When the Emperor Was Divine

By Julie Otsuka


Welcome to the enchanting world of “When the Emperor Was Divine” 📚, a profound narrative that takes you back to a pivotal era in American history. Authored by the talented Julie Otsuka, this novel is a compelling read that dives deep into the heart-wrenching experiences of a Japanese-American family during World War II. Julie Otsuka, through her mesmerizing storytelling, brings to life the struggles and resilience of those caught in the crossfires of war and prejudice. Set against the backdrop of the Japanese internment camps in the United States, this novel falls under the historical fiction genre, blending factual events with the emotional journey of its characters. Otsuka’s work is not just a story; it’s an experience, a vivid portrayal of loss, identity, and the quest for redemption amidst turmoil. 🌄

Stay tuned as we explore the depth of Otsuka’s narrative, unraveling the layers of this poignant story that resonates with the echoes of history and the strength of the human spirit. 🌟

Plot Summary

“When the Emperor Was Divine” is a poignant tale that unfolds through the eyes of an unnamed Japanese American family, consisting of a mother, her son, and daughter, living in Berkeley, California. Here’s a detailed journey through the book’s structure:

Exposition — The story begins on a seemingly ordinary day in 1942, when the mother sees a sign at the post office ordering all Japanese Americans to evacuate. This marks the start of their harrowing journey, as they prepare to leave their lives behind under the shadow of WWII.

Rising Action — The family is sent to an internment camp in the Utah desert, where they are forced to live in harsh conditions, stripped of their identities and freedoms. The narrative delves into their daily struggles, the loss of dignity, and the pervasive sense of uncertainty and fear.

Climax — As the war progresses, the father, who was arrested before the story begins and separated from his family, returns to the camp. His return is the emotional peak of the story, highlighting the profound changes and trauma experienced by each family member.

Falling Action — The war ends, and the family is released from the camp. However, their return to their former home in Berkeley does not bring the solace they seek. They find their property vandalized, their belongings stolen, and they face deep-seated prejudice from their community.

Resolution — The novel closes with the family attempting to rebuild their lives in the face of lingering racism and the scars of their internment. Despite their physical freedom, they continue to grapple with the psychological impact of their experience and the challenge of moving forward.

Throughout the narrative, Julie Otsuka masterfully captures the silent suffering and resilience of the family, offering a stark reflection on a dark chapter of American history.

Character Analysis

“When the Emperor Was Divine” by Julie Otsuka presents a deeply moving portrayal of its main characters, focusing on their internal landscapes shaped by the external turmoil of World War II internment. Here’s a closer look at the characters:

  • Mother — The mother is a figure of resilience and silent strength, embodying the struggles of maintaining dignity and protecting her children in the face of adversity. Her character evolves from a hopeful individual to one marked by the scars of internment, showing a complex blend of hope, despair, and enduring love for her family.
  • Daughter — The daughter is a symbol of innocence altered by the harsh realities of life in the internment camp. Her journey from a carefree child to a more introspective and mature young girl underscores the loss of innocence and the forced growth due to her circumstances.
  • Son — The son’s character showcases the confusion and identity struggles faced by young Japanese Americans during the internment. His journey is marked by a quest for identity and belonging, navigating the challenges of growing up under the shadow of prejudice and loss.
  • Father — The father is a poignant symbol of the family’s pre-war life and the injustices faced by Japanese American men during this time. His absence for most of the novel and return as a changed, broken man highlights the deep psychological impact of detention and separation from family.

Character Analysis Summary:

MotherResilient, protectiveTo keep her family together and safeEvolves from hopeful to deeply affected by internment
DaughterInnocent, observantTo understand her new realityLoss of innocence, gains maturity
SonConfused, searchingTo find his identity and belongStruggles with identity, grows more aware
FatherDistant (due to absence), brokenTo reunite and heal with familyReturns changed, symbolizing the war’s impact

Each character in “When the Emperor Was Divine” is intricately crafted, their stories weaving together to form a tapestry of resilience, sorrow, and the complex quest for identity in the face of injustice.

