When the Emperor Was Divine

When the Emperor Was Divine


In the beginning the boy thought he saw his father everywhere. Outside the latrines. Underneath the showers. Leaning against barrack doorways. Playing go with the other men in their floppy straw hats on the narrow wooden benches after lunch. Above them blue skies. The hot midday sun. No trees. No shade. Birds.

It was 1942. Utah. Late summer. A city of tar-paper barracks behind a barbed wire fence on a dusty alkaline plain high up in the desert. The wind was hot and dry and the rain rarely fell and wherever the boy looked he saw him: Daddy, Papa, Father, Oto-san.

For it was true, they all looked alike. Black hair. Slanted eyes. High cheekbones. Thick glasses. Thin lips. Bad teeth. Unknowable. Inscrutable.

That was him, over there.

The little yellow man.

Three times a day the clanging of bells. Endless lines. The smell of liver drifting out across the black barrack roofs. The smell of catfish. From time to time, the smell of horse meat. On meatless days, the smell of beans. Inside the mess hall, the clatter of forks and spoons and knives. No chopsticks. An endless sea of bobbing black heads. Hundreds of mouths chewing. Slurping. Sucking. Swallowing. And over there, in the corner, beneath the flag, a familiar face.

The boy called out, "Papa," and three men with thick metal-rimmed glasses looked up from their plates and said, "Nan desu ka?"

What is it?

But the boy could not say what it was.

He lowered his head and skewered a small Vienna sausage. His mother reminded him, once again, not to shout out in public. And never to speak with his mouth full. Harry Yamaguchi tapped a spoon on a glass and announced that the head count would be taken on Monday evening. The boy's sister nudged him under the table, hard, with the scuffed toe of her Mary Jane. "Papa's gone," she said.

They had been assigned to a room in a barrack in a block not far from the fence. The boy. The girl. Their mother. Inside there were three iron cots and a pot-bellied stove and a single bare bulb that hung down from the ceiling. A table made out of cratewood. On top of a rough wooden shelf, an old Zenith radio they had brought with them on the train from California. A tin clock. A jar of paper flowers. A box of salt. Tacked to the wall beside a small window, a picture of Joe DiMaggio torn from a magazine. There was no running water and the toilets were a half block away.

Far away, on the other side of the ocean, there was fighting, and at night the boy lay awake on his straw mattress and listened to the bulletins on the radio. Sometimes, in the darkness, he heard noises drifting from other rooms. The heavy thud of footsteps. The shuffling of cards. Over and over again, the creaking of springs. He heard a woman whispering, "Lower, lower, there," and a man with a high voice singing, "Auf wiederseh'n, sweetheart, auf wiederseh'n."

Someone said, "Just say sayonara, Frank."

Someone said, "Bon soir!"

Someone said, "Please shut up, please."

Someone else belched.

There was a window above the boy's bed, and outside were the stars and the moon and the endless rows of black barracks all lined up in the sand. In the distance, a wide empty field where nothing but sagebrush grew, then the fence and the high wooden towers. There was a guard in each tower, and he carried a machine gun and binoculars, and at night he manned the searchlight. He had brown hair and green eyes, or maybe they were blue, and he had just come back from a tour of the Pacific.

On their first day in the desert his mother had said, "Be careful."

"Do not touch the barbed-wire fence," she had said, "or talk to the guards in the towers.

"Do not stare at the sun.

"And remember, never say the Emperor's name out loud."

The boy wore a blue baseball cap and he did not stare at the sun. He often wandered the firebreak with his head down and his hands in his pockets, looking for seashells and old Indian arrowheads in the sand. Some days he saw rattlesnakes sleeping beneath the sagebrush. Some days he saw scorpions. Once he came across a horse skull bleached white by the sun. Another time, an old man in a red silk kimono with a tin pail in his hand who said he was going down to the river.

Whenever the boy walked past the shadow of a guard tower he pulled his cap down low over his head and tried not to say the word.

But sometimes it slipped out anyway.

Hirohito, Hirohito, Hirohito.

He said it quietly. Quickly. He whispered it.

