Death & Identity in the Novel "When the Emperor Was Divine" by Julie Otsuka

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Death & Identity in The Novel “When The Emperor Was Divine” By Julie Otsuka

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Death and Identity

In her novel, When the Emperor was Divine, Julie Otsuka explores the concepts of isolation, and death. The novel also included some pointless deaths such as the man that got shot while trying to pick an unusual flower. It was also mentioned about their loss of identity while they were in the internment camps. In the novel, we can see what happened after the father was taken to prison since he was accused of spying for Japan. Throughout the novel, we can see that Otsuka showed a lot of different situations that happened throughout WWII.

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As the novel goes on, there were a few deaths that happened. Such as the one with the White Dog in which the mother goes and feeds the dog and gives it some orders that was rather questionable. Just like when the mother asked the dog to “play dead” (11). This is like how Americans gave meaningless orders to the Japanese. Another death that was meaningless was when the man at the camp was trying to pick a flower outside the fence was shot. How come that they didn’t even bother to ask him what he was doing. They just immediately shot him dead. Then the guard that shot him said that “the man had been trying to escape” (101). This just shows how little the Americans trusted the Japanese at the time.

While the family was in the internment camps, a lot changed in the society, and the way that they lived. The person that they used to be before they entered the camps was no more. They changed drastically, their attitude towards each other changed. Just like when the kids saw their father they were shocked to the point that they weren’t able to move when they saw him. The father changed that much. With the mother, she needed to shoulder the difficulty of being strong at that time. She needed to intake all of that emotion and made sure that the kids won’t notice it. The mother essentially breaks down. The boy, he was young, he was still a kid, he shouldn’t have experienced all of this in such a young age.

The father, he used to be a lively man and a good father. He loves his family, especially the boy as Otsuka quoted that “whenever the boy knocked on his door [,] his father [looked] up [smiled] and put down whatever it was he was doing” (62). This just shows that the father loves the boy more than anything just as stated that the father puts down whatever it is that he was doing if the boy ever knocked on his door. It was also stated that the father liked wearing “beautiful suits” which means he liked wearing fashionable clothing. However this was all before the father got taken into the camp.

When the father got back from being held in the camp, he was not the same person that he used to be. When his train reached the station a small man stepped out of the train “[He] had wrinkles. His suit was faded and worn. His head was bare. He moved slowly, carefully, with the aid of a cane, a cane we had never seen before” (131). When the boy and the girl saw him, they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t greet him as if he was some stranger in which he kind of was. The father used to be a handsome man to the point that saying “he had wrinkles” shows how much he changed while he was in the camp. With the quote “his suit was faded and worn” it’s as if it’s telling us that the “beautiful suit” that he liked to wear was now faded and worn out. Finally, the quote “he moved slowly, carefully, with the aid of a cane, a cane we had never seen before” this explains how much the father has aged especially with him moving slowly and needing a cane.

In the end, we can say that the family, consisting of the boy, the girl, the mother and the father, has experienced a lot of things before going to camp, while in the camp, and after they left the camp. Before they went to the camp, the father got arrested. Then, the mother had to end the life of white dog.

The whole community didn’t like Japanese people. While they were at the camp, they had to go through and endure a harsh environment and experience awful things. When they came back to their house, their house was in shambles. The lawyer that the mother talked to was gone. A lot of things was missing, stolen. When it looked like they were setting in, the father comes back home. He was so different from what the boy and the girl used to know him as. From being a small handsome man to a man that has wrinkles and needs a cane in order to walk slowly. Though the father was the one that changed drastically, each one of them also changed in a way that they were not supposed to change. This just explains that no matter who you are or what others think of you, if you get seperated for a long amount of time, you’re bound to change. If you don’t meet others’ expectations, then just be yourself. It’s the proper way to show them who you are rather than changing yourself to what they want you to be.

Work Cited:

  1. Otsuka, Julie. When the Emperor was Divine. New York: Random House, Inc., 2002.

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