Asian American Identity and “When the Emperor Was Divine”

Many scholars have scrutinized the idea of going “beyond Black and White” in relation to the construction of the Asian American identity. Many arguments have been put forward to explain the possible factors that eventually lead to the perpetuation of the “model minority myth” and the “perpetual foreigner syndrome,” as Frank Wu puts it. This essay, therefore, aims to provide a detailed analysis of some pertinent factors that lead to the construction of the Asian American identity based on Claire Jean Kim’s notion of “racial triangulation.” Also, the works of Frank Wu, Kandice Chuh, and Stephen Hong Song will be used in conjunction with this idea to relate their arguments to the representation and treatment of Japanese Americans in Otsuka’s novel When the Emperor was Divine.

In The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans, Kim argues that racial positions are defined by two axes namely “superior/inferior” and “insider/foreigner.” This argument is further developed in her article when she puts forward the processes that lead to racial triangulation of Asian Americans vis-à-vis Blacks and Whites. These processes include “relative valorization” and “civic ostracism” (Kim, 1999). By analyzing these two processes, she provides a definable space whereby Asian Americans are made to feel inferior to whites and superior to blacks, but still remain a “foreign and unassimilable” entity in mainstream American culture. She furthers goes on to argue that this process has existed throughout history. In fact, she is not the only scholar who has been able to present the construction of the Asian American identity in this manner; other scholars provided an analysis of it based on the same criteria used by Kim.

Kandice Chuh provides a better insight on how an identity is formed within a society. She adopts “a transnational approach” to understanding the processes by which “Asian American social identities are constructed” (Chuh, 2003). Chuh therefore aims at tracing back the arrival of Asians in America, an approach also adopted by Kim, who argues that the arrival of Chinese in America served as a “temporary economic purpose” (Kim, 1999). Chinese immigrants were called “coolies,” a term that directly linked them with “Black slaves as part of a degraded, unfree caste” and which “led to the resurrection of slavery in another form” (Kim, 1999). It was then that the Chinese were identified as a “cheap labor” which would be “foolish not to exploit” as argued by Stuart Creighton Miller, who added that “Chinese were not suited for America’s melting pot” (Miller, 1969). From this argument, it can be seen that that the Chinese were accepted in America on basis of what Kim termed a “temporary economic purpose.” In all cases, they were marginalized.

Eventually Kandice Chuh cites Neil Gotanda’s statement that “U.S. nationalism has repeatedly denied or “nullified” political citizenship by creating “Asians” as different from “Americans” (Chuh, 2003) which underlines that Asians could never belong to America. Frank Wu goes on to provide a clear picture of how an Asian American is marginalized in the mainstream American culture by employing the perspective of a child. The readers of “East is East; East is West: Asians as Americans by Frank Wu are able to feel what an Asian American child usually feels when he realizes how his own classmates make him feel being different from them only because he is an Asian. In this case, it can be said that racial construction is created through social discourse, that is, day-to-day interaction. If children can understand racial differences, racism is indeed a serious social concern which does not end at school. Even at work, racist statements are made by people who claim they are not racist. Popular culture further tends to portray a stereotyped representation of an Asian American, which is Johny Sokko, who usually plays a negative character. Yet as a child, Frank Wu’s character fails to notice the problematic representation of his favorite character.

In fact, Keith Osajima writes, “The year 1986 marked an anniversary of sorts: twenty years earlier, the first articles proclaiming Asian Americans as the ‘‘model’’ minority appeared in the popular press” (Osajima, 2005). Stephen Hong Sohn focuses his analysis on how literature uses a dominant narrative to portray racial stereotypes by providing a hierarchic representation of characters; he argues that minor characters often tend to hold the “functions of clarifying the comparative and asymmetrical nature of racial exclusions” (Sohn, 2012). Popular culture and literature, accessible to most individuals, play a substantial role in the construction of the racial stereotypes which are assimilated easily by the audience or the reader. This might be one reason that Stephen Jay Gould argued that “our thinking, conditioned by European ethnological frameworks of centuries past,” is “subject to visual representation, usually in clearly definable geometric terms” (Gould, 1996). Media and popular culture play on the subconscious mind by constantly representing a minoritized discourse which perpetuates stereotypes.

