In the novel When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka explores the experiences of Japanese Americans who were sent to an internment camp during World War I. In particular, the author focuses on the life of a family that has to grapple with the effects of stigmatization and relocation.
Otsuka depicts the impact of global tragedies on the lives of ordinary people, their values, or attitudes. The writer shows that this ordeal made some of the characters treat other people with hostility and suspicion; to some degree, they were dehumanized by the state that viewed them only as potential enemies. This thesis can be best explained by looking at the changes in the behavior of the father.
This character is described by the author in a very sympathetic way. In particular, he is portrayed as “a small handsome man with delicate hands” (Otsuka 62). He possesses persuasive morality and tries to instill eternal values in the family. The author notes that “he wore round steel-rimmed glasses and a handsome gold watch” (Otsuka 32). To some degree, this description suggests that he has a sense of style. One can say that this character represents many Japanese Americans who were law-abiding citizens and who tried to integrate themselves into society.
After the attack on Perl Harbor, the father is arrested by the FBI. He lives with his family in Berkeley, but this tragic day changes the life of his family once and for all. At that time, he is suspected of spying for the enemy of the United States. Due to this treatment, he turns into a suspicious person, even though he remains a law-abiding citizen.
It is obvious that his son misses the father and craves for his return. The son is hopelessly weary of waiting for his father, and he cannot understand why he has been absent for such a long time. Moreover, his wife creates an imaginary world in which her husband stays with the family.
Life in prison changes this character. He feels demoralized and desperate. But at the same time, this experience does not break him down completely because he understands that there are people who look forward to seeing him once again. The willpower of this man can be illustrated by looking at his letters, which are full of hope. In particular, the author mentions that “in his letters, he said he would be released any day now, any day…” (Otsuka 115). This is one of the aspects that can be singled out.
This character returns to his family after the release. One can say that prison has left several marks on him. In particular, he looks much older than a man of 56. One can say that he is a different another person. This is how the author describes him, “he was an old man, his health was not good, he had just come back from a camp for dangerous enemy aliens…” (Otsuka 135).
His relatives do not know why he was imprisoned. The author does not say whether his interment was justified in any way. However, readers can see that he becomes extremely suspicious. For instance, he can be frightened even by a paperboy.
It is not surprising that the final chapter is narrated by the father. The first-person narration makes this part of the novel more emotional. One can feel the desperate and anger of this man, “I’m the one you call slits. I’m the one you call slopes. I’m the one you call yellowbelly…” (Otsuka 142). This quote shows that he is an embittered person who looks at other people with apprehension. This is one of his responses to injustice.
In this book, Julie Otsuka illustrates the mental and physical degradation of a person. This change can be partly explained by his internment, which turns him into an angry and embittered individual who views other people with apprehension and suspicion.
Otsuka, Julie. When the Emperor Was Divine, New York: Random House, 2002. Print.