Book Review: When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

When the Emperor Was Divine
When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When the Emperor Was Divine follows an American family of Japanese descent from their home in Berkeley, California, to the Topaz internment camp near Delta, Utah, and back again three-and-a-half years later after World War II has ended. Otsuka tells this story from the perspectives of each family member and a first person plural perspective much like the one she used in her later book The Buddha in the Attic. It is a poignant, powerful read told in simple language and haunting imagery.

In 2008, I moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Salt Lake City, Utah. The circumstances were dramatically different, of course, but I can very much relate to the characters’ shock at the change in climate and landscape from northern California to the high desert of Utah. Otsuka captures the “sun but no shade” quality well.

While we lived in Salt Lake City, my family attended services at the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple, which serves as a Japanese cultural center in the area. The welcome we received was warm even though we stood out as some of the few Caucasians there. My daughter dressed as a shrimp for the ebi-kani dance her Dharma School class did for Hanamatsuri (Buddha’s birthday). We chanted in Japanese with the rest of the congregation during the Dharma Service. Even though I was curious, especially knowing about Topaz and how close it was to Salt Lake City, I never asked what happened to the temple and its members during World War II. It seemed too personal to ask. At any rate we moved away before I felt close enough to anyone to ask such a question

Otsuka’s book made me wonder all over again what it must have been like to be Japanese during those war years. It made me wonder how long it took for the people who spent years in internment camps to feel like they once again belonged in their home country. Did they ever feel at home again? Or did they spend the rest of their lives afraid of a knock on the door or startled by a shout on the street?

And where exactly do I put the knowledge that the country of my birth has been home to such prejudice and breaking up of families? Where do I put the knowledge that this isn’t remotely an isolated incident?

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