The conflict between ethnic and national identities still reverberates. Ethnic identity becomes a means to cope with and fight these constructed discriminations, as they contain a sense of belonging which opposes the racist ideas produced by the dominant society (Mossakowski, 2003). Coming back to the work of Frank Wu which tends to depict how racialization operates as a means to define and discriminate, we can see that racial constructions have become a common process which, unfortunately, plays a major role in shaping the life of an individual: “Even if I did not consciously see him-or myself-as Asians, they saw it clearly. They saw me as both more or less than Johny” (Wu, 2002). Adding to this, he was given “many masks to wear” and they included “laborer,” “saboteur,” “kamikaze pilot,” “obedient servant,” “tyrant intent,” and “an enemy,” among many others. (Wu, 2002). These terms tend to place being Chinese in a negative light, making the child question his parents: “Why are we Chinese?” (Wu, 2002). These terms also reflect the stereotypes which unfairly generalize the whole Asian American subject.

Something of a similar sort happened aftermath the Pearl Harbor attack. All Japanese Americans were seen as alien enemies. They were identified on bases of their race. In light of this issue, Julie Otsuka wrote When the Emperor was Divine to depict how Japanese Americans have to pay a heavy price for being Japanese. Although it was only a small group of people who happened to be Japanese and who attacked Pearl Harbor, most Japanese Americans were persecuted and sent to internment camps, where cruel treatments were reserved for them. Even children were not spared. They had to face these harsh situations only because they possessed Japanese ancestry.

Under such persecution, Japanese Americans had to face exclusion in the name of “relocation.” When the Emperor was Divine traces the journey of one of the many Japanese families whose life got disrupted after President Franklin Roosevelt passed an executive order which reads as follows: he “authorized the evacuation of all persons deemed a threat to national security from West Coast to relocation centers further inland” (Roosevelt, 1942). Although he does not point out directly that the Japanese Americans had to be “relocated,” internment camps were almost full with Japanese American families. It can also be argued that “the mass incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans grew out of an enforced, transnational identification with Japan that politicized racial difference to create a new entity: the alien enemy” (Park, 2013). This statement reflects how Asian Americans have perceived themselves according to the manner in which racialization had represented them.

When the Emperor was Divine breeds on the loss of identity. The above arguments can be analyzed to make it easier to understand the historical context of the novel. If all Japanese Americans were prey to suspicion following the bombing of the Pearl Harbor, Otsuka, like Frank H. Wu, highlights the innocence of children who say “we would change our names to sound more like theirs” because, in doing so, “we would never be mistaken for the enemy again” (Otsuka, 2002). This quotation reveals how names and identity are strongly interrelated. But this same view is contested in the novel itself when a Japanese American arrested as a spy makes the following remark: “We were just numbers to them, mere slaves to the Emperor. We didn’t even have names. I was 326.” (Otsuka, 2002). This situation indicates that nobody was concerned with names. These people were only objectified.

From the analysis carried out, we can see that Asian American identity was subjected to a social and political discourse which relied strongly on economic and historical context. Be it Chinese Americans or Japanese Americans, they have all been victims of a racialization which shaped their whole lives, formed their identities, and even led to disruption of their lives. Their identities were therefore constructed on how others perceived them and named them, as well as on how they perceived themselves. The discourse of unassimilable identity, unfortunately, further reminds us that such marginalized people can perhaps never belong to mainstream culture.

Works Cited

Chuh, K., 2003. Imagine Otherwise: On Asian Americanist Critique. Durham: Duke University Press.

Chuh, K., 2003. Nikkei internment: determined identities/undecidable meanings. In: Imagine Otherwise: on Asian American Critique. Durham: Duke University Press.

Gould, S. J., 1996. The Mismeasure of Man. revised and expanded edition ed. New York: W. W. Norton.

Kim, C. J., 1999. The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans. In: Politics & society. s.l.:SAGE Publications, p. 107.

Miller, S. C., 1969. The unwelcome Immigrant: The American Image of the Chinese,1785-1882. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Osajima, K., 2005. Asian Americans as the Model Minority: An Analysis of the Popular Press Image in the 1960s and 1980s. In: A Companion to Asian American Studies. United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, p. 215.

Otsuka, J., 2002. When the Emperor Was Divine. New York: Anchor Book.

Park, J., 2013. Alien Enemies in Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine. In: MFS Modern Fiction Studies. s.l.:The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Roosevelt, F. D., 1942. Executive Order 9066, February 19, 1942; General Records of the Unites States Government. United States: Record Group 11; National Archives.

Sohn, S. H., 2012. Minor Character, Minor Orientalisms, and the Borderlands of Asian America. In: Cultural Critique 82. s.l.:s.n., p. 151.

Wu, F. H., 2002. East is East, East is West: Asians as Americans. In: Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White. New York: Basic Books.

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