Stylistic Analysis Of Julie Otsuka’s When The Emperor Was Divine

Nelson Mandela states that your choices should reflect your hopes and fears. Mandela suggested that every individual’s choices can reveal their hopes and fears, no matter what the circumstance. Julie Otsuka’s story of a terrifying time of fear is an example of such a concept. A family is taken to internment camps, and their identities are stripped in the novel When the Emperor was Divine. American History’s most tragic chapter was the internment Japanese-Americans. Otsuka makes a great choice when telling the story. A Japanese-American family is forced to live in fear and suffering. Otsuka highlights the important, prejudicial perspectives of the period through his stylistic choices.

As Otsuka decides to nameless certain Japanese-American characters, the story reveals a variety of negative viewpoints. The boy “… drew his name in dust on the table while he was at camp. All night long, dust was blowing through the walls as he slept. His name was gone by morning. He did not reveal his name. While the dust wiped away his name, the boy still makes great efforts to express and maintain his identity. However, his name and those of many others are not known, so the lack or individualism is communicated. Names can be used to identify oneself. However, names are often not easily understood and, therefore, all people appear the same, particularly when viewed from the perspective of American captors. The family also returns home and the boys and girls both say that they want to be like the people around them. Our mother would call us by our real names and we would not recognize her. As mentioned earlier, the absence or names were initially due to a lack of individualism. But, the children’s desire to change their names emphasizes how ashamed they are, and demonstrates that camp did indeed alter their identity. Otsuka pairs moments together to show the many perspectives of Japanese Americans. The girl, her mother and boy are all on a train that takes them to the internment center. The girl observes that outside the “church bells” were ringing, and that two men and a woman were riding bicycles across a bridge. The bridges, bells and bicycles are symbols of euphoria and serenity. As the girl says, “The train atmosphere is worse than what you see outside.” She doesn’t describe the train’s atmosphere, but she juxtaposes it with her honest view of the utopian-like outside. Although it’s absurd to see the inequalities among Japanese-Americans and others, there is also a sense that they are isolated. Otsuka chose to put such distinct moments on the moving train, which demonstrates the severity of the isolation. The train leaves home and the family is separated from each other. The girl becomes increasingly isolated from her family as she travels away from home. The last shade of the train was gone, and the darkness fell. The girl couldn’t see anyone outside the train. The train atmosphere is shown by lowering the shades. The shades serve as a symbol of the discriminatory treatment of Japanese-Americans. This juxtaposition of the “outside” perspective and the devastation caused during this period emphasizes its impact. Otsuka’s decision to combine moments inside and outside the train highlights the isolation, inequality and inequalities of this time period.

Otsuka uses chapter titles in a unique way, which results in some very important perspectives. The family is released in the chapter “Ina Stranger’s Backyard”, which describes their return home following their internment. They notice that the rosebush of their mother is gone from their front lawn. They start to wonder if their neighbor’s rosebushes are still there. The children’s presumption illustrates this important perspective. In order to avoid being punished, people will make intentionally shameful decisions. The strangers cover their crime by planting the rosebush outdoors. It is also crucial to consider that the stranger was responsible for this crime. The children are now able to recall how their mother first opened the door for a stranger. They wonder “…why our mother would open the door for a stranger. Because strangers have knocked at our door before. What had they done? It was nothing good. There was nothing good. They had taken my father away.” In both instances, the perpetrator was a stranger. Their father had been taken by a stranger before. A stranger took every Japanese-American father at that time. The United States Government was a foreign entity to the common man, particularly the Japanese-Americans. Thus, the United States Government is taking away the rights of Japanese-Americans by stealing their rosebush. Otsuka repeats the quote to emphasise the idea that “nothing great” ever happened when strangers were allowed in. The children assumed that someone stole their rosebush. This is because they are sentimental. The symbolism of the rosebush is the loss of freedom and rights to Japanese Americans, and the hidden actions of those responsible. Otsuka intentionally titles the text to make it clear that the internment camps had a profound effect on many Japanese-Americans.

Otsuka reveals the worst perspectives by making conscious stylistic choices as she recounts this tragic story. It is represented by juxtaposition. The loss or freedom can be expressed through chapter titles. Names are also omitted to signify the loss of individualism, identity. These powerful perspectives wouldn’t have been presented if Otsuka hadn’t made these stylistic choices. It is significant that Otsuka expresses her fears and hopes about this horrible crisis. But it is even more important to recognize that Otsuka’s perspectives have an impact on readers’ interpretations of the events. Although one can choose to share their hopes and fears, it is also possible for others to see and interpret them differently.


  • zakhart

    Zak Hart is an educational blogger and professor who has been writing about education for over 10 years. He has written for various publications, including The Huffington Post and Edutopia, and has been a guest lecturer at various universities. Zak is the founder and director of the Edutopia Academy, an online education program that provides teachers with resources and lessons to help them improve their teaching skills.

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