At one point in the novel, the boy refers to all the Japanese-American people in the camp as “inscrutable,” which means that they are impossible to know. This “inscrutability” was the exact reason why the U.S. government locked up innocent Japanese-American citizens. Since the government could never know for sure the loyalties of these citizens, the government decided to just incarcerate them all.
Otsuka explores this idea of inscrutability in a number of ways in the novel. The family members’ lack of names—they are “the woman,” “the boy” “the girl” and “the man”—provides the most obvious example. Since Otsuka cannot write about every single Japanese person who went through internment, the family’s namelessness makes them more symbolic, as if the family is a stand-in for the thousands of Japanese-Americans who went through similar experiences during the war. But their lack of names also represents how racism erases people’s individuality. As mentioned in the themes of racism and assimilation, stereotypes make all the individuals in a group seem interchangeable, as if they were all the same. Finally, the family’s namelessness could represent the fundamental inscrutability of identity. Names and the act of naming allow us to identify and know the different elements that make up our world. Naming something is almost like possessing it in a way—it becomes more familiar, less unknown. The family member’s lack of names thus preserves their inscrutability, and in a way makes them seem more alive.
This namelessness and the inscrutability it suggests ultimately show that Otsuka wants the reader to become comfortable with the unknown. From the man’s censored letters and his untold experiences at the camps to the mysteriousness of the woman, so much in this novel is left in the shadows. With all these unknown elements, Otsuka seems to gesture towards the fundamental inscrutability of others—of all others, regardless of race or nationality. We can never truly comprehend the true feelings or experiences of other people, no matter how similar or close to them we are.
But instead of fearing this unknown, Otsuka suggests that we should accept it as an essential part of our reality. Fear of the unknown is essentially what caused the unjust incarceration of thousands of innocent Japanese-American civilians, and this same fear has caused untold tragedies throughout history—it motivated the Nazis to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe, and causes people today to denounce all Muslims or Arabs as terrorists. In contrast to this fear that leads to violence and persecution, Otsuka suggests we should empathize with the unknown, accept it, and recognize the fundamental inscrutability of existence—something common to all of us.
Inscrutability and the Unknown ThemeTracker
Inscrutability and the Unknown Quotes in When the Emperor was Divine
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.
For it was true, they all looked alike. Black hair. Slanted eyes. High cheekbones. Thick glasses. Thin lips. Bad teeth. Unknowable. Inscrutable.
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.
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.