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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 160 | ISBN: 978-0-307-43021-2
Published by : Anchor Knopf

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The debut novel from the PEN/Faulkner Award Winning Author of The Buddha in the Attic

On a sunny day in Berkeley, California, in 1942, a woman sees a sign in a post office window, returns to her home, and matter-of-factly begins to pack her family's possessions. Like thousands of other Japanese Americans they have been reclassified, virtually overnight, as enemy aliens and are about to be uprooted from their home and sent to a dusty internment camp in the Utah desert.

In this lean and devastatingly evocative first novel, Julie Otsuka tells their story from five flawlessly realized points of view and conveys the exact emotional texture of their experience: the thin-walled barracks and barbed-wire fences, the omnipresent fear and loneliness, the unheralded feats of heroism. When the Emperor Was Divine is a work of enormous power that makes a shameful episode of our history as immediate as today's headlines.



The sign had appeared overnight. On billboards and trees and the 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 a 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 clearly 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.

When the overdue notice from the library arrived in the mail nine days later she still had not finished packing. The children had just left for school and boxes and suitcases were scattered across the floor of the house. She tossed the envelope into the nearest suitcase and walked out the door.

Outside the sun was warm and the palm fronds were clacking idly against the side of the house. She pulled on her white silk gloves and began to walk east on Ashby. She crossed California Street and bought several bars of Lux soap and a large jar of face cream at the Rumford Pharmacy. She passed the thrift shop and the boarded-up grocery but saw no one she knew on the sidewalk. At the newsstand on the corner of Grove she bought a copy of the Berkeley Gazette. She scanned the headlines quickly. The Burma Road had been severed and one of the Dionne quintuplets–Yvonne–was still recovering from an ear operation. Sugar rationing would begin on Tuesday. She folded the paper in half but was careful not to let the ink darken her gloves.

At Lundy's Hardware she stopped and looked at the display of victory garden shovels in the window. They were well-made shovels with sturdy metal handles and she thought, for a moment, of buying one–the price was right and she did not like to pass up a bargain. Then she remembered that she already had a shovel at home in the shed. In fact, she had two. She did not need a third. She smoothed down her dress and went into the store.

"Nice glasses," Joe Lundy said the moment she walked through the door.

"You think?" she asked. "I'm not used to them yet." She picked up a hammer and gripped the handle firmly. "Do you have anything bigger?" she asked. Joe Lundy said that what she had in her hand was the biggest hammer he had. She put the hammer back on the rack.

"How's your roof holding out?" he asked her.

"I think the shingles are rotting. It just sprung another leak."

"It's been a wet year."

The woman nodded. "But we've had some nice days." She walked past the venetian blinds and the black- out shades to the back of the store. She picked out two rolls of tape and a ball of twine and brought them back to the register. "Every time it rains I have to set out the bucket," she said. She put down two quarters on the counter.

"Nothing wrong with a bucket," said Joe Lundy. He pushed the quarters back toward her across the counter but he did not look at her. "You can pay me later," he said. Then he began to wipe the side of the register with a rag. There was a dark stain there that would not go away.

"I can pay you now," said the woman.

"Don't worry about it," said Joe Lundy. He reached into his shirt pocket and gave her two caramel candies wrapped in gold foil. "For the children," he said. She slipped the caramels into her purse but left the money. She thanked him for the candy and walked out of the store.

"That's a nice red dress," he called out after her.

She turned around and squinted at him over the top of her glasses. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you, Joe." Then the door slammed behind her and she was alone on the sidewalk and she realized that in all the years she had been going to Joe Lundy's store she had never before called him by his name. Joe. It sounded strange to her. Wrong, almost. But she had said it. She had said it out loud. She wished she had said it earlier.

She wiped her forehead with her handkerchief. The sun was bright and she did not like to sweat in public. She took off her glasses and crossed to the shady side of the street. At the corner of Shattuck she took the streetcar downtown. She got off at Kittredge and went into J. F. Hink's department store and asked the salesman if they had any duffel bags but they did not, they were all sold out. He had sold the last one a half-hour ago. He suggested she try J. C. Penney's but they were sold out of duffel bags there too. They were sold out of duffel bags all over town.

*  * *

when she got home the woman took off her red dress and put on her faded blue one–her housedress. She twisted her hair up into a bun and put on an old pair of comfortable shoes. She had to finish packing. She rolled up the Oriental rug in the living room. She took down the mirrors. She took down the curtains and shades. She carried the tiny bonsai tree out into the yard and set it down on the grass beneath the eaves where it would not get too much shade or too much sun but just the right amount of each. She brought the wind-up Victrola and the Westminster chime clock downstairs to the basement.

Upstairs, in the boy's room, she unpinned the One World One War map of the world from the wall and folded it neatly along the crease lines. She wrapped up his stamp collection and the painted wooden Indian with the long headdress he had won at the Sacramento State Fair. She pulled out the Joe Palooka comic books from under his bed. She emptied the drawers. Some of his clothes–the clothes he would need–she left out for him to put into his suitcase later. She placed his baseball glove on his pillow. The rest of his things she put into boxes and carried into the sunroom.

The door to the girl's room was closed. Above the doorknob was a note that had not been there the day before. It said do not disturb. The woman did not open the door. She went down the stairs and removed the pictures from the walls. There were only three: the painting of Princess Elizabeth that hung in the dining room, the picture of Jesus in the foyer, and in the kitchen, a framed reproduction of Millet's The Gleaners. She placed Jesus and the little Princess together facedown in a box. She made sure to put Jesus on top. She took The Gleaners out of its frame and looked at the picture one last time. She wondered why she had let it hang in the kitchen for so long. It bothered her, the way those peasants were forever bent over above that endless field of wheat. "Look up"' she wanted to say to them. "Look up, look up!" The Gleaners, she decided, would have to go. She set the picture outside with the garbage.

In the living room she emptied all the books from the shelves except Audubon's Birds of America. In the kitchen she emptied the cupboards. She set aside a few things for later that evening. Everything else–the china, the crystal, the set of ivory chopsticks her mother had sent to her fifteen years ago from Kagoshima on her wedding day–she put into boxes. She taped the boxes shut with the tape she had bought from Lundy's Hardware and carried them one by one up the stairs to the sunroom. When she was done she locked the door with two padlocks and sat down on the landing with her dress pushed up above her knees and lit a cigarette. Tomorrow she and the children would be leaving. She did not know where they were going or how long they would be gone or who would be living in their house while they were away. She knew only that tomorrow they had to go.