On the train ride into the desert he had slept with his head in his sister's lap and dreamed he was riding an enormous white horse by the sea. When he looked out toward the horizon he could see three black ships out on the water. The ships had sailed all the way over from the other side of the ocean. The Emperor himself had sent them. Their sails were white and square and filled with wind and their masts were straight and tall. He had watched as they slowly turned toward the shore. Then he was awake and the train was rocking from side to side and in the seat behind him a woman was quietly singing. It was dawn and his sister was sound asleep. She was wearing her yellow summer dress with the little white flowers because in the desert, where they were going, it would be summer a lot.

It was not like any desert he had read about in books. There were no palm trees here, no oases, no caravans of camels slowly winding across the dunes. There was only the wind and the dust and the hot burning sand.

In the afternoon the heat rose up from the ground in waves. The air above the barracks shimmered. It was ninety-five degrees out. One hundred. One hundred and ten. Old men sat outside on the long narrow benches, not talking, whittling away at pieces of wood as they waited for the hours to pass. The boy played marbles on the laundry room floor. He played Chinese checkers. He roamed through the barracks with the other boys in his block, playing cops and robbers and war. Kill the Nazis! Kill the Japs! On days when it was too hot to go out he sat in his room with a wet towel over his head and leafed through the pages of old Life magazines. He saw the bombed-out cities of Europe, and the Allied soldiers in Burma, fleeing to India through the hot steamy jungle. His sister lay on her cot for hours, staring, transfixed, at white majorette boots and men in their bathrobes in the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. She wrote letters to her friends on the other side of the fence, telling them all she was having a good time. Wish you were here. Hope to hear from you soon. Their mother darned socks by the window. She read. She made them paper kites with tails woven out of potato sack strings. She took a flower-arranging class. She learned to crochet--"It's something to do"--and for one week there were doilies under everything.

Mostly, though, they waited. For the mail. For the news. For the bells. For breakfast and lunch and dinner. For one day to be over and the next day to begin.

"When the war is over," the boy's mother told him, "we can pack up our things and go home."

He asked her when she thought that might be. In a month maybe? Two months? A year, tops? She shook her head and looked out the window. Three young girls in dirty white frocks were playing ladies in the dust--"Oh, bother," they cried out, and, "Hullo, have some tea?"--and in the distance there were ravens riding the updrafts. "There's no telling," she said.

On the other side of the wall by his bed lived a man and his wife and the wife's elderly mother, Mrs. Kato, who talked to herself night and day. She wore a pink flowered housedress, and tiny white slippers, and she carried a cane, and in the evening, after supper, the boy often saw her standing in her doorway with a small wicker suitcase, trying to remember the way home. Did she go left on Ward and then right on Grove? Or was it right on Ward and left on Grove? And when had they taken down all the street signs, anyway? Whose bright idea was that? Should she continue to wait for the bus? Or should she just start walking? And when she finally got there, then what?

"The daffodils," the boy called out to her softly.

"Oh yes, of course. I must remember to plant the daffodils. And the fence still needs mending."

She said she could hear her mother calling for her in the distance, but that lately her voice had begun to sound farther and farther away.

"I guess that's to be expected," she said.

She said, "Oh, well," and, "so it goes."

She said, "There's something strange about this place, but I can't figure out what it is."

She said, "Everyone here seems so serious."

The man scrubbing pots and pans in the mess hall had once been the sales manager of an import-export company in San Francisco. The janitor had owned a small nursery in El Cerrito. The cook had always been a cook. A kitchen's a kitchen, it's all the same to me. The waitress had worked as a live-in domestic for a wealthy family in Atherton. The children still write to me every week asking me when I'm going to come home. The man standing in front of the latrines shouting out, "Hallelujah, Hallelujah," had been a vagrant on the streets of Oakland. That's him! The Hallelujah guy! The old woman who did nothing but play bingo all day long had worked in the strawberry fields of Mt. Eden for twenty-five years without taking a single vacation. Me happy, come here. Better than Mt. Eden. No cook, no work, just do laundry fine.

