When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

Source: Library Sale
Paperback, 144 pages
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When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka is set in the United States during World War II shedding light on the Topaz internment of Japanese-Americans and how it impacted them and their families.  Following an unnamed family Julie Otsuka gives readers a false sense of security, providing a false sense of distance between the reader and the family.  A powerfully short novel that raises questions about how we react out of fear or fold in on ourselves to avoid confrontation as well as fear.

“She took The Gleaners out of its frame and looked at the picture one last time.  She wondered why she had let it hang in the kitchen for so long.  It bothered her, the way those peasants were forever bent over above that endless field of wheat.  ‘Look up!’ she wanted to say to them.  ‘Look up, look up!’ The Gleaners, she decided, would have to go.  She set the picture outside with the garbage.”  (page 8)

Otsuka’s prose is simply beautiful, but filled with symbolic imagery and heartfelt emotion.  Shifting from the mother’s point of view, to the daughter’s, the son’s, and the father’s, readers are immersed in the memories and emotions of these characters so that they become real, even though they are nameless.  The daughter clearly sits between being an adolescent and a young girl, striving to remain strong for her mother and brother.  In the father’s absence, the son struggles to remember what his father looked like and how they interacted, but he’s distracted by the changes in his life from the internment camp to his sister’s behavior and his mother’s despondence.

Each family member deals with the crisis in their own way, from withdrawal and despondency to anger.  Although the last chapter is a tad long, the passionate confession from the father is well placed and sheds light on his experiences while he was away from the family.  When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka explores life in the internment camp without the overwrought violence and horror of other novels, instead focusing on the emotional roller coaster this family experiences.

About the Author:

Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. After studying art as an undergraduate at Yale University she pursued a career as a painter for several years before turning to fiction writing at age 30. She received her MFA from Columbia. She is a recipient of the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Asian American Literary Award, the American Library Association Alex Award, France’s Prix Femina Étranger, an Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Check out her Website and Facebook page.

2nd book (WWII) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.




3rd book for the 2014 New Authors Reading Challenge.


  1. I loved this book and it is one that has stayed with me for years. The dog! I still think about that scene. Here’s my review from 2009, in case you want to check it out:

  2. Maybe I’ll borrow this book from you for the challenge. It does sound really well done.

  3. That does sound like a gorgeous book!