There were things they could take with them: bedding and linen, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, cups, clothes. These were the words she had written down on the back of the bank receipt. Pets were not allowed. That was what the sign had said.

It was late April. It was the fourth week of the fifth month of the war and the woman, who did not always follow the rules, followed the rules. She gave the cat to the Greers next door. She caught the chicken that had been running wild in the yard since the fall and snapped its neck beneath the handle of a broomstick. She plucked out the feathers and set the carcass into a pan of cold water in the sink.
Julie Otsuka|Author Q&A

About Julie Otsuka

Julie Otsuka - When the Emperor Was Divine

Photo © Robert Bessoir

Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. She is the author of the novel When the Emperor Was Divine and a recipient of the Asian American Literary Award, the American Library Association Alex Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in New York City.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Julie Otsuka, author of When the Emperor was Divine

Q: What was your inspiration for setting the novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, in the Japanese internment camps in the U.S. during World War II?

Quite truthfully, I never set out to write a novel about the internment camps. I started out writing—or trying to write—comedy, in fact, and never thought of myself as a “serious” writer. But images of the war kept surfacing in my work, so for reasons I didn’t quite understand, the war was something I needed to write about.

The obvious inspiration for the novel is my own family’s history. My grandfather was arrested by the FBI the day after Pearl Harbor and incarcerated in various camps administered by the Department of Justice for “dangerous enemy aliens.” My mother, my uncle and my grandmother were interned for three and a half years in Topaz, Utah.

My grandfather died when I was quite young, so I don’t remember much about him, but one day, several years ago, we found a box in my grandmother’s house. Inside the box were letters and postcards my grandfather had written to his wife and children during the war. My mother read them first and I remember her telling me afterwards, “It’s like reading a story,” and it was, but a rather one-sided story (I don't know what happened to my grandmother’s side of the correspondence), a story with many gaps and holes. Also, the letters were censored, so I knew that there was a lot that wasn’t being said.

What happened to my mother and her family during the war was not something we talked about much at home while I was growing up. I think that, for many Japanese of my mother’s generation, the war is just an episode they’d rather forget, because of the shame, the stigma they felt at being labeled “disloyal.” Although in our home, I must say, the war years weren’t completely swept under the rug, either. From time to time, I remember, my mother would mention this or that person whom she knew from “camp.” But “camp” just seemed like a totally normal point of reference to me. It was just another word—like “apple” or “chair.” I thought everyone knew about it. Also, the one story I recall my mother telling me, as a child, about camp—the story about the boy who fell through the roof of the bath house while trying to spy on the ladies below—was a funny one. It just never sounded that bad. Camp. And in the big and terrible scheme of things, it wasn’t. It certainly does not compare to what happened to the Jews in Europe during the Holocaust. That’s another reason, I think, that many Japanese-Americans have been reluctant to come forward with their story. Why draw attention to yourself when there are so many people who have suffered fates far worse than your own?

Still, I think that the story of what happened to the Japanese-Americans during WWII is an important one, a story that needs to be told, especially since it took place right here, in America, during a time when we were supposedly fighting for democracy and freedom overseas.

Q: In addition to drawing on the lives of your mother and grandparents, did you do archival research or conduct interviews about this period in U.S. history?

A: I spent months and months reading oral history collections, secondary source books about the internment, and old newspapers from the 1940s. I had to know how things happened, and when, and how things looked, and what kind of plants grew where, and what the dimensions of the barracks were, and what a dust storm felt like-all these things I had to know more for myself really, than for the book, so that I felt I could tell the story confidently. But I didn’t want to weigh down the novel with historical details. It was always the characters that interested me most, as well as the landscape, and the psychology of the situation. Lives interrupted by war, populations sent into exile, these are timeless and universal themes.

I sprinkled a few carefully chosen details through the novel to set the scene. The backdrop—the awfulness of the war, of the internment—speaks for itself, I think. There’s no need to accentuate it. If anything, I wanted to tone it down. I think that keeping the terror in the background actually makes it more vivid, somehow.

Q: One recurring question in your novel is: what does it mean to be "loyal" or "disloyal"? How can we tell? We seem to be living in a time of anxiety about what it means to be an American. For instance, our government has been shaping policies on immigration and military tribunals in ways that raise questions about who is entitled to which liberties. Is there any component in these current debates that you find especially troubling or revealing, given your knowledge of the internment camps?

That there is even a debate at all is, I think, a good sign. And that President Bush has spoken out in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks urging tolerance towards Arabs and Muslims is also a good sign. In February of 1942, there were very few who protested or even questioned the president’s order to intern over 120,000 Japanese in this country. (Many people, in fact, actually seemed relieved to see the Japanese go.) That said, I am still surprised that there has not been more of an outcry against the Bush administration’s recent assault on civil liberties: the secret arrests and indefinite detention of more than 1200 Middle Eastern men, the suspension of habeas corpus and of the right to trial by jury, the electronic monitoring of lawyer-client conversations, the use of military tribunals. It is actually possible, today, for a long-term U.S. resident suspected of terrorist activity to be arrested and sentenced to death in a secret military trial based on hearsay evidence.

One does have to wonder: is this America? Well, yes, it is an America not so unlike the America in which my grandfather was arrested on December 8, 1941. In the 24 hours following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, over 1200 Japanese nationals suspected of being a threat to the nation’s security were arrested by the FBI in a series of raids that took place up and down the west coast. All of the men arrested had been under surveillance by the FBI for at least a year prior to December 7th. They were each given a hearing before the “Alien Enemy Control Unit” to determine whether they should be released, paroled or interned. The defendants were not allowed to have a lawyer, or to object to the government’s evidence against them. They were not allowed a trial by jury. Those who were ordered interned were sent to remote Department of Justice camps for the duration of the war. The arrests of these men continued over the next several months and culminated, in the spring and summer of 1942, with the mass incarceration of the rest of the entire West Coast Japanese population.

Given what I know about the Japanese-Americans and WWII, it makes me nervous when Attorney General John Ashcroft starts rounding up hundreds of noncitizen suspects for questioning. Because this is how it all started in December of 1941. What will happen next, I wonder? And how bad will things get?

As for who is entitled to which liberties, I think it is important that all noncitizen immigrants in this country receive the same constitutional protections as citizens, especially since, during times of war, noncitizens from enemy nations are a highly vulnerable population. In 1941, Japanese immigrants were forbidden by law from even becoming American citizens, even though many of them had lived in this country for more than 20 years and had no intention of ever going back to Japan. Even if they had wanted to become U.S. citizens (and many of them did), the Japanese in this country were prevented from doing so, and so they had no choice but to remain citizens of the “enemy nation”—further proof, to many, of their traitorous allegiance to the Emperor.

