Book Spotlight: When the Emperor Was Divine – Julie Otsuka

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

When the Emperor Was Divine is told from the perspectives of a Japanese (American) family before, during, and after their incarceration in Topaz.

What I liked:

  • As one of the more “mainstream” JA/Nikkei authors (meaning, non-Japanese readers have mentioned her books to me), Otsuka has been on my TBR for years, and I’m glad to finally read her work.
  • Wow, the final chapter is sharp! I actually read most of the book out loud to myself and I could feel the rage and despair and so many other emotions pulsing beneath the father’s words. If anyone who coordinates JA history activities is reading this post, I highly recommend doing a reading of the final chapter in your group, especially if your audience is primarily non-Japanese people unfamiliar with the impact of the camps. (I was going to write ‘aftermath’ instead of ‘impact,’ but whenever I see the word aftermath I think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the comparison/conflation feels disrespectful.)
  • One aspect of JA/Nikkei history and culture which I feel Otsuka captured extraordinarily well is the origins of assimilation. Of course, JA/Nikkei had already made efforts to assimilate to varying degrees before the war, but the slowed-down, almost frame-by-frame depiction of the children’s thoughts in the second and third chapters provides a searing insight into how, stripped of nearly all traces of their former lives, incarcerated JA/Nikkei gradually found themselves with no option but to assimilate (or should I say anglicize), even if it meant distancing themselves from their familial roots and learning to refer to their 日本人 friends and relatives as ‘the enemy.’ Although I don’t know if Otsuka consciously included this, the children also (continue to) internalize white supremacy, as shown in fleeting glimpses of their thoughts and feelings toward Black and indigenous people. At one point, the boy counts the Black people he sees on the street, in what seems to be an example of returning to ‘normal’ life post-camp, but which also, at least to me, exemplified how non-Black USian POC have adopted longstanding white USian practices of treating Black people as a source of entertainment rather than humans deserving of equal respect.*

What I learned:

  • Did camp residents really salute the Japanese emperor? To what extent was Japanese – reading, writing, speaking – used in the camps? I’ve read many mentions of Japanese language and culture being curtailed outside the camps, before and after incarceration, but I didn’t think much about how it continued to be used inside. What about the Issei with virtually nonexistent English skills who were imprisoned? Did their English improve while they were in camp? How did the Nisei, with their more fluent English, feel about their bilingual elders?
  • What proportion of JA/Nikkei at the time revered the emperor in a way similar to their 日本人 counterparts? I understood the title in a historical sense before actually reading the book, but at the same time, as a JA/Nikkei who grew up hearing about the emperor from my 日本人 relatives without actually feeling any kind of personal connection or allegiance, and being mostly surrounded by JA/Nikkei with similar views, it was difficult to imagine myself into a different, but still Nikkei, mentality in which the emperor holds more significance. It would be interesting to read the wartime reflections of Issei and Nisei on the topic of the emperor, though I haven’t come across any book with such a specific focus. I suspect my best bet is to read the anthologies of camp writings…

Questions I had:

  • Why did Otsuka go with anonymous POVs for her main characters? I wonder if she wanted Japanese/Nikkei readers whose family history includes the camps to imagine their own families experiencing the things she describes, by creating generalized characters and letting readers see through their eyes, rather than very specific characters to be viewed from the outside. Perhaps the characters’ anonymity also emphasizes the scale of Nikkei wartime incarceration. As far as I recall, the book never mentions the total number of JA/Nikkei who were incarcerated during the war, or any other wartime statistic, but I can see how creating a JA/Nikkei ‘everyman’ might cause readers to think more deeply about just how many people had their lives torn apart by being sent to camp. It’s an interesting strategy to consider, particularly in comparison to the opposite technique of using one very specific individual’s story (such as Anne Frank) to illuminate a much broader narrative. Most of the other camp literature I’ve read thus far utilizes the latter technique – I haven’t compared publication dates, but I wonder if Otsuka also chose her POVs in deliberate contrast to the existing literature. Lastly, I’d like to know if Otsuka’s agent or editor encouraged this type of POV, or if it was part of the original draft.
  • Does Otsuka have a personal/familial connection to the camps? I might look this up on her website later, if I remember. Why did she choose to write a novel about the camps? I believe this is her debut and I wonder if the war/camps is one of those topics which helps emerging Nikkei writers get their foot in the door. How many Nikkei writers query with a book unrelated to the war, only to have their agent/editor suggest they might have better luck landing the first deal if they write about the war (or samurai)? That said, most of the JA/Nikkei writers I’ve come across who write historical fiction appear to have a fairly personal connection to their material (myself included, though I write SFF), so I certainly don’t want to suggest anyone is exploiting traumatic narratives for personal gain. It looks like Otsuka’s second novel is also historical fiction, but set in a different period, and I wonder if her background is in history or a related field.
  • How does Otsuka see this work fitting into the existing body of camp literature? I haven’t read everything out there, by any means, but while I was reading her book I had a feeling it would have made more of an impression on me if I wasn’t already fairly knowledgeable about the camps. As it was, I finished the book wondering if anything really set it apart from the other novels I’ve read. To be clear, I am not critiquing Otsuka. The writing was spare and elegant, the choice of POV striking, and I can easily imagine how the book appeals to fans of ‘literary’ fiction. Maybe my genre bias is just getting in the way.

Follow-up:

  • I’ve been told Otsuka’s second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, is quite good, so expect to see a post about it in the future!

*The dehumanization of slavery (Black people quantified and used as currency), the history of minstrelsy/blackface, and Jim Crow are some of the more prominent examples of racist USian institutions and practices which render this scene much more disturbing than it may initially appear. Yes, this is for anyone who read the post and wanted to say, ‘he’s just playing’ or something similar.