When the Emperor Was Divine Summary & Study Guide

Julie Otsuka

When the Emperor Was Divine

  • 30-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 5 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with a law degree from Columbia
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When the Emperor Was Divine Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 30-page guide for “When the Emperor Was Divine” by Julie Otsuka includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 5 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Loss of Identity and The Displacement and Alienation of Immigrants.

Plot Summary

Japanese-American author Julie Otsuka’s historical fiction novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, was published in 2002. It is a short book, falling at the boundary between a novel and a novella, chronicling the experience of one Japanese family at an internment camp during World War II. The book is broken into five uneven sections: “Evacuation Order No. 19,” “Train,” “When the Emperor Was Divine,” “In a Stranger’s Backyard,” and “Confession.” The first three sections are written in a distant third person narrative mode, where the characters are never referred to by name. The fourth section is in the shared point of view of the brother and the sister. The final section, which is only a few pages long, shifts into first person narration.

The story begins in Berkley when the mother of the family sees “Evacuation Order No. 19” posted around town. The father has already been taken to a camp by the FBI, so the woman is living at home with only her two children, a boy and a girl. When she sees the sign, she abruptly goes home. She then slowly and methodically packs up all her family’s belongings while the children are still at school. She kills the old stray dog that the family took care of and releases a pet bird. She packs a bag for each of her children and gets them ready to depart for the internment camp.

The second section, “Train,” focuses on the family’s transition from their first barracks to the second camp, where they remain for most of the book. On the train the girl is the central character, and the reader has access to her thoughts. She observes people closely and sneaks peeks out the windows of the train, even though the soldiers on the train tell her that she is supposed to keep the shades on the windows drawn.

When they arrive at the camp, the third person narration shifts so that the young boy is the point of view character. His childlike perspective on the camp sets the tone for this section, the bulk of the book. The reader learns about the strict rules governing camp life and the harsh conditions that the people endure in the Nevada desert. The family attempts to hold onto memories of their old life. The boy, in particular, attempts to hold onto memories of the absent father. The mother struggles increasingly with an acute depression. The boy continues to miss his father and engages in a lot of fanciful thinking, conjuring fantasies that his father is present at the detention center for a visit.

The fourth chapter describes the family’s return to their home and their struggle with discrimination in the wake of the war. In this chapter, only the mother and the two children make it home at first. The children are happy to be home, enjoying the return of their freedom. The mother is upset about the way their house was occupied in their absence. While they were gone, the home was filled with an assortment of renters, but the family never sees a dime of the rent money because an unscrupulous property manager instead pockets it. Not only did the renters not generate any income for the family, but they left the place a mess. For much of the chapter, the mother attempts to restore the house to its prior condition. This is not the only element of their former lives that cannot be restored. Their neighbors refuse to welcome them back, and the family finds it difficult to reintegrate into the community. People won’t make eye-contact with them, let alone offer the mother a job, but she does eventually find employment.

At the end of the fourth chapter, the family is reunited at last. The father comes back, but he is not the same. He has been changed by his experience in the detention centers across the country, where he has spent the past couple of years. He is physically aged beyond his years, and he is spiritually altered, having suffered from the experience of losing his old life. He never goes back to work, and it remains ambiguous as to whether this is because he is unable to find work in a community still bent on treating him in a discriminatory fashion or whether this is because he has suffered trauma and has been unable to recover his pre-war state of mental health. He shows signs of depression and paranoia, and his children must learn to live with their new father and let go of the one they missed for so long.

The final chapter of the book is a monologue by the father, wherein he articulates a fake confession. It is framed as if in response to the interrogation he endured on the night of his arrest. It is brief, only a few pages long, but it is intense, angry, and bitterly sarcastic. It points out that he might as well confess to every crime he is accused of having committed since his accusers will never believe that he didn’t do anything. He maintains how he has no identity in their eyes, apart from his race, and how his guilt has already been determined, thanks to that prejudice, before he was even arrested and brought into the interrogation room for questioning. The book ends on this note, forcing the reader to confront their own complicity with prejudiced practices in American society.

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Chapters 1-2