I recently read my grandfather’s FBI files—they do not contain any evidence that he ever committed a subversive act, or conspired to assist the Japanese government in any way. In fact, not a single Japanese or Japanese-American in this country was ever found guilty of committing an act of sabotage or espionage. In hindsight, it seems clear that what happened to the Japanese here during WWII was wrong, a travesty of justice. Innocent people—over two-thirds of them U.S. citizens—were rounded up and incarcerated without due process for a crime, that of disloyalty, which they did not commit. The government formally apologized in 1988 and reparations have been paid to the surviving internees. Still, it is unacceptable to me to that a government could so easily deprive a people of their civil rights in the name of national security and then later say sorry, sorry, we were wrong, it was all a big mistake. It happened once but it should not happen again.

As a writer and as a Japanese-American, I feel a responsibility, especially now, to remind people of what happened to the Japanese in this country during WWII, because the effects of wartime discrimination can last a lifetime. All these years after the war, my mother still signs off every telephone conversation with, “The FBI will check up on you again soon!”

Q: The novel shifts in perspective, with each character’s point of view prevailing in one section. Did you start writing the book with this structure in mind, or did it evolve as you wrote?

I had no structure or plan in mind for the book when I began it. The novel crept up on me—image by image, really—and at a certain point I realized I had a book on my hands. That is fortunate, because if I had sat down one day and consciously tried to write a novel about the camps, I wouldn’t have made it past the first line. The subject matter is too daunting. When you’re writing about something like the uprooting and incarceration of an entire generation of people—your people—well, that can feel like a tremendous and terrible responsibility. Am I the right person to be telling this story? Am I even entitled to tell this story? Am I getting the story right? Am I doing these people justice? You can’t help but wonder these things. But then again, as a writer, it’s your job not to wonder about these things and just get on with the telling of the story.

I had never written a novel before, so I really had no idea what I was doing. An image would come to me—a sign on a telephone pole, say, or a train with blacked-out windows winding its way through the landscape, or a boy in a mess hall mistaking every man with black hair for his father—and I would follow it and see where it went. Or else I’d hear a character’s voice, or a line, and that line would become the first line of a chapter, and I’d go from there.

Shifting the points of view kept the material fresh for me. Going into the head of a new character is like meeting a person for the first time—at a party, say, or on a blind date, or at the deli. That unknown person can be mysterious, thrilling. Hmmm, I think, who is this?

Q: Did you find yourself identifying with one particular character?

I think I identified intensely with each character as I was writing his or her chapter. As a writer, I inhabit my characters, I move right into their brains. The emotions my characters feel, I feel. The character I find most admirable is the mother—she’s so tough and self-assured, yet vulnerable, and with a sense of humor. She really holds that family together. Sadly, I don’t think I much resemble her. I’d like to, but I’ve never been put to the test in quite the way she has.

The character I felt the most love for was the boy. I didn’t become him, exactly, but I was aware of feeling intense love for him while I was writing his chapter, the long middle chapter that is set in the camp. Probably because he was the one who seemed to need love the most. The other characters seemed able to take care of themselves. But the boy, who was eight years old in the middle chapter, was filled with such longing.

The last chapter, which is told in the father’s voice, came to me very quickly, in one of those rare bursts. As soon as I began writing it, I knew it would be the ending of the book. What surprised me was that the father’s anger was so easily accessible to me. I think that in my next book, a story about a mother and daughter after the war, that anger will be the point of departure.

Q: Have certain authors and teachers influenced your writing?

Oh, yes, many, many. Well, I’m almost embarrassed to name some of them. It’s like admitting to having a crush on the Marlboro Man, but I do love Hemingway, Richard Ford, Rick Bass, Cormac McCarthy—the outdoor guys, I call them. Hemingway, you could say, was my strongest early influence.

I am also a big fan of Jamaica Kincaid’s. I’m just entranced by her prose, in awe of her ability to compress all that emotion into a perfect rhythmic structure.

Who else? Colum McCann. I think his writing is gorgeous, his cadences beautiful. His story, “Everything In This Country Must” is just lovely, lovely. I wish I’d written it, especially that first paragraph. I also love Lydia Davis—her brainy Cartesian precision, her psychological insight, her odd and quirky mind. And Julie Hecht, I adore. I think she’s one of the funniest writers alive, I don’t know why she’s not better known. Who else? Marguerite Duras I’ve looked at a lot. And I like Haruki Murakami, although I feel like I haven’t read enough of him, just the stories and Underground, about the sarin gas attack, which I found fascinating.

Lately I’ve started reading plays. For some reason they really get me going. Maybe it’s that they’re so much about character, and that they have to sound pitch perfect to work. David Mamet’s The Woods is a quiet stunner. And Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner really made an impression on me, as did Aunt Dan and Lemon.

I guess I’m always influenced by whatever I happen to be reading at the moment. Right now I’m reading Camus...

As for teachers, Maureen Howard at Columbia was very important to me. She was the one who urged me to continue writing about the war, which I might not have done otherwise.

I also think that my background in the visual arts—I came to New York to be a painter, and failed, but that’s another story—has influenced the way I work. People tell me that my writing is very visual, but that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that I’m used to the discipline of being in the studio. If you’re a painter, you go to your studio every day, you set out your colors on your pallet, you put down a mark on the canvas, then another, then another, you stand back, you add, you take away. It’s the same thing with writing. You get up every day and you sit down at your desk and you put down a word, or a sentence, or, on a good day (I work very slowly) maybe a half page. You add a word here, you take one away, you sketch out a scene, it’s all wrong, it needs to be a little warmer, a little cooler, you change it, it’s still wrong... It’s just not that different from painting, really, the process of writing.

