A Theme of The Loss of Identity in When The Emperor Was Divine

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 1582 |

Pages: 3|

8 min read

Published: Dec 16, 2021

Words: 1582|Pages: 3|8 min read

Published: Dec 16, 2021

Table of contents

  1. Loss of the Identity Symbolism in "When the Emperor Was Divine"
  2. Peculiarity of Nameless Japanese in the Novel
  3. Conclusion
  4. Works Cited

Ever since the Pearl Harbour Attack on December 7th 1941, the United States opened hostilities with Japan and the relationship between the two nations reached an extremely tense situation. The profound effect of the war was that numerous Japanese started their hardships and sufferings in the next several years. All Japanese Americans, no matter who they were, adults or children, had been suspected spies. The novel When the Emperor Was Divine tells a story of a Japanese American family’s experience in internment camps during World War Two. The father is arrested by the U.S Government because he is suspected a spy and the mother has to take care of her two young children and move to the internment camp in Utah. After a few years, the family is released from the internment camp, and they come back to their house and wait for the father’s return. However, after the father returns home thin and worn, the family, forever changed, attempts to piece together their new existence. Julie Otsuka, the author of the novel, uses this family and the unfair marginalization of Japanese Americans at that time to convey that when people are unfairly marginalized, they lose self worth and feel subordinate to those around them, therefore leading to their loss of identity.

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Loss of the Identity Symbolism in "When the Emperor Was Divine"

To begin, although marginalization leads to loss of identity in those of any age, it’s specifically children’s marginalization at school can also manifest their feeling of subordination and therefore, loss of identity. In When The Emperor was Divine when Japanese children return to school, they find school’s attitude to them has changed. So, they say: “Perhaps they had never expected us to come back and had put us out of their minds once and for all long ago. One day we were there and the next day, poof, our names had been crossed off the roll books, our desks and lockers, reassigned, we were gone.”(Otsuka 121). The change of the classmates’ and school’s attitudes to them is an obvious representation of Japanese children’s subordinate position and unequal marginalization. In the Japanese children’s view, their classmates maybe never expect they will come back and even they have put them out of mind. Even if the Japanese children have encountered such a hardship in their childhood, the classmates still do not show sympathy to them because they have never really cared about the Japanese children. In addition to that, when the Japanese children leave school for the internment, their names have been crossed off the roll books, desks and lockers. As the prominent trait of human’s identity, the Japanese children’s names have been crossed off which is just like they have never existed. At that particular time, both school and their classmates do not want have an intimate relationship with Japanese children in order to avoid trouble. So, the Japanese become isolated by the outside society, which also cause their loss of identities.

In addition to the classmates’ indifferent attitudes, the Japanese children also had to pay attention to their own behavior and words at school. For example: “We said yes and no and no problem. We said thank you. Don’t even think about it. When our teacher asked us if everything was all right we nodded our heads and said, yes, of course, everything was fine.” (Otsuka 122). From what is said, we can figure out that the Japanese children always stand in an unequally position with respect to their classmates. The Japanese children are subordinate and be more polite, behave respectfully, and pretend to forgive others tolerantly. The Japanese children’s subordinate position attributes to the American racism which also promotes Japanese Americans’ loss of their identities. Here, “of course, everything was fine.” is an irony that expresses the children’s dissatisfaction and helplessness. Because after they return to school, everything at school has changed and even they cannot find their own position, but when the teacher ask them if everything is alright, they also can’t tell the truth. The Japanese children do not want to admit they are different from the classmates, so they reply with everything is alright. There is also another example of the Japanese children at school:

“We did something wrong we made sure to say excuse me (excuse me for looking at you, excuse me for sitting here, excuse me for coming back)…I have always wanted to touch you, I will never touch you again, I promise, I swear…” (Otsuka 123). The unfair treatment of the Japanese children at school can be obviously seen in this paragraph. No matter what the Japanese children do, even no matter whom makes mistakes, the Japanese children should always be more polite and apologize for what they do. Owing to their loss of identity, when they seek contact with their classmates they always stand in a subordinate position. The Japanese children’s unfair marginalization by the classmates are the prominent representation of their loss of identity. Similarly to in When the Emperor was Divine, the short story The Silence also demonstrates children’s marginalization at school leads to their loss of identity. The central character of the story, Ozawa, tells a story of how he was framed for a crime he didn’t commit leading to the entire school marginalizing him as something he was not. He says “No one in the entire school would speak to me. I went to school in silence, attended classes in silence, went home in silence. I lost my appetite, I lost weight, I couldn’t sleep at night. I’d lie there, all worked up, my head filled with this endless succession of ugly images.” The unfair treatment that Ozawa received from his entire school clearly affected him very strongly. He went through both emotional and physical trauma because of it. Because of the marginalization he received from his classmates, he couldn’t eat, he couldn’t sleep, he has pretty much lost all sense of himself, or otherwise, his identity, there proving that when people are unfairly marginalized, they lose self worth and feel subordinate to those around them, therefore leading to their loss of identity.

