2020 Book: When the Emperor Was Divine

Japanese-Americans stand in line during the Japanese internment of WWII

Julie Otsuka’s book begins with the following lines:

“The sign had appeared overnight. On billboards and trees and backs of the bus-stop benches. It hung in the window of Woolworth’s. It hung by the entrance to the YMCA. It was stapled to the door of the municipal court and nailed, at eye level, to every telephone pole along University Avenue. The woman was returning a book to the library when she saw the sign in the post office window. It was a sunny day in Berkeley in the spring of 1942 and she was wearing new glasses and could see everything for the first time in weeks. She no longer had to squint but she squinted out of habit anyway. She read the sign from top to bottom and then, still squinting, she took out a pen and read the sign from top to bottom again. The print was small and dark. Some of it was tiny. She wrote down a few words on the back of a bank receipt, then turned around and went home and began to pack.” (p. 3).

Otsuka’s historical fiction novel follows a nameless family from a peaceful and loving home in Berkley, California, to a Utah internment camp and back home again after years of harsh and inhuman treatment.

The last startling chapter is discordant with the historical fact that not a single Japanese American was found guilty of treason during World War II.

It is also fact that the 442nd Infantry Regiment of the United States Army, composed almost completely of second generation Japanese American soldiers, is the most decorated in all of U.S. history (Ahmed, 2019).

The images and feelings the book evokes will resonate and remain in readers’ consciousness for months and years, especially as we pass local landmarks where similar events occurred.

Ahmed, Samira. (2019) Internment. Little Brown and Company: New York.