Praise | Awards


“Exceptional. . . . Otsuka skillfully dramatizes a world suddenly foreign. . . . [Her] incantatory, unsentimental prose is the book’s greatest strength.” –The New Yorker

“Spare, incisive. . . . The mood of the novel tensely reflects the protagonists’ emotional state: calm surfaces above, turmoil just beneath.” –Boston Globe

A timely examination of mass hysteria in troubled times. . . . Otsuka combines interesting facts and tragic emotions with a steady, pragmatic hand.”–The Oregonian

“Prose so cool and precise that it’s impossible not to believe what [Otsuka] tells us or to see clearly what she wants us to see. . . . A gem of a book and one of the most vivid history lessons you’ll ever learn.” –USA Today

“With a matter-of-fact brilliance, and a poise as prominent in the protagonist as it is in the writing, When the Emperor Was Divine is a novel about loyalty, about identity, and about being other in America during uncertain times.” –Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges

“Shockingly brilliant. . . . it will make you gasp . . . Undoubtedly one of the most effective, memorable books to deal with the internment crisis . . . The maturity of Otsuka’s. . . prose is astonishing.” — The Bloomsbury Review

“The novel’s voice is as hushed as a whisper. . . . An exquisite debut. . . potent, spare, crystalline.” –O, The Oprah Magazine

“At once delicately poetic and unstintingly unsentimental.” --St. Petersburg Times

“Heartbreaking, bracingly unsentimental. . . .rais[es] the specter of wartime injustice in bone-chilling fashion. . . . The novel’s honesty and matter-of-fact tone in the face of inconceivable injustice are the source of its power. . . . Dazzling.” –Publishers Weekly

“Otsuka . . . demonstrates a breathtaking restraint and delicacy throughout this supple and devastating first novel .” –Booklist

“Spare yet poignant. . . . clear, elegant prose.” –Library Journal

“Her voice never falters, equally adept at capturing horrific necessity and accidental beauty. Her unsung prisoners of war contend with multiple front lines, and enemies who wear the faces of neighbors and friends. It only takes a few pages to join their cause, but by the time you finish this exceptional debut, you will recognize that their struggle has always been yours.” –Colson Whitehead, author of John Henry Days

“Heartbreaking. . . . A crystalline account.” –The Seattle Post-Intelligencer


WINNER Booklist Editor's Choice for Young Adults
WINNER New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age
WINNER 2003 Asian American Literary Award
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions|Teachers Guide

About the Book

“Mesmerizing. . . . [Otsuka has] lyric gifts and narrative poise, [a] heat-seeking eye for detail [and] effortless ability to empathize with her characters.”

The New York Times


The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine. We hope they will provide fruitful ways of thinking and talking about a book that brilliantly explores the experience of Japanese Americans during World War II.

About the Guide

Julie Otsuka’s quietly disturbing novel opens with a woman reading a sign in a post office window. It is Berkeley, California, the spring of 1942. Pearl Harbor has been attacked, the war is on, and though the precise message on the sign is not revealed, its impact on the woman who reads it is immediate and profound. It is, in many ways she cannot yet foresee, a sign of things to come. She readies herself and her two young children for a journey that will take them to the high desert plains of Utah and into a world that will shatter their illusions forever. They travel by train and gradually the reader discovers that all on board are Japanese American, that the shades must be pulled down at night so as not to invite rock-throwing, and that their destination is an internment camp where they will be imprisoned “for their own safety” until the war is over. With stark clarity and an unflinching gaze, Otsuka explores the inner lives of her main characters—the mother, daughter, and son—as they struggle to understand their fate and long for the father whom they have not seen since he was whisked away, in slippers and handcuffs, on the evening of Pearl Harbor.

Moving between dreams, memories, and sharply emblematic moments, When the Emperor Was Divine reveals the dark underside of a period in American history that, until now, has been left largely unexplored in American fiction.

About the Author

Julie Otsuka was born in Palo Alto and studied art at Yale University. After pursuing a career as a painter, she turned to fiction at age 30. One of her short stories was included in Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops 1998, edited by Carol Shields. When the Emperor Was Divine is her first novel.

Discussion Guides

1. When the Emperor Was Divine gives readers an intimate view of the fate of Japanese Americans during World War II. In what ways does the novel deepen our existing knowledge of this historical period? What does it give readers that a straightforward historical investigation cannot?

2. Why does Otsuka choose to reveal the family’s reason for moving—and the father’s arrest—so indirectly and so gradually? What is the effect when the reason becomes apparent?

3. Otsuka skillfully places subtle but significant details in her narrative. When the mother goes to Lundy’s hardware store, she notices a “dark stain” on the register “that would not go away” [p. 5]. The dog she has to kill is called “White Dog” [see pp. 9–12]. Her daughter’s favorite song on the radio is “Don’t Fence Me In.” How do these details, and others like them, point to larger meanings in the novel?

4. Why does Otsuka refer to her characters as “the woman,” “the girl,” “the boy,” and “the father,” rather than giving them names? How does this lack of specific identities affect the reader’s relationship to the characters?

5. When they arrive at the camp in the Utah desert—“a city of tar-paper barracks behind a barbed-wire fence on a dusty alkaline plain”—the boy thinks he sees his father everywhere: “wherever the boy looked he saw him: Daddy, Papa, Father, Oto-san” [p. 49]. Why is the father’s absence such a powerful presence in the novel? How do the mother and daughter think of him? How would their story have been different had the family remained together?

6. When the boy wonders why he’s in the camp, he worries that “he’d done something horribly, terribly wrong. . . . 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” [p. 57]. What does this passage reveal about the damaging effects of racism on children? What does it reveal about the way children try to make sense of their experience?

7. In the camp, the prisoners are told they’ve been brought there for their “own protection,” and that “it was all in the interest of national security. It was a matter of military necessity. It was an opportunity for them to prove their loyalty” [p. 70]. Why, and in what ways, are these justifications problematic? What do they reveal about the attitude of the American government toward Japanese Americans? How would these justifications appear to those who were taken from their homes and placed behind fences for the duration of the war?

8. What parallels does the novel reveal between the American treatment of citizens of Japanese descent and the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany?

9. Much of When the Emperor Was Divine is told in short, episodic, loosely connected scenes—images, conversations, memories, dreams, and so on—that move between past and present and alternate points of view between the mother, daughter, and son. Why has Otsuka chosen to structure her narrative in this way? What effects does it allow her to achieve?

10. After the family is released from the camp, what instructions are they given? How do they regard themselves? How does America regard them? In what ways have they been damaged by their internment?

11. When they are at last reunited with their father, the family doesn’t know how to react. “Because the man who stood there before us was not our father. He was somebody else, a stranger who had been sent back in our father’s place” [p. 132]. Why do they regard him as a stranger? How has he been changed by his experience? In what ways does this reunion underscore the tragedy of America’s decision to imprison Japanese Americans during the war?

12. After the father returns home, he never once discusses the years he’d been away, and his children don’t ask. “We didn’t want to know. . . . All we wanted to do, now that we were back in the world, was forget” [p. 133]. Why do the children feel this way? Why would their father remain silent about such an important experience? In what ways does the novel fight against this desire to forget?

13. The mother is denied work because being a Japanese American might “upset the other employees” or offend the customers. She turns down a job working in a dark back room of a department store because she is afraid she “might accidentally remember who I was and . . . offend myself” [pp. 128–129]. What does this statement reveal about her character? What strengths does she exhibit throughout her ordeal?