Peculiarity of Nameless Japanese in the Novel

Generally speaking, if authors want their writings to be easily understood, they always choose to set names for the characters. But in certain texts, such as When the Emperor was Divine, the author must mean to express a special meaning through the nameless main characters. The namelessness of a character indicates the loss of their self being, and therefore loss of identity. The four central characters in the novel are all nameless, but instead are referred to as: the mother, the daughter, the father and the son. Because they are Japanese American, they are perceived as different from the real American natives in their habits, values and worldviews. They live in an environment with mixed American and Japanese cultures. And the marginalization they receive leads to even their own obsession by their Japanese identities in American society. For example, when the mother and children come back from the internment camp, they find that everything is changed and their Japanese identities may cause trouble for them. So the children say this:

“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!” (Otsuka,114). From what is above, we find although the children have their own Japanese names, but they cannot use them because that may cause trouble for them. A name is the most obvious symbol of the identity, however in order to avoid troubles, Japanese children even want to change or give up their Japanese names. In addition, they also believe they should behave as the ‘regular’ Americans and only in this way they can never be mistaken for the enemy again. These children just want to be treated the same as the natives, instead of being marginalized, but in order to they have to drop the right to use their names to avoid trouble, therefore dropping their own identities.

In addition, there are also a lot of statements about the nameless Japanese in the novel: “We were just numbers to them, mere slaves to the Emperor. We didn’t even have names. I was #326.” (Otsuka,119). This is said by a Japanese who has been arrested as a spy. When compared to the previous example, the difference between them is clear. In the former example, the children do not want to use their real names for that their real names will expose their identities and cause trouble for them at that particular time. However, what this Japanese says manifests that they do not have the right to own their names. Even the basic right to use their own names is rejected after they are arrested. In other words, with the right to use their names being taken from them from those who marginalize them, they also lose their self worth, and therefore identities.

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To sum up, the book When the Emperor was Divine tells a story about the Japanese family’s sufferings during World War Two. This Japanese family’s ordeal is just an epitome of numerous Japanese Americans at that time. The depiction of their loss of identity due to marginalization is an ongoing theme throughout the whole novel. Whether it be through namelessness of Japanese characters or through unfair treatment of children in school, Julie Otsuka depicts the situation of Japanese American’s loss of identity at that wartime due to marginalization.              

Works Cited

  1. Otsuka, J. (2002). When the Emperor Was Divine. Anchor.
  2. Daniels, R. (1993). Concentration Camps, North American Japanese, and the Social Production of Knowledge. Journal of American Ethnic History, 12(3), 3-50.
  3. Yamamoto, E. (2008). Beyond Pearl Harbor: A Pacific Islander Perspective on World War II. Amerasia Journal, 34(1), 115-137.
  4. Robinson, G. (1996). By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans. Harvard University Press.
  5. Takezawa, Y., & Okihiro, G. Y. (2000). Breaking the Silence: Redress and Japanese American Ethnicity. University of Washington Press.
  6. Russell, M. (2007). The Children of Internment: Nisei Writers and Their World. University of Washington Press.
  7. Caudill, S. (2013). When the Emperor Was Divine: Trauma and Resilience in the Japanese American Internment Camps. Teaching Tolerance, 52, 38-41.
  8. Uchida, Y. (1975). Journey to Topaz: A Story of the Japanese-American Evacuation. Troll Communications.
  9. Houston, J. (1973). Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment. Bantam.
  10. Inada, L. (1978). Legends from Camp: Poems. University of Oregon Books.
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A Theme Of The Loss Of Identity In When The Emperor Was Divine. (2021, December 16). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 25, 2024, from
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