When the Emperor Was Divine Summary

Julie Otsuka

When the Emperor Was Divine

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us contact us.

When the Emperor Was Divine Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka.

When the Emperor Was Divine is a novel set in 1942 that tells the story of a Japanese-American family forced to relocate from their home in Berkeley, California to a desert internment camp on the orders of President Roosevelt. As the U.S. was fighting against Germany, Italy, and Japan in World War II, all Americans of Japanese descent were placed in internment camps due to fears that they supported Japan and its emperor over the U.S.

The first chapter is told from the perspective of Mother, the family matriarch, as she prepares her two children to leave their home and journey to the internment camp in the spring of 1942. She buys twine and tape at the hardware store, noticing all the boarded up buildings around town, the homes of Japanese Americans now forced to leave. At home, she separates what will be stored while the family is gone and what they will pack. Pets are not allowed, so Mother gives the cat to the neighbors and mercifully kills their old dog, whom no one would take. Mother thinks about her husband, who was arrested on suspicion of spying for Japan months ago, and sends letters home from far-away states. The letters are always censored. The children, ten-year-old Girl and seven-year-old Boy, arrive home. Both were born in America and it shows—Girl loves pop music and Boy is obsessed with baseball. The family eats dinner, and Boy asks where they are going. Mother doesn’t know. Once the children are asleep, Mother sets their pet bird free, drinks some plum wine, and goes to bed. In the morning, they will report to the Civil Control Station and be put on a bus. No one knows where the bus will go.

The second chapter is narrated by Girl. She and her family are on a train headed east with other Japanese-Americans. It is now September. For months, the family lived at the Tanforan horse racing track near San Francisco, living in horse stalls and washing themselves in water troughs. The girl gets sick from the motion of the train and vomits. They pass through small towns, with some of the town inhabitants curious and some openly hostile. Her brother asks if they will see any horses on their journey, as he has a new ambition to be a jockey, having seen them at the horse track. The girl says they will see horses. In line for the bathroom, Girl meets Mr. Ishimoto, a kind old man. She reveals that her father is now being held in New Mexico. Girl and Boy play together, drawing pictures of their father. Soldiers on the train draw the window shades for sleep. Someone throws a brick through the train window. Later on, the girl awakes, pulls back the shade, and sees wild mustangs running outside. She wakes her brother. In the morning, the train stops in Delta, Utah. The people are put on buses and arrive at Topaz Camp.

Boy narrates the third chapter. The family lives in a room within a barracks. They have three military cots and a radio, which Boy uses to listen to baseball games. The boy describes everyday life in Topaz. He wanders throughout the camp, though his mother advises him never to touch the fence or speak the emperor’s name. He wonders what he’s done wrong, why his father was taken away and his family is imprisoned. The boy remembers the night his father was taken by the FBI, how his mother began destroying their Japanese books and telling her children to pretend they were Chinese. He fantasizes about small freedoms beyond his reach, such as drinking a Coca-Cola or sitting in the shade. The boy resents all the many camp rules, as does his sister, who has learned there is a town close to the camp, in which life goes on unchanged. One joy is the letters he receives from Elizabeth, his only friend from home who will write to him.

It is October, and the nights grow cold. There is fear in the camp over whether families will be separated or even killed, and the internees grow distrustful of one another, beating a man they suspect is an FBI informant. The boy talks to his mother about what they miss most—chocolate, fruit, and their home. Boy’s pet tortoise dies and his sister buries it in secret, trying to spare him the pain. The winter gets colder, and the soldiers distribute old World War I uniforms to the internees, which Mother alters for her children. One internee freezes to death. The boy remembers the first terrifying weeks after his father was taken. After Mother was finally allowed to visit, she came home, set three places at the table instead of four, and took all Father’s suits to the dry cleaners. At Christmas, the boy receives a Swiss Army knife from a charity. His sister begins smoking cigarettes. His mother grows depressed. The Army visits, looking for military recruits. An internee is shot by the guards in the spring. Summer begins, with no word from Father in weeks.

The war ends, and the family returns to Berkeley. Their house has been broken into, their belongings stolen, and the lawyer who promised to rent out their house has vanished along with the money. Berkeley is much the same, but their neighbors act oddly, pretending not to see the family or asking where they’ve been, as if they don’t know. Someone throws a bottle through their window. Returning soldiers, many of whom suffered in Japanese prison camps, are hostile. At school, the children’s friends are distant. Mother tries to find work but is turned away, with many employers refusing to hire Japanese people. One day, Father returns home. He is a broken man, suffering from trauma and horribly bitter. He is unable to find a job, and his children watch as he grows more despondent.

In the final chapter, the perspective shifts to Father. The chapter is framed like a confession, in which Father sarcastically admits to being a “dangerous enemy alien” who spied for the Japanese and poisoned American water and food. Now that he’s admitted to all these ridiculous things, he asks, may he leave, now?