Book Review: When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

Hi everyone! Wow. It’s been a long time since I’ve done a book review….oops. They’re just time-consuming posts to make and I like to prioritize what books I really think are worth the time. I’m happy to say without a doubt that When the Emperor Was Divine is definitely worth the time. I’m also happy to start a bookish 2018 with this one, so let’s do it!

Characters: ✭✭✭✭

Cover: ✭

Pacing: ✭✭✭✭

Chapter Length: ✭✭✭✭✭

Cliche count: ✭✭✭✭✭

Overall Rating: ✭✭✭✭


On a sunny day in Berkeley, California, in 1942, a woman sees a sign in a post office window, returns to her home, and matter-of-factly begins to pack her family’s possessions. Like thousands of other Japanese Americans, they have been reclassified, virtually overnight, as enemy aliens and are about to be uprooted from their homes and sent to a dusty internment camp in the Utah desert.

In this lean and devastatingly evocative first novel, Julie Otsuka tells their story from five flawlessly realized points of view and conveys the exact emotional texture of their experience: the thin-walled barracks and barbed-wire fences, the omnipresent fear and loneliness, the unheralded feats of heroism. When the Emperor Was Divine is a work of enormous power that makes a shameful episode of our history as immediate as today’s headlines.

Favorite Quotes

“We would join their clubs, after school, if they let us. We would listen to their music. We would dress just like they did. We would change our names to sound more like theirs. And if our mother called out to us on the street by our real names we would turn away and pretend not to know her. We would never be mistaken for the enemy again!”

Page 144

“We followed the rules. We took tests. We wrote compositions. The Happiest Day of My Life. What I Did Over My Summer Vacation. What I Would Like to Be When I Grow Up (a fireman, a movie star, I’d like to be you!)”

Page 122

Characters: All of the chapters are very unique and introspective, which makes it so much more symbolic when we consider the fact that none of them were given proper names in the book. They were referred to as “the woman,” “the girl,” “the boy” and “the man”. This is symbolic of the logic of 1942 America, and how we didn’t even consider Japanese Americans as equal humans but deemed them low enough to completely forget the fact that these people were and are just like everyone else.

Cover: The cover is very minimalistic, and gives off a mysterious or malicious type of mood, which I appreciate. Nevertheless, I don’t really see how the paper crane relates to the contents of the book, (unless I’m missing something here..? I probably am. Ignore me.)

Pacing: The pacing was amazing and I breezed right through the book. No complaints.

Chapter Length: I really love how this book is structured. Each chapter is a new member of the family’s point of view, beginning with the mother, then the girl, then the boy, and ending with their father. It worked so well because we got a little piece of everyone’s mind, which really helps with the book’s focus on the psychological impacts of the displacement.

Cliche Count: Of course, there are no cliches present in a historical fiction book.

I think the reason I like this book so much is that I can relate to certain aspects of it. Now, that might sound like a very inconsiderate way to start off a book discussion about Japanese internment when I’m not actually Japanese, but hear me out. I promise I won’t make this all about me.

I picked the quotes that I did for the favorite quotes section because they really resonate with me. I shared this on my Instagram a few weeks ago, but I relate to these quotes because I somewhat experienced the same thing growing up black in America. And I truly think that as a child, you are like a sponge. You soak up bits and pieces of other people’s demeanors and attitudes whether it be benign or malignant because it’s just the way human development works. So when the girl is saying things like “we would listen to their music. We would dress just like they did. We would change our names to sound more like theirs.” I see what some others won’t see, and that is the sheer pain behind feeling unaccepted because of the skin you’re in, which I have experienced myself.

Since the children in this book are much younger, I think most that rejected Japanese Americans after they were released from internment were broadly modeling their parent’s attitudes (although in no way do I mean that most = all.) This really hurts my heart because before I read this book, I slightly knew what Japanese Internment was, but it’s such a muddled part of American history that most people don’t know of or think twice about it. I mean, can you imagine if we did that with the civil rights movement? Imagine if it was just another thing that “happened” and we all moved on with our lives without a second thought. I couldn’t imagine being deemed the “enemy” just because I look like the people we just so happened to be at war with. When you look back at history with contemporary knowledge, I think (if you’re like me, anyway) that you get these two mixed feelings of #1: Well, I’m glad we’re not there anymore. But also a feeling of #2: how did we let this happen?

And that’s why I think this book is so good. It makes you put yourself in the character’s shoes and see the things they’ve been through as if you experienced it yourself. It’s also a very good read because of how open for interpretation it is. You see, some people wouldn’t catch the message behind the words “I’d like to be you!” in the second quote I chose, but I do. The message is this: we made Japanese Americans feel so foreign and so under attack that they literally wished to be anyone else. Anyone who wasn’t the “enemy”. Anyone who was still considered “normal”. It’s so deep. It hit me right in my heart when I read those words. So the bottom line is, if you’re really paying attention to the words on the page, you can feel the emotion that Otsuka intended to evoke with her subtle yet meaningful thoughts that run through all of the minds of the characters.

If I had to describe this book in three words, I’d call it raw, eye-opening, and for lack of a better word, simply important.

I’m really glad I read When the Emperor Was Divine because even though there isn’t a lot of fact about Japanese Internment in this book, I still feel like I learned a lot about the tragedy and can be more empathetic now that I have a little more knowledge on it than I did yesterday.

I’m seriously so glad I finally made myself sit down and figure out how I was going to coherently write about my thoughts on this book. Please please please do give it a chance. If you’re anything like me, you might just like it. Thanks for reading & until next time!

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