Themes and Symbols

“When the Emperor Was Divine” by Julie Otsuka is rich with themes and symbols that add depth and complexity to the narrative, illustrating the emotional and psychological landscapes of its characters. Here’s an exploration of the major themes and symbols:

  • Identity and Loss — The theme of identity is central to the novel, as the characters struggle with the loss of their personal and cultural identities due to internment. Their experiences reflect the broader disenfranchisement of Japanese Americans during World War II, highlighting the challenges of retaining one’s sense of self in the face of dehumanizing treatment.
  • Silence and Voice — Silence symbolizes the characters’ internalization of their suffering and the societal pressures to conform and not protest their unjust treatment. The novel’s sparse dialogue and emphasis on internal thoughts emphasize the power of silence as both a coping mechanism and a form of resistance.
  • Displacement and Belonging — The forced removal and internment of the family reflect the larger theme of displacement, as they are uprooted from their home and community. The search for belonging, both during and after their internment, underscores the challenges of finding one’s place in a country that has betrayed them.
  • Rabbit in the Desert — The rabbit, seen by the son in the desert, symbolizes the fragility and resilience of life. It represents the precariousness of the family’s existence in the internment camp and their determination to survive and maintain hope in a hostile environment.
  • The Emperor — The Emperor of Japan serves as a symbol of the distant homeland and the complex loyalty felt by Japanese Americans. The title’s reference to the Emperor underscores the tension between national identity and the reality of their treatment as “enemies” in their own country.
  • Train — The train journey to the internment camp symbolizes the transition from freedom to imprisonment, marking a clear demarcation in the lives of the characters. It represents both the physical and metaphorical journey into the unknown, reflecting the uncertainty and fear of what lies ahead.

These themes and symbols weave together to create a nuanced exploration of the Japanese American internment experience, offering insights into the endurance of the human spirit in the face of profound adversity.

Writing Style and Tone

Julie Otsuka’s “When the Emperor Was Divine” is notable for its distinctive writing style and tone, which play a crucial role in conveying the mood and atmosphere of the novel. Here’s an exploration of these aspects:

  • Economy of Language — Otsuka employs a minimalist writing style, characterized by its brevity and precision. This economy of language serves to amplify the emotional weight of the narrative, making the silences and unsaid words as powerful as the text itself.
  • Shifts in Perspective — The novel is told from the perspectives of each family member, offering a multifaceted view of their experiences. This shifting narrative voice adds depth to the story, allowing readers to engage with the internal worlds of the characters.
  • Subtlety and Understatement — Otsuka’s tone is marked by subtlety and understatement, which reflect the internalized suffering of the characters. This restraint adds to the poignancy of the narrative, as the impact of internment is conveyed through quiet moments and small details.
  • Imagery and Symbolism — The use of vivid imagery and symbolism enhances the emotional and thematic layers of the book. Otsuka skillfully weaves symbols, such as the desert landscape and the train, into the narrative, enriching the reader’s understanding of the characters’ journey.
  • Historical Context — The writing is deeply rooted in the historical context of World War II and the internment of Japanese Americans. Otsuka’s attention to detail and historical accuracy lends authenticity to the narrative, immersing readers in the time period.
  • Emotional Resonance — Despite its brevity, the novel is emotionally resonant, capturing the profound sadness, resilience, and hope of the characters. Otsuka’s writing style and tone are instrumental in achieving this effect, making the reader’s experience both intimate and universal.

Julie Otsuka’s approach to writing in “When the Emperor Was Divine” is both elegant and impactful, creating a narrative that is as haunting as it is beautiful. Her ability to convey deep emotional truths through a sparse and measured use of language is a testament to her skill as a storyteller.

Literary Devices used in When the Emperor Was Divine

Julie Otsuka’s “When the Emperor Was Divine” utilizes a range of literary devices that enhance the novel’s emotional depth and thematic complexity. Here are the top 10 devices employed in the book:

