The characters in the novel When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka find themselves in a rather comforting place they call “home.” The father has a job outside the home, the mother works inside the home, and the children go to school and make friends with whites. They seem to be the exact definition of the typical American family in the 1940s. The characters in Otsuka’s novel never felt that they fit into the “box” that is a stereotypical American due to their physical appearance and culture. However, once they are confined to the camp, they begin to feel a sense of displacement from what they once had and learn cope with these feelings in different ways.
To begin, the reader finds that the young girl in the novel tends to talk excessively about the past. Even on the train, before the family arrives at the camp, the unnamed character speaks to an older man about her scarves and pairs of shoes her dad had given her from Paris. She says, “My father gave it to me. He used to travel a lot. He bought it for me the last time he went to Paris. I asked him to bring me a bottle of perfume but he forgot. He brought me this scarf instead. It’s very plain, isn’t it?” (Otsuka 33) Although this may seem irrelevant to the reader and he or she may think that the unnamed young girl just has her head in the clouds or is spoiled, this shows her longing for her stable, comfortable life she previously had.
Both of these characters emerge as opposites to the mother. They are put in the exact situation, yet they cope differently. The young girl tells people that her father never writes her, and although this seems like an obnoxious lie, I think she has to make up things because she is not comfortable in her life now (Otsuka 34). To the reader it appears that her made-up world is a way to get her mind off of all the bad she is going through. She is in denial, so she spends time creating lies instead of accepting reality. In contrast, the mother of the story begins very emotionally strong. Even though the reader senses that she misses her home and her husband, she remains strong for her children and does not show that anything is affecting her at the beginning of her and her family’s eviction and then arrival at the internment camp. But as time passes, the reader sees her begin to lose hope that her life will return to the normalcy she was used to living. Otsuka writes perfectly to describe her anguish and pain, “She said she no longer had any appetite. Food bored her. “Go ahead and eat without me,” she said. The boy brought back food for her from the mess hall — a plate full of beans, a mound of pickled cabbage — and pressed a fork into her hand” (94).
The mother accepts reality all too well. This is what causes her mental and most likely physical deterioration. She has stayed strong for too long, and she grows tired of the weather and scenery and the situations she and her family has been put in. Otsuka tells that the mother dreams, but it is not the same type of “dreams” that her daughter comes up with for entertaining strangers on the train. Instead, she becomes nostalgic. The mother dreams of her childhood, back when things were simpler, and she could go fishing with no worries crowding her mind (Otsuka 95). As that little girl, she no longer had children to protect and no longer had to survive on her own. “For the first time in months he thought he saw her smile” (Otsuka 95).
In direct relation with these characters, the novel is full of many flashbacks. Not only are the purpose of these flashbacks to fill in the missing parts of the story, but this is to convince the reader that the life they had before was something they, including the little boy, missed. We see bits of the family’s Japanese culture, such as the burning of the family’s cultural items, throughout the novel, but it feels that it is being swirled around and dominated by the apparently strong American culture. The paintings on the walls of their house of Jesus and The Gleaners and the mother’s indifferent reactions to them tell the reader that these items were here long before they moved into the home, and the reader can infer that these items were placed here by white people (Otsuka 8).
While away and dreaming of the “perfection” of their old lives, almost everything that seems too good to be true almost always is. When the Japanese family returns from the internment camps, nothing is the same, starting with the personal items that were locked away in a room of their home before they were evicted from California and the condition of the house. Bottles are broken in the yard, the house smells awful, and the paint is peeling off the walls (Otsuka 110). Mattresses were soiled, and the family’s furniture was seen in houses around the neighborhood (Otsuka 123). Some neighbors nodded, others ignored them completely, or acted oblivious to where they had been (Otsuka 115).
Despite these things, though, the family felt lucky to be home. This feeling was because not everyone they knew were able to return home. They missed the “Americanness” they had once obtained – happy little family with the breadwinner husband and the homemaker wife, but now this seemed to be a far and unachievable goal. Each person, specifically the father, had changed and not necessarily in positive ways. Their roles in the home changed, and more responsibility was put on individual people such as the mother. Things would never be the way they once imagined they would be again.
The ladies of the family in When the Emperor Was Divine dreamed of far away, yet familiar places while forced to live in the internment camps. Although they looked different than typical white Americans, the family still felt they were a part of America, that they had in some sort of way been assimilated to the culture and accepted by the people. While away, they fantasized about returning to this life, dealing with their feelings any way they could, whether it be the realistic or made-up versions in their heads. Soon, though, these coping methods would no longer serve a purpose, once the characters returned and had their lifestyle all torn down by war and racism.