One evening as the boy's mother was hauling back a bucket of water from the washroom she ran into her former housekeeper, Mrs. Ueno. "When she saw me she grabbed the bucket right out of my hands and insisted upon carrying it home for me. 'You'll hurt your back again,' she said. I tried to tell her that she no longer worked for me. 'Mrs. Ueno,' I said, 'here we're all equals,' but of course she wouldn't listen. When we got back to the barracks she set the bucket down by the front door and then she bowed and hurried off into the darkness. I didn't even get a chance to thank her."

"Maybe you can thank her tomorrow," said the boy.

"I don't even know where she lives. I don't even know what day it is."

"It's Tuesday, Mama."

At night he woke up crying out, "Where am I?" Sometimes he felt a hand on his shoulder and it was his sister telling him it was all just a bad dream. "Go back to sleep, baby," she'd whisper, and he would. Sometimes there was no answer. Sometimes he heard the wind blowing through the sagebrush and he remembered he was in the desert but he could not remember how long he had been there, or why. Sometimes he worried he was there because he'd done something horribly, terribly wrong. But then when he tried to remember what that horrible, terrible thing might be, it would not come to him. It could be anything. Something he'd done yesterday--chewing the eraser off his sister's pencil before putting it back in the pencil jar--or something he d done a long time ago that was just now catching up with him. Breaking a chain letter from Juneau, Alaska. Flushing his dying pet goldfish down the toilet before it was completely dead. Forgetting to touch the hat rack three times when the iceman drove by. Sometimes he thought he was dreaming, and he was sure that when he woke up his father would be downstairs in the kitchen whistling "Begin the Beguine" through his teeth as he fried up breakfast in the skillet. "Here it comes, champ," his father would say, "one hobo egg sandwich."

His sister had long skinny legs and thick black hair and wore a gold French watch that had once belonged to their father. Whenever she went out she covered her head with a wide-brimmed Panama hat so her face would not get too dark from the sun. "Nobody will look at you," she said to the boy, "if your face is too dark."

"Nobody's looking at me anyway," he replied.

Late at night, after the lights had gone out, she told him things. Beyond the fence, she said, there was a dry riverbed and an abandoned smelter mine and at the edge of the desert there were jagged blue mountains that rose up into the sky. The mountains were farther away than they seemed. Everything was, in the desert. Everything except water. "Water," she said, "is just a mirage."

A mirage was not there at all.

The mountains were called Big Drum and Little Drum, Snake Ridge, the Rubies. The nearest town over was Delta.

In Delta, she said, you could buy oranges.

In Delta there were green leafy trees and blond boys on bikes and a hotel with a verandah where the waiters served ice-cold drinks with tiny paper umbrellas.

"What else?" asked the boy.

In Delta, she said, there was shade.

She told him about the ancient salt lake that had once covered all of Utah and parts of Nevada. This was thousands of years ago, she said, during the Ice Age. There were no fences then. And no names. No Utah. No Nevada. Just lots and lots of water. "And where we are now?"


"Six hundred feet under."

All night long he dreamed of water. Endless days of rain. Overflowing canals and rivers and streams rushing down to the sea. He saw the ancient salt lake floating above the floor of the desert. Its surface was calm and blue. Smooth as glass. He was drifting down through the reeds and fish were swimming through his fingers and when he looked up through the water the sun was nothing but a pale wobbly speck a hundred million miles above his head.

In the morning he woke up longing for a glass of Coke. Just one, with lots of ice, and a straw. He'd sip it slowly. He'd make it last a long long time.

A day. A week. A year, even.

Every few days the letters arrived, tattered and torn, from Lordsburg, New Mexico. Sometimes entire sentences had been cut out with a razor blade by the censors and the letters did not make any sense. Sometimes they arrived in one piece, but with half of the words blacked out. Always, they were signed, "From Papa, With Love."

Lordsburg was a nice sunny place on a broad highland plain just north of the Mexican border. That was how his father had described it in his letters. There are no trees here but the sunsets are beautiful and on clear days you can see the hills riding up in the distance. The food is fresh and substantial and my appetite is good. Although it is still very warm I have begun taking a cold shower every morning to better prepare myself for the winter. Please write and tell me what you are interested in these days. Do you still like baseball? How is your sister? Do you have a best friend?

