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When The Emperor Was Divine: Perspectives & Culture

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When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka is a novel about the difficult experiences of à Japanese-American family in an internment camp during World War II. The head of the family, the father, is suspected of being a spy by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and is arrested. The two children and the mother, left alone, move to a Utah internment camp. Being released after being trapped in the internment camp for three years, the family then moves back to their home and waits for the return of the father. In spite of their hopes, the father comes home worn and thin, which leaves the family changed forever, attempting to comprehend their new life. While several noncritical characters have their own unique names, the novel’s main characters remain without names. The family in Otsuka’s novel is subjected to various culturally oppressive behaviors that result in drastic changes of character and behavior within each of the family members and a loss of identity: the mother becomes a “shell” of her former self, both kids become more withdrawn and introspective and the father becomes a stranger to the whole family.

The home of the family, prior to the war, was filled with an array of items that were culturally significant, with the home itself demonstrating the potential coexistence of American and Japanese cultural identities. The main characters are not forced to sacrifice any aspect of their identity in conforming to the other, within the confines of their home (Gale). Conversely, the mother eliminates all associations with Japanese culture from their home when governmental officials arrest the father. The family foregoes its Japanese lineage, due to the war with their home-country, so as to illustrate their devotion to their American identities. Assimilation, as an outcome, leads the family to eliminate an important aspect of their lives, which does not rescue them from the camp.

This identity loss takes place on a psychological level. The woman, after coming back from the internment camp, finds herself to be hollow from the inside (mentally drained) and spends a considerable amount of her time sleeping or in silence (Ahlin, 81). One can identify her identity loss by comparing her night weakness and her day toughness. The mother struggles to control these characters while transitioning from one to the other. The following paraphrased quote refers to her struggles of attempting to find employment following her release. The advertisements stated that they wanted help, that they would train, but regardless of where she went, she was rejected. She was continuously told that the position had been filled; she tells the author that she was afraid of ruining her eyes doing this (Otsuka, 128). The strengths that was a trademark of her personality at the stark of the book fades in the camp.

While the children may seem more resistant to identity loss than their parents, they are also unable to fight against the psychological torture that the family experiences from the people at the camp. The girl identifies closely with her the American identity she has been assimilated into as she never displayed a strong connection with her cultural backgrounds. The girl seems to move through the average phases of maturing: moving herself away from her family, evaluating social limitations, and being with her friends more than her family. The boy, contrasting the girl, struggles with keeping his Japanese background. He mutters the Emperor’s name just under his own breath when walking past a guard tower in order to demonstrate resistance to forego his identity. Following the events of the war, similar to their mother, the children start to lose their personalities and identities. They conform to the identities they have been assimilated into simply out of fear of returning to the camp. They abide by all of the social regulations that these identities accompany in order to not act in a manner different from others. The author of the novel illustrates, in a formal manner, this conformity and identity deficit through the shared viewpoints of the children in the second last chapter. Whilst the girl and boy were different characters prior to the camp, the author shows that these characters have become interchangeable following the camp as they utilize the pronoun “we”. Two individuals who have lost their own personalities, thus gradually becoming one person. This torturous assimilation and the internment camp have, thus, robbed these people of every component and aspect that had comprised their nuanced and complex personalities.

When the father had finally returned to the family, he had become sensitive to almost everything and thus suspected every person that walked near their home. Inevitably, when he demonstrates this unsettled behavior in the bank, his own children experience a sense of shame due to him, to which they respond by walking away and covering their ears. In their memories, the father enjoys singing for his children, he enjoys drawing with them; he is a normal human being. However, the incident that takes place in the bank eventually finds its way into their dreams, thus destroying the image they had held of their father. The book nor the characters comment on the father’s suffering. Moreover, this drastic changing of the father takes the form of the war affecting him. The father’s changes primarily indicate his identity loss. The internment camp caused suffering for the family, and war led the normal and optimistic man into a mentally unstable and strange man. While one would expect the father to act as a normal husband or a kind father following his release, but the harsh reality of the book seems to be that he is unable to return to being normal. Following the father acting in a strange manner for a short time, he experiences another change, now becoming isolated and silent (Andersson). This is different from his early strange behaviors as he no longer shouts in order to express himself, but rather refuses to speak with other people. He starts to spend much of his time in isolation from his family. The fact that he no longer expresses himself is indicative of his identity loss in the family; the fact that he isolates himself is indicative of his loss of identity as a human.

By being subjected to several behaviors of cultural assimilation, the characters of Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine experience drastic changes and a loss of identity. Gradually, the father is unable to communicate with other people or act as a father for his own family; being unable to continue a normal life. While on the surface one may imagine that the father’s changes are manifested through his personality changes, upon further assessment one may find that him being unable to continue his role in the family is what causes his identity loss. As a father he is unable to educate or teach his children; and as a husband he is unable to support his family; he is no longer able to live a normal life.  

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When The Emperor Was Divine: Perspectives & Culture. (2021, December 16). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 25, 2022, from
“When The Emperor Was Divine: Perspectives & Culture.” GradesFixer, 16 Dec. 2021,
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