Beginning in February, 1942, the United States government sent over 100,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps for the duration of World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government feared that Japanese-American citizens would ally themselves to Japan and engage in acts of sabotage and espionage against America. In the 1980s, however, a congressional commission reviewed the situation and found little evidence of Japanese-Americans having expressed any disloyalty to the United States. The committee concluded that internment was a product of racism against Asian-Americans rather than of a legitimate concern about national security.
In its recounting of one family’s experience of internment, Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine explores the various racist stereotypes surrounding Asian identity that contributed to the unjust incarceration of so many people. On one level, Otsuka demonstrates how the fear of Japanese-American disloyalty stems from the racist tendency to lump all Asian people together as the same. For the U.S. government, there was no difference between the Japanese air force pilot bombing Pearl Harbor and the Japanese American citizen filling a prescription at the local pharmacy. Both were labeled as enemy aliens: foreign, different, and dangerous. It was this belief that Japanese-Americans were perpetual foreigners—never fully able to assimilate into American culture—that led to the fear of their disloyalty to the American government.
Otsuka illustrates the prevalence of these beliefs at the time by showing how even the unnamed character of the boy has internalized the same racist beliefs as white Americans. Since the boy has lived his entire life in America, he is so assimilated into American culture that he adopts the prevalent racist beliefs about Japanese people. When he first arrives at the internment camp, he uses racially-insensitive terms to describe how all the Japanese men look the same. Indoctrinated in the American belief system, he holds the same stereotypes as the average American who fears that Japanese-Americans are no different than enemy Japanese soldiers.
Even the main characters’ namelessness embodies how racism eradicates individuality. Racism works by applying a stereotype or judgment to an entire group of people, erasing the individual identities of the people in the group. The lack of names, therefore, represents how racism can make individuals appear like the same nameless members of a minority group—a demonized “other.”
Racism Quotes in When the Emperor was Divine
“You can pay me later,” he said. Then he began to wipe the side of the register with a rag. There was a dark stain there that would not go away.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
“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.
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!