The boy still liked baseball and he was very interested in outlaws. He had seen a movie about the Dalton Gang--When the Daltons Rode--in Recreation Hall 22. His sister had won second prize in a jitterbug contest at the mess hall. She wore her hair in a ponytail. She was fine. The boy did not have a best friend but he had a pet tortoise that he kept in a wooden box filled with sand right next to the barrack window. He had not given the tortoise a name but he had scratched his family's identification number into its shell with the tip of his mother's nail file. At night he covered the box with a lid and on top of the lid he placed a flat white stone so the tortoise could not escape. Sometimes, in his dreams, he could hear its claws scrabbling against the side of the box.

He did not mention the scrabbling claws to his father. He did not mention his dreams.

What he said was, Dear Papa: It's pretty sunny here in Utah too. The food is not so bad and we get milk every day. In the mess hall we are collecting nails for Uncle Sam. Yesterday my kite got stuck on the fence.

The rules about the fence were simple: You could not go over it, you could not go under it, you could not go around it, you could not go through it.

And if your kite got stuck on it?

That was an easy one. You let the kite go.

There were rules about language, too: Here we say Dining Hall and not Mess Hall; Safety Council, not Internal Police; Residents, not Evacuees; and last but not least, Mental Climate, not Morale.

There were rules about food: No second helpings except for milk and bread.

And books: No books in Japanese.

There were rules about religion: No Emperor-worshipping Shintos allowed.

In Lordsburg, the girl said, the sky was always blue and the fences were not so high. Only fathers lived there. At night they could see the stars. And during the day, eagles.

Our father does not worship the Emperor. She said that too.

"Does he ever think about us?" asked the boy.

"All the time."

His father was a small handsome man with delicate hands and a raised white scar on his index finger that the boy, as a young child, had loved to kiss. "Does it hurt?" he'd once asked him. "Not anymore," his father had replied. He was extremely polite. Whenever he walked into a room he closed the door behind him softly. He was always on time. He wore beautiful suits and did not yell at waiters. He loved pistachio nuts. He believed that fruit juice was the ideal drink. He liked to doodle. He was especially fond of drawing a box and then making it into three dimensions. I guess you could say that's my forte. Whenever the boy knocked on his door his father would look up and smile and put down whatever it was he was doing. "Don't be shy," he'd say. He read the Examiner every morning before work and he knew the answers to everything. How small a germ was and when did fish sleep and where did Kitty McKenzie go after they took her out of her iron lung? You don't have to worry about Kitty McKenzie anymore. She's in a better place now. She's up there in heaven. I heard they threw her a big party the day she arrived. He knew when to leave the boy's mother alone and how best to ask her for ice cream. Don't ask her too often and when you do, don't let her know how much you really want it. Don't beg. Don't whine. He knew which restaurants would serve them lunch and which would not. He knew which barbers would cut their kind of hair. The best ones, of course. The thing that he loved most about America, he once confided to the boy, was the glazed jelly donut. Can't be beat.

His mother said it aged you. The sun. She said it made you grow old. Every night before she went to bed she daubed cream on her face. She rationed it out as though it were butter. Or sugar. It was Pond's. She'd bought a large jar at the pharmacy the day before they had left Berkeley. "Got to make it last," she said. But already she had almost used it all up. "I should have planned ahead," she said. "I should have bought two."

"Maybe three," said the boy.

She stood in front of the mirror tracing the lines along her forehead and neck with her finger. "Is it the light," she asked, "or are there bags under my eyes?"

"There's bags."

She pointed to a wrinkle by her mouth. "See this?"

He nodded.

"A recent development. Your father won't know who I am."

"I'll remind him."

"Tell him..." she said, and then her voice drifted off and she was somewhere far away, and outside a hot dry wind was blowing up from the south and across the high desert plains.

Always, he would remember the dust. It was soft and white and chalky, like talcum powder. Only the alkaline made your skin burn. It made your nose bleed. It made your eyes sting. It took your voice away. The dust got into your shoes. Your hair. Your pants. Your mouth. Your bed.