14. Flowers appear throughout the novel. When one of the prisoners is shot by a guard, a witness believes the man had been reaching through the fence to pluck a flower [see p. 101]. And the penultimate chapter ends with the following sentence: “But we never stopped believing that somewhere out there, in some stranger’s backyard, our mother’s rosebush was blossoming madly, wildly, pressing one perfect red flower after another out into the late afternoon light” [p. 139]. What symbolic value do the flowers have in this final passage? What does this open-ended conclusion suggest about the relationship between the family and the “strangers” they live among?

15. When the Emperor Was Divine concludes with a chapter titled “Confession.” Who is speaking in this final chapter? Is the speech ironic? Why has Otsuka chosen to end the novel in this way? What does the confession imply about our ability to separate out the “enemy,” the “other,” in our midst?

Suggested Readings

Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking; Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl; Ann-Marie MacDonald, Fall on Your Knees; Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance; Toni Morrison, Sula; Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Alice Yang Murray, What Did the Internment of Japanese Americans Mean?; Malika Oufkir, Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail; Lalita Tademy, Cane River; Elie Wiesel, Night.

Teacher's Guide


This spare and hauntingly evocative novel dramatizes an episode in American history, the internment of more than 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. Yet it is not, strictly speaking, a historical novel. One would not read it to find out why Japan and the U.S. went to war or who decided that Japanese Americans, as opposed to German- or Italian-Americans, posed a sufficient threat to national security to justify their mass incarceration. There’s no comprehensive account of how they were rounded up and relocated. We don’t know why the authorities eventually decided to release them, allotting each family train fare and $25.00, the same amount given to criminals released from prison. Rather, When the Emperor Was Divine is a novel about people caught in the long shadow of history. And what it tells us, with great conviction and visual detail so vivid that it feels imprinted on our retinas, is what it must have been like to be among the detained, to see what they saw, to feel what they felt, to lose what they lost.


Julie Otsuka’s protagonists are a forty-one-year-old woman, her ten-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son. We never learn their names. The novel begins on an afternoon in late April 1942, in the cosmopolitan city of Berkeley, California, when the woman sees an official notice posted in the window of Woolworth’s. The rest of the first chapter shows her following the orders the notice contains. Over the next several days she locks some of the family’s valuables in a back room and buries others in the garden; still other valuables–silk kimonos, records of Japanese opera, a flag of the rising sun–she burns [p. 75]. She gives away the cat and quietly kills the elderly, crippled dog and buries its body in the garden before her children get home from school. When her son asks her where they’re going, she tells him she doesn’t know. It’s only casually, as if by way of an aside, that we learn that the woman’s husband was arrested five months
before and is being held separately as an alien enemy.

Each of the ensuing chapters follows the members of this family through a different stage of their journey: on a train from California to Utah; in an internment camp in the desert, a small city, fenced with barbed wire, whose tar paper barracks are stifling in summer and bitterly cold in winter; back in Berkeley in a house that is now strange to them, partly because it has been vandalized by a succession of “tenants” and partly because its owners have changed in ways they are just beginning to reckon. Each chapter is narrated from a different point of view–the mother’s, the girl’s, the boy’s, and then both children’s together, with a final coda narrated by the father. This section alone uses the familiar novelistic “I.” By traditional standards not much happens. Nobody falls in or out of love; nobody is killed–except for an unnamed Japanese man who is shot after he ignores an order to step back from the barbed-wire fence, perhaps because he was trying to pick an unusual flower growing just beyond it. There are moments of violence that are rendered quickly and discreetly, as if having a brick thrown through one’s bedroom window were hardly worth remarking. There are moments of beauty. Yet When the Emperor Was Divine is charged throughout with enormous tension. Can the woman survive this ordeal without losing her strength? Will the girl lose her gift for snappy banter? Will the dreamy little boy lose his ability to dream? Will they learn something that breaks their hearts? And will the reader?


Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California, the daughter and granddaughter of Japanese who were interned during World War II. She was educated at Yale University and received an M.F.A. from Columbia. She lives in New York City. This is her first novel.

From an Interview with Julie Otsuka:

Q: What inspired you to set When the Emperor Was Divine in the Japanese internment camps in America during World War II?

A: The obvious inspiration for the novel is my own family’s history. My grandfather was arrested by the FBI the day after Pearl Harbor and incarcerated in various camps administered by the Department of Justice for “dangerous enemy aliens.” My mother, my uncle and my grandmother were interned for three and a half years in Topaz, Utah. . . .

What happened to my mother and her family during the war was not something we talked about much at home while I was growing up. I think that, for many Japanese of my mother’s generation, the war is just an episode they’d rather forget, because of the shame, the stigma, they felt at being labeled “disloyal.” . . . From time to time, I remember, my mother would mention this or that person whom she knew from “camp.” But “camp” just seemed like a totally normal point of reference to me. It was just another word, like “apple” or “chair.” . . . It just never sounded that bad. Camp. And in the big and terrible scheme of things, it wasn’t. It certainly does not compare to what happened to the Jews in Europe during the Holocaust. That’s another reason, I think, that many Japanese Americans have been reluctant to come forward with their story. Why draw attention to yourself when there are so many people who have suffered
fates far worse than your own?

Q: One recurring question in your novel is: What does it mean to be “loyal” or “disloyal”? How can we tell? . . . Our government has been shaping policies on immigration and military tribunals in ways that raise questions about who is entitled to which liberties. Is there any component in these current debates that you find especially troubling or revealing, given your knowledge of the internment camps?

A: That there is even a debate at all is, I think, a good sign. . . . In February of 1942, there were very few who protested or even questioned the president’s order to intern over 120,000 Japanese in this country. (Many people, in fact, seemed relieved to see the Japanese go.) That said, I am still surprised that there has not been more of an outcry against the Bush administration’s recent assault on civil liberties. . . . One does have
to wonder: Is this America? Well, yes, it is an America not so unlike the America in which my grandfather was arrested on December 8, 1941.

Q: The novel shifts in perspective, with each character’s point of view prevailing in one section. Did you start writing the book with this structure in mind, or did it evolve as
you wrote?

A: I had no structure or plan in mind for the book when I began it. The novel crept up on me–image by image, really–and at a certain point I realized I had a book on my hands. That is fortunate, because if I had sat down one day and consciously tried to write a novel about the camps, I wouldn’t have made it past the first line. The subject matter is too daunting. When you’re writing about something like the uprooting and incarceration of an entire generation of people–your people–well, that can feel like a tremendous and terrible responsibility. Am I the right person to be telling this story? Am I even entitled to tell this story? . . . You can’t help but wonder these things. But then again, as a writer, it’s your job not to wonder about these things and just get on with the telling of the story.