  1. Imagery — Otsuka uses vivid descriptions to create powerful images that evoke the senses, making the experiences of the characters more relatable and the settings more tangible. Imagery in the novel often revolves around the harsh landscapes of the internment camp and the mundane details of daily life, which highlight the surreal and oppressive nature of the characters’ circumstances.
  2. Symbolism — Symbols such as the train, the desert rabbit, and the Emperor of Japan enrich the narrative by representing larger themes of displacement, survival, and identity. These symbols are woven throughout the story to deepen the readers’ understanding of the characters’ emotional states and the historical context.
  3. Metaphor — The novel is replete with metaphors that draw parallels between the characters’ experiences and broader concepts of freedom, loss, and resilience. For example, the internment camps themselves serve as a metaphor for the broader experience of racial and cultural alienation in America.
  4. Simile — Otsuka uses similes to draw comparisons that illuminate the characters’ perceptions and feelings. These comparisons often highlight the stark contrast between their lives before and during internment, underscoring the profound changes they undergo.
  5. Irony — Irony is employed to underscore the absurdity and injustice of the internment, as seen through the eyes of the characters. The gap between the democratic ideals of America and the reality of the internment camps creates a poignant irony that questions notions of loyalty and citizenship.
  6. Foreshadowing — The narrative contains subtle hints that foreshadow future events and revelations, creating a sense of anticipation and deepening the thematic richness of the story. This device is particularly effective in hinting at the lasting impact of internment on the family’s future.
  7. Flashback — Through flashbacks, Otsuka provides backstory and context, enriching the characters’ present experiences with memories of their lives before the war. These glimpses into the past highlight the loss and transformation they endure.
  8. Personification — The environment and objects are often personified, reflecting the characters’ emotional landscapes and the impact of their surroundings. This device is used to convey the oppressive atmosphere of the camps and the sense of entrapment felt by the characters.
  9. Repetition — Repetition is used for emphasis and to create a rhythmic quality in the narrative, reinforcing key themes and emotions. This device helps to convey the monotony and despair of the internment experience.
  10. Allusion — Otsuka alludes to historical events and cultural references, grounding the novel in its specific time and place while also connecting it to broader historical and cultural narratives. These allusions provide depth and context to the characters’ experiences.

These literary devices are skillfully integrated into the narrative, enhancing the storytelling and inviting readers to engage more deeply with the themes and emotions of the novel.

Literary Devices Examples

Here’s a breakdown of examples and explanations for each of the top 10 literary devices used in “When the Emperor Was Divine” by Julie Otsuka, presented in table format for clarity:


Descriptions of the barren desert landscape around the internment campThese vivid descriptions help the reader visualize the stark, oppressive environment the characters are forced into, highlighting their isolation and the harsh conditions they endure.
The detailed portrayal of the mother preparing the family’s departureThis imagery underscores the gravity of their situation and the meticulous care taken to maintain a semblance of normalcy and dignity in the face of upheaval.


The train journey to the internment campRepresents the transition from freedom to imprisonment and the irrevocable change in the family’s life trajectory.
The rabbit in the desertSymbolizes both vulnerability and resilience, reflecting the family’s struggle to survive and maintain hope in the camp.


The internment camp as a metaphor for racial and cultural alienationHighlights the broader experience of Japanese Americans and their struggle for identity and acceptance in America.


Comparing the silence in the camp to “a thick wall”Illuminates the oppressive atmosphere of the camp and the characters’ sense of isolation and entrapment.


The irony of being imprisoned in a country that champions freedom and democracyHighlights the contradiction between American ideals and the reality of the internment, questioning the integrity of these values.


Early references to the father’s absenceSuggests the profound impact his detention and eventual return will have on the family, hinting at the lasting scars of their experience.


Memories of the family’s life before the warServe to contrast their current situation with their past, emphasizing the loss and change they endure.


Personifying the desert around the camp as watching and waitingReflects the characters’ sense of being constantly surveilled and the hostile environment they are trapped in.


Repetitive references to the missing fatherReinforces the void his absence creates in the family and the omnipresence of loss in their lives.


References to historical events and figures from World War IIAnchors the narrative in its historical context, adding depth and realism to the characters’ experiences.

Each literary device enriches the narrative, adding layers of meaning and enhancing the reader’s engagement with the story. Otsuka’s use of these devices is both subtle and powerful, contributing to the novel’s lasting impact.

When the Emperor Was Divine – FAQs

Q: What is the historical context of “When the Emperor Was Divine”?
A: The novel is set during World War II, focusing on the internment of Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The U.S. government ordered people of Japanese descent to evacuate their homes and live in internment camps, fearing they might be loyal to Japan. This historical event forms the backdrop of the novel, exploring its impact on an unnamed Japanese American family.

