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“May your choices represent your hopes, not your fears” (Nelson Mandela). Mandela suggests that each individual’s choices have the potential to reveal his or her hopes or fears, regardless of the situation. Such a notion can be applied to Julie Otsuka, as she narrates a time of appalling fear. In the novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, a family is taken to internment camps and stripped of their identity. The internment of Japanese-Americans was a devastating chapter of American History. However, because of Otsuka’s choices when retelling this tragic event, a sense of hope is accentuated as a Japanese-American family suffers through horrifying fear. Otsuka’s use of stylistic choices enhances the depiction of the internment camps by highlighting prejudicial, but significant perspectives of the time.
Adverse viewpoints are revealed throughout the story as Otsuka chooses to leave specific Japanese-American characters nameless. While at the camp, the boy “… wrote his name in the dust across the top of the table. All through the night, while he slept, more dust blew through the walls. By morning his name was gone”. Although he wrote his name, it is unclear what the boy’s name is, as he never reveals it. The dust wipes away his name, but the boy makes an immense effort to maintain and express his identity. On the other hand, because his and many other names are unknown, the lack of individualism is conveyed. Names represent one’s identity, and since names are unknown, from a superficial perspective, everyone is the same, especially in the eyes of the American captors. Additionally, as the family returns home, the boy and girl both mention how they aspire to be more like those who surround them: “We would change our names to sound more like theirs. And if our mother called to us on the street by our real names we would turn away and pretend not to know her”. As previously mentioned, the absence of names was initially because of a lack of individualism and forced loss of identity. However, as the children narrate the chapter, their wish to change their names emphasizes their shame, illustrating the idea that despite their effort, the camp altered their identity. By leaving characters nameless, the reader is able to sense the lack of individualism and self-deprecating shame that many Japanese-Americans went through at the time.
Throughout the story, Otsuka pairs distinct moments together, which further accentuates the significant perspectives of Japanese-Americans. As the boy, girl, and mother are on a train, they are gradually taken towards the internment camp. The girl notices that outside “church bells were ringing and… a man and a woman were riding their bicycles across a bridge… The woman was laughing and her hair was loose and red and blowing behind her in the wind. Bicycles, bells, and bridges represent euphoria, serenity, and an idealistic way to live. Clearly, the atmosphere of the train is much worse than outside, indicated by the idea that the girl acknowledges everything outside the train. However, instead of describing the atmosphere inside, she reveals the gloominess of the train by juxtaposing it with the girl’s candid perspective of this utopian-like outside. The level of inequality between Japanese-Americans and everyone else is ludicrous, but a sense of isolation is demonstrated as well. Otsuka’s choice to place such distinct moments on a moving train portrays the magnitude of the isolation. As the train travels away from home, the family drifts away from freedom. Therefore, the girl gradually becomes more and more separated from those who are outside. As the last shade in the train went down, “the darkness was complete… the girl could not see anyone at all and no one outside the train could see her. There were the people inside the train and the people outside the train and in between them there were the shades.” By lowering the shades, the atmosphere of the train is illustrated, as previously stated. However, the shades are a symbolic representation of the discriminatory separation of Japanese-Americans and “[every]one outside the train.” Otsuka makes a deliberate choice when pairing moments inside and outside of the train. The devastation that occurred during this time period is emphasized because of its juxtaposition with the “outside” perspective. Otsuka’s choice to pair moments inside and outside of the train emphasizes the isolation and inequality that occurred during this time period.
Furthermore, Otsuka makes distinctive choices with chapter titles, which result in significant perspectives to become evident. In the chapter “In a Stranger’s Backyard,” the family returns home, subsequent to their internment. The children notice that their mother’s rosebush is missing from their front yard. As they search in neighbor’s yards, they “never stopped believing that somewhere out there, in some stranger’s backyard, [their] mother’s rosebush was blossoming madly.” The rosebush was initially in the family’s front yard, but once it is taken, the children imagine it in a backyard. Such an important perspective is illustrated by the children’s presumption. When people make intentional shameful decisions, they hide their actions to prevent punishment. By deciding to plant the rosebush in a backyard, the strangers hide their crime. Moreover, the idea that it was a stranger who committed such a crime is crucial. The children’s father had been taken by a stranger previously, and after the internment, the children reflect upon the moment when their mother had opened the door to a stranger. The children wonder, “…and why had our mother been so quick to open the door to a stranger? Because strangers had knocked on our door before. And what had happened? Nothing good. Nothing good. They had taken our father away.” In both situations, it had been a stranger who committed the crime. A stranger had previously taken their father. At a greater scale, at the time, every Japanese-American was taken by “a stranger.” Strangers whose sense of entitlement and actions were unjustifiable. Those who composed of the United States Government were strangers to common people, specifically the Japanese- Americans. Therefore, the rosebush being stolen by the family corresponds with the United States Government stealing the rights and freedom of Japanese-Americans. Otsuka’s use of repetition in the quote emphasizes the idea that “nothing good” had ever happened any time the door was opened to strangers. Therefore, because the children assume it was a stranger who had stolen the rosebush, it is clear that their missing rosebush was sentimental. The rosebush symbolically represents the freedom and rights that were stolen from Japanese Americans and the concealed actions of those who caused this to happen. Otsuka’s intentional titles allow the reader to acknowledge the impact the internment camps had on so many Japanese-Americans.
By making deliberate stylistic choices, Otsuka highlights detrimental perspectives as she narrates such a devastating event. Inequality and isolation are represented with juxtaposition. Chapter titles express the loss of freedom. Additionally, the omission of names signifies the lack of individualism and identity. Had Otsuka not applied these stylistic choices to her work, these powerful perspectives would not have been portrayed. It is meaningful that Otsuka presents her own hopes and fears on this horrific crisis. However, it is more important to realize that her perspectives, which she chooses to express, greatly impact the readers’own interpretations and viewpoints. Therefore, although personal choice can reveal one’s hopes and fears, more importantly, it has the power to fluctuate others’ biases, perspectives, and concerns.
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