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“When the Emperor Was Divine” by Julie Otsuka Essay (Critical Writing)


Julie Otsuka was born and grew up in California; after acquiring an art degree from Yale University, she practiced her profession in painting prior to venturing in fiction writing at about thirty years of age. She obtained her Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia and has won many awards, such as the Asian American Literary Award and the Faulkner Award, to mention a few. The author’s audience is the contemporary families, whom he enlightens with a past occurrence regarding the incarceration of a Japanese American family in the course of the Second World War (Park 140-143). The fact that the author has failed to give names to the major characters in the book is one of the indications that she is not biased. The book’s honesty and forthrightness in condemning injustices act as the sources of its charm.

Perhaps avoiding names is a means of preventing bias by making the characters universal while ensuring that every detail provided resonates perfectly with all readers. The trouble facing the family in the book represents ordinary individuals caught up in bizarre occurrences past their control, a human experience. Even without bias, the author presents fine details of the accounts. The title of the book, current references, tokens that children carry with them to the campsite (a blue stone and watch), the killing of the dog on the eve of departure to the camp, and the experiences of the family make the story thrilling while ensuring that the reader identifies injustices carried out against the terribly underprivileged American family without the author being biased at any point. In this regard, the experiences in the book do not just apply to Japanese Americans alone but are universal as they are relevant to families of any racial background (Ahlin 92-94).

The purpose of the author is to condemn the acts of racism through a superb tale of fear and racial discrimination that resulted in isolation and exile. The author is successful in realizing her purpose as the novel presents a compelling narrative that is full of enlightenment and life (Ahlin 97). The novel does not just invite readers to mull over the disturbing ethical and civic concerns that arise in the United States and across the globe, but as well provides a narration that is both unbelievably emotional and entirely human. The style is clear, ordered, and effective, which makes the author present a carefully researched and thoroughly written book regarding the United States detention of Japanese citizens during World War II, flawlessly expressed to the smallest detail.

In five brief, clear, and organized chapters, the author discusses the experiences of each member of the family hence providing an intimate and detailed representation of people during the worst and greatly appalling era in the United States, which caused the detention of over 100,000 Japanese Americans for close to four years. Soon after the commencement of the warfare, the father in an undisclosed Japanese family is captured from his home and denied even time to dress up. The mother and her children (who equally suffer) do not see the father up to the time the Second World War ends, for years later. When they later meet, the father has been deformed into an exceedingly old man, terrified, conked out, and reluctant to talk about his experiences (Otsuka 110).

Though the information in the book has been presented with utmost precision and intelligibility, it would be recommended that Otsuka focuses majorly on the experiences of many families, instead of centering on just one family; this will illustrate the prevalence of the issue strongly and create a loud call for the elimination of the problem of racism in the modern society (34-36). The book can be recommended to others since the occurrences in the family not only develop the urge to eradicate racial discrimination but also offer a distinctly resounding lesson for the current generation. The book can be thought of as an excellent piece of writing that expresses in a poetic aspect the experiences of a Japanese family residing in a detention camp in the course of the Second World War hence not just condemning wartime injustices but also racial discrimination. Anger is elicited in most parts of the book, especially the moment when the father talks of his experiences. The book maintains rage carefully bound up and aglow beneath the impressive surface of the story.

Although the book focuses on a tragic period in the history of the United States, the author’s approach expresses the encounters of the unnamed characters in a manner that generates a touching account of detention and racial discrimination that are especially troublesome in the modern culture. The book presents the real experiences of people and applies to contemporary American culture. For instance, the occurrences after September 2011 attacks targeting Muslims and Arabs living in the United States are comparable to the Japanese internment presented in the book. This demonstrates that Americans have not learnt from the injustices of the Japanese internment; in fact, it is as if it did not occur. Injustices and racism are still prevalent in American culture. The targeting of Arabs and Muslims in America for cross-examination and investigation after the 9/11 attacks and the government’s concerns of labeling some people ‘enemy combatants’ and divesting them of their rights are greatly bothersome. Therefore, the book depicts the US account that still sits apprehensively on the conscience of the American culture (Marouan and Simmons 23).