I had never written a novel before, so I really had no idea what I was doing. An image would come to me–a sign on a telephone pole, say, or a train with blacked-out windows winding its way through the landscape, or a boy in a mess hall mistaking every man with black hair for his father–and I would follow it and see where it went.


The questions, exercises and assignments that follow are intended to help your students read When the Emperor Was Divine and consider it as both a work of art and a meditation on freedom, identity, and loyalty. While the book’s narrative is straightforward and its language simple, readers may be initially disoriented by its shifting point of view and Otsuka’s way of withholding information. Often she lets us see an effect before its cause, an outcome before its preceding expectation. And she is reticent about her characters’ feelings, refusing to name them and instead compelling us to infer them through the things her characters notice, remember, and fantasize about. These tactics make the novel a powerful example of literary minimalism, a method that, when practiced by a writer as generous as Otsuka, turns the reader into a collaborator in the creation of meaning. The book is also a useful adjunct to formal histories of World War II, full of the intimate details that such histories usually leave out. Lastly, given that America has recently been at war and treating certain of its citizens as “alien enemies,” When the Emperor Was Divine is a timely invitation to consider the meaning of both those words and the arbitrariness with which they are sometimes assigned.

Historical Background

Between 1901 and 1907, almost 110,000 Japanese immigrated to the United States, drawn by promises of ready work and worsening economic conditions in their homeland. Although many originally came as dekaseginin—“temporary sojourners”—work was plentiful and some of the newcomers stayed on and started families. These were the issei—Japanese of the first generation. Their children were called nisei.

Very quickly they encountered antagonism. Although Japanese made up less than two percent of all immigrants to the United States, newspapers trumpeted an “invasion.” The Asiatic Exclusion League pressed for legislation to halt all Japanese immigration. Politicians ran for office on anti-Japanese platforms. In 1924 Congress passed the National Origins Act, which banned all immigration from Japan.

Following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, hostility turned into paranoia and paranoia was codified into law. Japanese who had lived in America for thirty years found themselves accused of spying. The day after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Treasury Department ordered all Japanese-owned businesses closed and all issei bank accounts frozen. The government had already compiled lists of Japanese whose loyalties might be suspect, and more than a thousand businessmen, community leaders, priests, and educators were arrested up and down the West Coast.

Japanese homes were searched for contraband. Their telephone service was cut off. One newspaper columnist wrote: “I am for the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior. . . . Herd ’em up, pack ’em off and give ’em the inside room in the badlands . . . let ’em be pinched, hurt, and hungry.” In February 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which empowered the government to remove “any and all” persons of Japanese ancestry from sensitive military areas in four western states. Those affected by the order had only days in which to evacuate. They were compelled to sell their land and businesses for a fraction of their value, or to lease them to neighbors who would later refuse to pay their rent. All told, some 120,000 Japanese Americans were deported from their homes to hastily built camps such as Tule Lake and Manzanar, where they lived behind barbed wire for the duration of the war.

Neither Germans nor Italians living in this country were subject to similar restrictions, and recently declassified documents reveal that the Japanese population was never considered a serious threat to American security. In all of World War II, no person of Japanese ancestry living in the United States, Alaska, or Hawaii was ever charged with any act of espionage or sabotage. As one nisei later wrote, the victims of Executive Order 9066 were people whose “only crime was their face.”

In 1988, the U.S. government formally apologized to Japanese citizens who had been deprived of their civil liberties during World War II.

This information was gathered from Lauren Kessler, Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese-American Family. New York, Random House, 1993.


Understanding the Story

I. Evacuation Order No. 19

1. Whose point of view dominates this chapter?

2. What does the woman see in the window? Otsuka tells us that “she wrote down a few words.” [p. 3] What do they turn out to be?

3. How much time passes between the appearance of the notice and the events of the rest of the chapter? What do we learn has happened during that time?

4. What items does the woman buy at the hardware store? What does she intend to do with them? Why might Mr. Lundy keep insisting that she can pay him later, and why is she in turn so determined to pay him now?

5. Which of the family possessions do the woman and her children pack; which things do they leave behind? What do their choices tell you about them? Discuss the significance of the bonsai tree, the reproduction of “The Gleaners,” and the portrait of Princess Elizabeth.

6. Otsuka describes the woman as someone “who did not always follow the rules.” Where in this novel do we see her doing this?

7. Why does the woman kill White Dog? How does she explain its disappearance to the children? Do they believe her? Where else do we see her lying to them?

8. Why is the boy so insistent on keeping his hat on?

9. The girl worries about her looks, noting that “people were staring.” [p. 15] What might be the real reason they were staring at her?

10. Why does the girl ask her mother to make her practice for her piano lesson, and why, when her mother refuses, does she practice anyway?

11. At what point in the evening’s routines does the woman begin to cry? What is the significance of “La donna é mobile,” a song whose title means “Woman Is Fickle”?

12. Discuss the significance of the chapter’s final sentence: “Then they would pin their identification numbers to their collars and grab their suitcases and climb up onto the bus and go to wherever it was they had to go.” [p. 22] Why is the author vague about their destination?

II. Train

1. Whose point of view dominates this chapter? What clues does the author use to indicate this shift?

2. How much time has passed since the family left its home and what has happened in the interim?

3. Why have the girl’s shoes gone unpolished since spring?

4. What sights draw her attention as she gazes out the train window?

5. Why does the soldier tell her to pull her shades down?

6. What might account for the boy’s newfound interest in horses? How do the grownups around him treat this interest? What about their responses might be confusing to him?

7. When the girl asks Ted Ishimoto if he is a rich man, he says “Not anymore.” [p. 33] What might account for his answer?

8. Do you think the girl’s story about her father is true? Why or why not, and if it isn’t true what might be her reason for telling it? Why does she later tell Ted that her father never writes to her?

9. What is striking about the boy saying that he forgot his umbrella? Is he telling a deliberate untruth or is he forgetting what actually happened? At what other points in the book do the characters suffer lapses of memory or remember events falsely?

10. Why might the boy draw his father inside a square?

11. What is Tanforan and what happened there? In what different ways do different characters remember it?

12. During the night the train crosses the Great Salt Lake. Given that the girl is asleep at the time, who is observing this crossing? And what might this narrator mean by “the sound of the lake was inside her” [pp. 46-7]?

