27 December 2007

Julie Otsuka, When the Emperor was Divine, 2002

Many present day Japanese American families still feel stigmatised and dishonoured by Japan’s attack on their adopted country, and while it may not be Julie Otsuka’s intention to attempt to heal those wounds her clear target instead is the less-than-memorable experience of Japanese immigrants during World War 2, interned in desert camps by a process which included separation of families, with their family names deliberately, and shamefully, being replaced by numbers.

When the Emperor was Divine is fiction but based on Otsuka’s own family history. The focus of the book is the forced displacement from their California home of a Japanese mother, daughter and son, and their dislocated, developing triangular relationship. The story is sparingly told from all their points of view but the family’s own focus is clearly their absent father, previously arrested on no charge and interned elsewhere. Years of isolation roll by with life outside the camp mostly a mystery; telling moments accumulate and are recorded, and with the war over the family is finally reunited in bitterness against those who imprisoned them.

What this book benefits from most is an understated style which fits well with the theme of looking back on two different situations both in their own way far from ideal: this was a time before America could admit its treatment of their innocent Japanese population was excessively harsh, just as it was also a time before Japanese treatment of their PoWs came to light and Emperor Hirohito was forced to admit that he was, after all, a mere mortal. Otsuka’s lack of sentimentality about these unfortunate pasts gives this book much character in its evident restraint, and is a clear window into an unjustifiably forgotten episode in America’s wartime history and the immigrant Japanese experience of it.   PY

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