In Chapter one of the book, after the arrest of the father, the woman plans to kill the family dog before their departure. After telling the dog to play dead, the woman kills it by hitting its head with a shovel. She then buries the dog alongside the gloves she had won though they are not white as they were initially but stained (Otsuka 21). In chapter 2, after leaving their home, the military directs them to the horse stables at the rear of the town racetrack. Other families of Japanese Americans are brought into the stables, where they are also to reside. In chapter 4, when they eventually return home, it is evident that the father’s face is wrinkled, and he puts on dentures since he lost his teeth in detention. The father does not read stories or sing to his children as he used to do before the internment. Moreover, he does not talk about what he went through while detained, and the children do not want to know; they only desire to forget the occurrences.

The woman chooses to kill the dog out of compassion as she does not want it to starve after they depart. Nevertheless, if she is compassionate enough, she should decide to carry the dog along as they leave rather than killing it. The stain implies that the woman’s hostility against the dog will have an endless psychological impact on her. On this note, each act of aggression seems to have far-reaching effects on the perpetrators (Fugita and Fernandez 34). The author uses the white dog to represent Japanese Americans and their experiences. Similar to the Japanese Americans who suffer internment in the hands of the government they trust for their wellbeing, the dog entrusts its survival to the woman who ends up killing it.

Through confining the Japanese American families in horse stables, the American military seeks to dehumanize them by treating them like animals instead of human beings. Attributable to the ease of maltreating and carrying out injustices against people who have already been divested of their human qualities, the military dehumanizes the Japanese Americans to ensure that they have no chance of fighting back or posing resistance. The father’s loss of teeth and the sudden deformation depicts the impact of detention in chipping away the identity of Japanese Americans. Though the children want to forget the awful experience, it is impossible as the effects of internment have left an indelible mark and transformed their entire lives whether they like it or not.

In conclusion, by failing to give names to the main characters in the book, the author avoids bias and makes the story universal by ensuring that each detail resonates flawlessly with any reader. The book’s integrity and candor in criticizing injustices act as the sources of its attractiveness. Although the Japanese Americans are technically free since they are not in detention anymore, they do not have the autonomy to live as they wish. The Japanese Americans can only visualize the autonomy of the wild horses because it is impossible for them to live devoid of unmerited restrictions.

Works Cited

Ahlin, Lena. “”All we wanted To Do, Now That we were back in the World, was Forget”: On Remembrance and Forgetting in Julie Otsuka’s Novels.” American Studies in Scandinavia, vol. 47, no. 2, 2015, pp. 81-101.

Fugita, Stephen, and Marilyn Fernandez. Altered Lives, Enduring Community: Japanese Americans Remember their World War II Incarceration. University of Washington Press, 2012.

Marouan, Maha, and Merinda Simmons. Race and Displacement: Nation, Migration, and Identity in the Twenty-first Century. University of Alabama Press, 2013.

Otsuka, Julie. When the Emperor was Divine. Anchor, 2003.

Park, Josephine. “Alien Enemies in Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 59, no. 1, 2013, pp. 135-155.

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IvyPanda. (2020, September 2). "When the Emperor Was Divine" by Julie Otsuka. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/when-the-emperor-was-divine-by-julie-otsuka/

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""When the Emperor Was Divine" by Julie Otsuka." IvyPanda, 2 Sept. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/when-the-emperor-was-divine-by-julie-otsuka/.

1. IvyPanda. ""When the Emperor Was Divine" by Julie Otsuka." September 2, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/when-the-emperor-was-divine-by-julie-otsuka/.


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IvyPanda. ""When the Emperor Was Divine" by Julie Otsuka." September 2, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/when-the-emperor-was-divine-by-julie-otsuka/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. ""When the Emperor Was Divine" by Julie Otsuka." September 2, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/when-the-emperor-was-divine-by-julie-otsuka/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) '"When the Emperor Was Divine" by Julie Otsuka'. 2 September.

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