While reading When the Emperor was Divine, some readers might ask themselves why Japanese-Americans did not resist their own unlawful incarceration. The novel answers this question in the opening scene, when the woman obligingly follows the evacuation order displayed in the post office window. For the woman, being a good citizen entails following the nation’s laws. Having lived as a law-abiding citizen her entire life, she does not need a police officer or a soldier to force her to evacuate because she has already internalized the value of obeying the law. The novel therefore suggests that people quickly learn to normalize the laws of their society, even when these laws are unjust towards the very people defending and obeying them.
As the novel progresses, Otsuka provides numerous examples of how people come to consent to their own imprisonment. The boy blames himself rather than the government for getting his family sent to the camp. The prisoners tell themselves they prefer the camp over the outside world of racism and discrimination, and no one even complains about or questions their internment itself. Instead of struggling against the injustice through acts of resistance, most people simply accept their imprisonment because they feel as if they have no other choice.
Even after the family’s literal imprisonment is over, the family cannot escape the psychological affects of their traumatic experience—essentially a mental prison that is much harder to escape. On the first night home, the family sleeps in the same arrangement as they did in the camp. In this way, they turn their own home into a reflection of the camp—like the family’s pet bird, they have gotten used to their cage, and find it difficult to give up what is familiar. On a deeper level, the characters want to forget their time in the camp, but the past won’t let them go. By the end of the novel, they become prisoners of their own memories, unable to move on from the experience. As mentioned in the previous theme, the children also try to conform to the ideal of the “model minority” and, as a result, construct new psychological restrictions for themselves.
Freedom, though never truly attained, is always a possibility just beyond the characters’ reach, an ideal for which they yearn. In one of the final scenes of the novel, the rosebush represents that ideal of freedom. Unlike the family, the rosebush is “blossoming madly, wildly, pressing one perfect red flower after another out into the late afternoon light.” The rosebush’s wild growth is its freedom, representing people’s potential when they are not constricted by oppressive laws or discrimination. The novel concludes with this image of wild freedom, a freedom the characters long for despite the various prisons that confine them.
Imprisonment and Freedom ThemeTracker
Imprisonment and Freedom Quotes in When the Emperor was Divine
She took The Gleaners out of its frame and looked at the picture one last time. She wondered why she had let it hang in the kitchen for so long. It bothered her, the way those peasants were forever bent over above that endless field of wheat. “Look up” she wanted to say to them. “Look up, look up!” The Gleaners, she decided, would have to go. She set the picture outside with the garbage.
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.
In a few hours he and the girl and their mother would wake up and go to the Civil Control Station at the First Congregational Church on Channing Way. Then they would pin their identification numbers to their collars and grab their suitcases and climb up onto the bus and go to wherever it was they had to go.
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.
“I forgot my umbrella. I thought I brought it but I didn’t.”
His mother gave him an orange. “You can’t remember everything,” she said.
“And even when you can you shouldn’t,” said the girl.
“I wouldn’t say that,” said her mother.
“You didn’t,” said the girl.
“We’ll find you another umbrella when we get off the train,” said his mother.
“We’re never getting off this train,” said the girl.
“We are,” said her mother. “Tomorrow.”
She pulled back the shade…and saw a herd of wild mustangs galloping across the desert…The dark bodies of the horses were drifting and turning in the moonlight and wherever they went they left behind great billowing clouds of dust as proof their passage. The girl lifted the shade and pulled her brother to the window and pressed his face gently to the glass and when he saw the mustangs…he let out a low moan that sounded like a cry of pain but was not. He watched the horses as they galloped toward the mountains and he said, very softly, “They are going away.” Then a soldier with a flashlight and a broom came walking down the aisle. The girl let the shade fall back against the glass and told the boy to return to his seat.
At Topaz the bus stopped. The girl looked out the window and saw hundreds of tar-paper barracks sitting beneath the hot sun. She saw telephone poles and barbed-wire fences. She saw soldiers. And everything she saw she saw through a cloud of fine white dust that had once been the bed of an ancient salt lake. The boy began to cough and the girl untied her scarf and shoved it into his hand and told him to hold it over his nose and mouth. He pressed the scarf to his face and took the girl’s hand and together they stepped out of the bus and into the blinding white glare of the desert.
One evening as the boy’s mother was hauling a bucket of water from the washroom she ran into her former housekeeper, Mrs. Ueno. “When she saw me she grabbed the bucket right out of my hands and insisted upon carrying it home for me…I tried to tell her that she no longer worked for me. ‘Mrs. Ueno,’ I said, ‘here we’re all equal,’ but of course she wouldn’t listen. When we got back to the barracks she set the bucket down by the front door and then she bowed and hurried off into the darkness. I didn’t even get a chance to thank her.”
In early autumn farm recruiters arrived to sign up new workers, and the War Relocation Authority allowed many of the young men and women to go out and help harvest the crops…They said they’d been shot at. Spat on. Refused entrance to the local diner. The movie theater. The dry goods store. They said the signs in the windows were the same wherever they went: NO JAPS ALLOWED. Life was easier, they said, on this side of the fence.
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.”
Years later the boy would recall standing beside his mother at the service, wondering just what kind of flower it was the man had seen.
A rose? A tulip? A daffodil?
And if he had plucked it. Then what?
He imagined exploding ships, clouds of black smoke, hundreds of B-29s falling down in flames from the sky.
Several days later, the street signs appeared. Suddenly there was an Elm Street, a Willow Street, a Cottonwood way… “It doesn’t look like we’ll be leaving here any time soon,” said the boy’s mother.
“At least we know where we are,” said the girl.
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.