Your dreams.

It seeped under doors and around the edges of windows and through the cracks in the walls.

And all day long, it seemed, his mother was always sweeping. Once in a while she would put down her broom and look at him. "What I wouldn't give," she'd say, "for my Electrolux."

One evening, before he went to bed, he 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.

His father used to call him Little Guy. He called him Gum Drop, and Peanut, and Plum. "You're my absolute numero uno," he would to say to him, and whenever the boy had woken up screaming from dark scary dreams his father would come into his room and sit down on the edge of his bed and smooth down the boy's short black hair. "Hush, Puppy," he'd whisper, "it's all right. Here I am."

At dusk the sky turned blood red and his sister took him out walking along the outer edge of the barracks to watch the sun go down over the mountains. "Look. Look away. Look. Look away." That, she told him, was the proper way to look at the sun. If you stared at it straight on for too long, you'd go blind.

In the darkening red twilight they would point out to each other the things that they saw: a dog chasing a porcupine, a tiny pink seashell, the husk of a beetle, a column of fire ants marching across the sand. If they were lucky, they might see the Portuguese lady strolling along the fence with her husband, Sakamoto, or the lady with the white turban--she'd lost all her hair, they'd heard, overnight on the train--or the man with the withered arm who lived in Block 7. If they were very lucky, the man with the withered arm might even raise it--the arm--and wave to them.

One evening, while they were walking, the boy reached over and grabbed the girl's arm. "What is it?" she asked him.

He tapped his wrist. "Time," he said. "What time?"

She stopped and looked at her watch as though she had never seen it before. "It's six o'clock," she said.

Her watch had said six o'clock for weeks. She had stopped winding it the day they had stepped off the train.

"What do you think they're doing back home?"

She looked at her watch one more time and then she stared up at the sky, as though she were thinking. "Right about now," she said, "I bet they're having a good time." Then she started walking again.

And in his mind he could see it: the tree-lined streets at sundown, the dark green lawns, the sidewalks, boys throwing balls in backyards, girls playing hopscotch, mothers with pink quilted mitts sliding hot casseroles out of ovens, fathers with shiny black briefcases bursting through front doors, shouting, "Honey, I'm home! Honey, I'm home!"

When he thought of the world outside it was always six o'clock. A Wednesday or a Thursday. Dinnertime across America.

In early autumn the farm recruiters arrived to sign up new workers, and the War Relocation Authority allowed many of the young men and women to go out and help harvest the crops. Some of them went north to Idaho to top sugar beets. Some went to Wyoming to pick potatoes. Some went to Tent City in Provo to pick peaches and pears and at the end of the season they came back wearing brand-new Florsheim shoes. Some came back wearing the same shoes they'd left in and swore they would never go out there again. They said they'd been shot at. Spat on. Refused entrance to the local diner. The movie theater. The dry goods store. They said the signs in the windows were the same wherever they went: NO JAPS ALLOWED. Life was easier, they said, on this side of the fence.

The shoes were black Oxfords. Men's, size eight and a half, extra narrow. He took them out of his suitcase and slipped them over his hands and pressed his fingers into the smooth oval depressions left behind by his father's toes and then he closed his eyes and sniffed the tips of his fingers.

Tonight they smelled like nothing.

The week before they had still smelled of his father but tonight the smell of his father was gone.

He wiped off the leather with his sleeve and put the shoes back into the suitcase. Outside it was dark and in the barrack windows there were lights on and figures moving behind curtains. He wondered what his father was doing right then. Getting ready for bed, maybe. Washing his face. Or brushing his teeth. Did they even have toothpaste in Lordsburg? He didn't know. He'd have to write him and ask. He lay down on his cot and pulled up the blankets. He could hear his mother snoring softly in the darkness, and a lone coyote in the hills to the south, howling up at the moon. He wondered if you could see the same moon in Lordsburg, or London, or even in China, where all the men wore little black slippers. And he decided that you could, depending on the clouds.

"Same moon," he whispered to himself, "same moon."

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Excerpted from When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. Copyright © 2002 by Julie Otsuka. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.