III. When the Emperor Was Divine

1. What is the significance of this chapter’s title?

2. Why does the boy keep thinking that he sees his father?

3. When the boy thinks, “For it was true, they all looked alike,” [p. 49] he seems to be echoing something he has heard elsewhere. Where might he have heard this?

4. What is the significance of the things the boy hears through the walls of his barracks? Sayonara is, of course, Japanese, but what language is Auf wiederseh’n, and what is the irony of hearing it in this setting?

5. Why does the boy’s mother warn him never to say the Emperor’s name out loud? Why does he later say it to himself, and why does he dream about the Emperor’s ships?

6 . In what different ways do the three characters spend their time in camp? How does this reflect their characters?

7. What is Mrs. Kato’s predicament, and how might it symbolize the common condition of the internees?

8. How reliable is the information the girl gives her brother? Where else have we seen her make authoritative-sounding statements that may not necessarily be accurate?

9. The letters the father sends the boy have been censored by an official. What things does the boy leave out of his letters back? Why might he do this?

10. What sort of things does the boy remember about his father, and what do they reveal about him?

11. Why does the mother fear that her husband may no longer recognize her?

12. When the boy asks his sister what time it is, what is the irony of her answer? Where else in the book do characters lose track of time?

13. What happens to the inmates who sign up to harvest crops?

14. What is the significance of the boy’s dream about doors? Where are Peleliu and Saipan? What are the claws the boy hears scrabbling, and why might their sound be growing fainter?

15. What detail of the father’s arrest does the boy find most troubling? What eventually makes him feel better?

16. What is the significance of the objects the boy’s mother destroyed?

17. What does the father mean by, “It’s better to bend than to break?” [p. 78] Compare this to the mother thinking, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” [p. 99] How useful or relevant does this advice seem in the context of the novel? What does it suggest about these people’s characters and values? Do they actually abide by these sayings?

18. Why does the girl make the boy turn away while she undresses? In what other ways does her behavior change during this time?

19. Why does the boy feel responsible for the tortoise’s death? Do you think he is? His sister says, “We’ll resurrect him,” but is she just joking? Does the boy believe her?

20. The boy is particularly bothered because his father didn’t look back at him from the car in which the FBI men took him away. What significance do you think he places on this? What alternative reason might the father have had for not turning?

21. How does the mother change in the course of her internment? What memory seems especially affecting to her?

22. Why is the family in the next barracks sent to Tule Lake? What is the irony of punishing people imprisoned as enemy aliens for refusing to pledge allegiance to the nation that’s imprisoned them?

23. What is it that the boy sees blooming inside a peach tin? How is this connected to his vision of the tortoise? Do you think this vision is real or a fantasy?

24. Why is one of the inmates shot? What hypotheses are given for his seemingly reckless behavior?

25. On page 104 the boy imagines his father returning by various means (horse, bike, train), and dressed in various outfits (a blue pinstriped suit, a red kimono). What is the significance of these different guises? What, in particular, is the meaning of the pearl?

IV. In a Stranger’s Backyard

1. Who is narrating this chapter?

2. What has changed while the family was away?

3. What has happened to the family’s furniture and to the money they were supposed to get for renting their house?

4. Why doesn’t the narrator tell us what words have been written on the wall? What earlier episode in the book does this recall?

5. Why does the family choose to sleep in the back room? What sort of things have happened to other people coming back from the camp? Who might be saying the words printed in italics on page 112?

6. How quickly do the children and their mother adapt to freedom? What habits of their internment do they still cling to?

7. How do the family’s neighbors treat them on their return, and how does this compare to their behavior earlier? On the rare occasions that someone actually asks where they’ve been, why does the mother respond so vaguely?

8. How much money is the family given on its release? What is the significance of this sum?

9. How does the narrator describe the men coming back from the war? What do the fragments of dialogue tell us about them? What is the effect of these stories of Japanese atrocities? Does it lessen your sympathy for the family? How do these stories make the children feel?

10. What measures do the children take to fit in following their return? How does their new behavior correspond to popular stereotypes of Japanese Americans?

11. “If 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). If we did something terribly wrong we immediately said we were sorry (I’m sorry I touched your arm. I didn’t mean to, it was an accident, I didn’t see it resting there so quietly, so beautifully, so perfectly, so irresistibly, on the edge of the desk. I lost my balance and brushed against it by mistake, I was standing too close, I wasn’t watching where I was going, somebody pushed me from behind, I never wanted to touch you, I have always wanted to touch you, I will never touch you again, I promise, I swear…)” [pp. 122-23] Are these things the narrator is actually saying or only thinking? Who is being addressed? How does the emotional tone of the paragraph change as it progresses?

12. Why do the children keep seeing their old possessions around the neighborhood, and why does their father appear among them? Are we meant to take this literally or as an ironic metaphor? In what ways does this passage echo earlier false sightings of the father?

13. Why does the mother take a job? What reason does she give for turning down the job in a department store? What does she say are the secrets of being a successful housecleaner?

14. How does the narrator describe the father? How does this description compare to earlier ones?

15. How has the father changed during his incarceration? How do the children seem to feel about these changes?

16. Toward the end of this chapter Otsuka writes: “Speech was beginning to come back. In the school yard. On the street. They were calling out to us now. Not many of them, just a few. At first we pretended not to hear them, but after a while we could no longer resist.” Who is calling out? What is it that the narrators are unable to resist? Do you find this passage hopeful or ominous?

V. Confession

1. Who is narrating this section, and whom is he addressing? Are we meant to take his confession literally? Is he confessing to things he has actually done or merely fantasized doing, or is he perhaps only voicing the suspicions of his interlocutors? In what ways does this confession play on stereotypes about Japanese and Anglos?

2. The confession ends, “And if they ask you someday what it was I most wanted to say, please tell them, if you would, it was this: I’m sorry.” [p. 144] Is the speaker genuinely contrite or is he only telling the questioner what he wants to hear? What might he have to feel sorry for?


1. Why do you think the author chose to narrate each chapter from the viewpoint of a different character? How difficult do you find it to follow the shifts in point of view, and what cues does Otsuka use to identify each new protagonist? What might account for her shift from the third-person singular of the first three chapters to the first-person plural of the fourth and the first-person singular of the final one? How would the book have been different if it had been told entirely in the first person?

2. Otsuka often withholds information from the reader. For example, she tells us that the woman writes down some words from the notice but doesn’t say what they are until later; she only gradually divulges the details of the father’s arrest. Perhaps most strikingly, she never tells us the characters’ names. What is the effect of this reticence? Might it be the author’s way of guarding her characters’ privacy? Does it seem odd to talk about fictional characters having privacy?

