Before the war, they had names. Identities. They had neighbors, friends, teachers, classmates. But as soon as Japan rained bombs down on Pearl Harbor, everything about these people was stripped away. Only their ethnicity remained. Japanese. Traitor. Other. Nameless, they were crowded onto trains, clutching their suitcases, trying to convince themselves they’d be home again soon. They were on their best behavior in the camps, trying to convince the guards they were “good Americans.” And they waited.
Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine follows one Japanese American family during World War II. The family-known only as mother, son, and daughter-is distraught when authorities come to their home and take their father away wearing only his robe and slippers. Accused of God knows what, his forcedly cheerful letters have to go through government censors before they get to his family. A few months after he is taken, Mother sees a sign in a post office window, ordering Japanese-Americans to pack. The family is uprooted to an enemy alien camp in Utah to wait out the rest of the war.
The first section of the book follows the mother as she calmly prepares to leave her home. She hides their valuables and reminds her children to pack their sweaters. She lovingly feeds the family dog and then kills him with a shovel, knowing he’d probably starve once they left. We spend the long train ride to Utah in the daughter’s head, and then the son’s for the duration of the internment. Finally, we follow both children (in the first person plural) as they finally return home from the camps and try to forge a new life.
I picked up this book because I loved Otsuka’s Buddha in the Attic, a tiny gem of a book about Japanese women who immigrated to America to get married. That book felt more like poetry. Like Emperor, that book never referred to characters by name, choosing instead to use a myriad of nameless women to paint a nuanced picture about the Japanese immigrant experience pre-World War II. While I adored this writing style in that book, it fell a little flat in When the Emperor was Divine. It felt mechanical and sterile, and I never felt anything for the characters besides the general outrage that occurs when you’re confronted with the dirty little secrets of your country’s past. I could feel myself losing interest in this book as the characters became more sterile, just placeholders meant to represent everyone’s experiences in these camps. I get why Otsuka made that choice (our government treated every one of these people as nameless, interchangeable entities, after all) but it made it difficult to invest in the family she was talking about.
I don’t want to make it sound like the book is terrible. It’s good, and absolutely worth your time, especially if you’re interested in the subject matter. But I had such sky-high expectations after Buddha in the Attic, and I couldn’t help but feel like this book was a let-down.