first place,” she said after a while. “No business at all.”
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.”
We put down our things and ran from one room to the next shouting, “Fire! Help! Wolf!” simply because we could.
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!
And when our mother pushed us gently, but firmly, from behind, and whispered, Go to him, all we could do was stare down at our shoes, unable to move. Because the man who stood there before us was not our father. He was somebody else, a stranger who had been sent back in our father’s place. That’s not him, we said to our mother, That’s not him, but our mother no longer seemed to hear us…He got down on his knees and he took us into his arms and over and over again, he uttered our names, but still we could not be sure it was him.