3. Along with withholding information, the author also largely refrains from making judgments about her characters, from telling us what kind of people they are (one of the few exceptions that comes to mind is her description of the mother as a woman “who did not always follow the rules”). [p. 9] She also rarely tells us what they are feeling. In the absence of such statements, how does she convey what her characters are like and, in particular, what they feel? Why might she have chosen such indirect methods?

4. The book pays a great deal of attention to objects, from the china, crystal, and ivory chopsticks the woman locks away in the back room of the house to the strands of his father’s hair that the boy keeps in an envelope hidden beneath a loose floorboard. We also find many references to animals. There are the pets the mother gives away or sets free or kills; the mustangs the girl reads about in National Geographic and later sees racing across the desert; the tortoise whose shell the boy engraves not with a name, but with the family’s identification number. Discuss the way Otsuka uses these devices. Which of them would you categorize as symbols? Can you cite instances where the characters displace their feelings onto objects that would otherwise be insignificant?

5. One of the ways in which Otsuka signals that an object or animal is meaningful is by having it recur, something she also does with words and phrases of dialogue. Sometimes she uses variation along with repetition: The boy keeps mistaking other men for his father; the woman worries that she will become unrecognizable to her husband; the children don’t recognize their returning father. Discuss Otsuka’s use of such themes and patterns. In what ways do they take the place of a conventional plot?

6. On the train to Utah the girl has exchanges with a soldier and an old man. She is plainly attracted to the green-eyed soldier, but when she calls to him he doesn’t hear her. In contrast the Japanese man is old and wrinkled, and the girl cannot understand his Japanese, which he seems to have trouble believing. [pp. 28-9] Discuss the significance of this passage. Does the book contain other moments in which characters’ loyalties are divided? What might account for this?

7. The novel’s action takes place over three and a half years, and during that time the characters change physically and psychically. How does Otsuka track these changes? In what ways does she use physical change–for instance, the way the mother stops wearing lipstick–to convey more subtle transformations? Do you think the characters change for better or worse? Which of these changes do you think will be permanent?

8. As the train passes a roadside diner, the girl notices a man step outside and touch the brim of his hat. “The girl did not know what it meant, when a man touched his hat,” Otsuka writes. “Maybe it meant the same thing as a nod, or a hello. It meant you had been seen.” [p. 38] How does the author develop the theme of seeing in this book–both in its literal sense and in the sense of recognition or acknowledgment? At what points do different characters see, or fail to see, each other?

9. Later the girl writes her name on a playing card and throws it out the train window. What seems meaningful about this gesture? Where else in the novel do characters write their names and to what effect? In what other ways do they identify–and sometimes mis-identify–themselves, and how might this be related to the theme of seeing?

10. While in camp the boy worries that he is there because he has done “something horribly, terribly wrong.” [p. 57] Why might he feel this way rather than angry and unjustly persecuted? Do other characters in the novel respond to their imprisonment similarly? Discuss the role guilt plays in the characters’ lives and imaginations. Do any non-Japanese characters appear to feel guilty?

11. In addition to being troubled by guilt the boy is prone to what psychologists call magical thinking. For example, he worries that his father will be harmed because he failed to properly hide an envelope filled with his hair. Do any of the other characters engage in magical thinking? Might the U.S.’s wartime policies toward its Japanese residents be described as magical thinking on a national scale?

12. Although most of the book’s characters are of Japanese ancestry and at times inhabit a world that seems exclusively Japanese, we are periodically reminded that that world is enclosed by, monitored by–in a sense created by–a world of Caucasians. How does Otsuka portray her Caucasian characters? Might any of them be described as sympathetic? How do her protagonists feel about them? Given that Otsuka never explicitly labels a character as Japanese or Caucasian, how does she convey ethnicity?

13. Of a pearl earring that she lost en route to the camp, the mother says, “Sometimes things disappear and there’s no getting them back.” [pp. 85-6] Discuss this statement’s relevance to the rest of the novel. What other things disappear, and what attempts do the characters make to retrieve them? Are any of these attempts successful?

14. There is a Zen parable in which a man walking across a field encounters a tiger:

He fled, the tiger chasing after him. Coming to a cliff, he caught hold of a wild vine and swung himself over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Terrified, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger had come, waiting to eat him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little began to gnaw away at the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine in one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

(From Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Compiled and translated by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. Shambhala Pocket Classics, 1994.)

How is this story relevant to the incident of the man shot at the camp fence? Does it change your understanding of other aspects of this novel?


1. Compare and contrast two or three of the objects, animals, or phrases that Otsuka employs as symbols in her book, using research when indicated. When discussing the ships in the boy’s dream, for example, you might research the three ships in which Columbus first sailed to the New World along with the ships of the American armada that broke Japan’s isolation from the world. Research the terms symbol, fetish, and totem and discuss their relevance to the novel.

2. Imagine that you are one of the novel’s characters and write a letter to your husband or father. Keep in mind that your letter will be read by the authorities. Your challenge will be to communicate sincerely and even passionately without making them suspicious. Alternatively, imagine that you are an American Muslim whose husband or father is in federal custody. How would you write to him?

3. Imagine that you are one of the writer’s neighbors and write a letter explaining your actions to them.

4. Research Japanese Shintoism, with particular emphasis on its notion of a divine emperor. How does the author elaborate this theme within the book? What evidence does she offer about her characters’ religious beliefs? At different times in the book, they seem to be Christians and Shintoists. How would you reconcile this contradiction?

5. Research the psychiatric condition known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). How does it describe the feelings and behaviors of this novel’s characters, particularly those the father demonstrates following his return from camp?

6. Compare this novel to other works set during World War II, in particular J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun and Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl.


Aharon Appelfeld. The Iron Tracks, Tzili: The Story of a Life.
J. G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun.
Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl.
Audrie Girdner and Anne Loftis, The Great Betrayal: The Evacuation of the Japanese AmericansDuring World War II.
David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars.
Franz Kafka, The Trial.
Ursula Hegi, Stones From the River.
Ellen Levine, A Fence Away From Freedom: Japanese Americans and World War II.
Ian McEwan, The Cement Garden, Atonement.
Miné Okubo, Citizen 13660.
Sandra C. Taylor, Jewel of the Desert: Japanese American Internment at Topaz.
Yoshiko Uchida, Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese-American Family.


This guide was written by Peter Trachtenberg. Peter Trachtenberg is a published writer of fiction and personal essays. He has taught writing and literature at The New School and the Johns Hopkins University of Continuing Education.


Copyright © 2003 by Anchor Books
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