Q: How does Julie Otsuka depict the internment experience in the novel?
A: Otsuka uses a minimalist style to convey the internment experience, focusing on the daily lives, struggles, and emotional states of the characters. She emphasizes the dehumanization, loss of identity, and psychological impact of internment, offering a deeply personal and nuanced portrayal of this period.

Q: Who are the main characters in “When the Emperor Was Divine”?
A: The novel centers around an unnamed Japanese American family, comprising a mother, her daughter, and her son, who are sent to an internment camp in the Utah desert. The father, who is arrested before the novel begins, joins them later. The story is told from each family member’s perspective at different points in the narrative.

Q: What are the major themes in “When the Emperor Was Divine”?
A: Major themes include identity and loss, silence and voice, displacement and belonging, and the impact of war on families. These themes explore the psychological and emotional effects of internment on Japanese American families, as well as broader questions of citizenship, loyalty, and prejudice.

Q: How does the novel end?
A: The novel ends with the family’s return to their home in Berkeley after the war, only to find their lives irreversibly changed. They face a community that is at best indifferent and at worst hostile. The ending underscores the lasting impact of internment and the challenges of reclaiming identity and belonging in the aftermath of such trauma.

Q: What significance does the title “When the Emperor Was Divine” hold?
A: The title reflects the complex feelings of loyalty and identity among Japanese Americans during World War II. It hints at the idealization of the Emperor of Japan and the cultural dissonance experienced by those who were considered enemies in their own country, despite their American citizenship or feelings of allegiance.


What is the setting of the novel “When the Emperor Was Divine”?San Francisco, CaliforniaBerkeley, CaliforniaLos Angeles, CaliforniaSeattle, Washington
Who is arrested and taken away at the beginning of the novel?The motherThe sonThe daughterThe father
What symbolizes hope and resilience in the novel?The desertThe trainThe rabbitThe Emperor
Which literary device is prominently used to describe the internment camp’s environment?IronyMetaphorSimileAllusion
What major event prompts the family’s internment?The bombing of Pearl HarborThe signing of the Treaty of VersaillesThe Battle of MidwayThe end of World War II
How does the family return home after the war?With excitementWith indifferenceWith reluctanceWith trepidation
What does the father do the first night he is back with his family?He tells stories of his time awayHe silently sits at the dinner tableHe tries to run awayHe cries in the bathroom
What theme is explored through the family’s experience after returning to Berkeley?The ease of reintegration into societyThe unchanging nature of homeThe challenges of reclaiming their livesThe joy of liberation
Which character shows the most change from the beginning to the end of the novel?The motherThe sonThe daughterThe father
What is a significant outcome of the family’s internment experience?Their home is as they left itThey are welcomed back by their neighborsThey face ongoing discriminationThey decide to move to Japan

This quiz is designed to test comprehension of “When the Emperor Was Divine” by Julie Otsuka, covering key aspects of the plot, characters, themes, and literary elements.


Spot the Literary Devices

Read the paragraph below from “When the Emperor Was Divine” and identify the literary devices used. List them below the separator.

“The sun had long set, but the sky was still flushed with the afterglow. Trees stood silent, their shadows stretching long and thin across the ground like dark, tired fingers. The air was cool, carrying the scent of sagebrush and a whisper of the coming night. In the distance, a solitary train whistle cut through the silence, a mournful note that seemed to carry the weight of a thousand untold stories.”


  1. Imagery – Descriptions of the sky, trees, and the air carry vivid sensory details that create a vivid picture of the scene.
  2. Simile – Comparing the shadows to “dark, tired fingers” uses like or as to draw a comparison, enriching the visual detail.
  3. Personification – Giving human characteristics to trees standing silent and shadows stretching, and describing the train whistle as carrying the weight of stories.
  4. Symbolism – The train whistle symbolizes the feeling of longing and the journey, possibly hinting at the deeper themes of displacement and journey in the novel.
  5. Allusion – The mention of a “solitary train whistle” could allude to the broader context of the story, particularly the transportation of Japanese Americans to internment camps.

This exercise encourages students to delve deeper into the text, enhancing their understanding of how literary devices contribute to the narrative’s richness and depth.