Book 229: When the Emperor was Divine – Julie Otsuka

Otsuka, Julie - When the Emperor was DivineWhen the Emperor was Divine was the required reading for the college where I work and although I do think it was a good choice, I feel that there are other novels out there which tell this story better. (Such as Snow Falling on Cedars, and this story wasn’t even the main storyline in that book.)

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but this book and I did not get along. It wasn’t bad, per say, but it definitely wasn’t good. It was a very short read and I read it in three sittings on the train to and from work, but there was just something about it that I didn’t enjoy.

I’m starting to think that it might be related to the fact that it was chosen as the required reading and I felt that it wasn’t very challenging. I do believe it highlight’s a portion of World War II which many people aren’t aware of, or never learned about, but the writing style and the novel were very basic. Given I didn’t attend the speaker series, this could be a total misinterpretation of the novel, but I feel that a required reading for college students should be more challenging. However, that being said there were parts of the novel that were really well done, so don’t think it was a completely horrible work.

Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine is the story of one Japanese-American family’s ordeal through the internment camps of World War II. Told from the perspective of the boy, girl and mother, the book begins the day posters appeared in towns all over the US stating that those of Japanese ancestry would be sent to camps and the story ends with the return of the the family and of their father/husband coming home.

I’m not sure what I had the most issues with about this book, but I think it might have been the narration/lack of narrator. Telling the story from everyone’s perspective without having a narrator or making the ‘third person omniscient’ narrator less noticeable was a major detraction.

However, there were beautiful passages in the book and, if you know me you know I love a great setting which acts as a major character in the novel. Otsuka’s descriptions of the dessert where the family’s internment occurred were beautiful and haunting in their sparseness:

“Summer was a long hot dream. Every morning, as soon as the sun rose, the temperature began to soar. By noon the floors were sagging. The sky was bleached white from the heat and the wind was hot and dry. Yellow dust devils whirled across the sand. The black roofs baked in the sun. The air shimmered.” (103)

And it wasn’t just this passage, the descriptions of the California town and the train journey and of the weather were spectacular.

Recommendation: Pass. There are better books out there that tell this story. The beauty in some of the descriptions is not enough compensation for the novel’s simplicity in my opinion.

Opening Line: “The sign had appeared overnight.”

Closing Line: “Now can I go?” (Whited out.)


10 thoughts on “Book 229: When the Emperor was Divine – Julie Otsuka”

  1. I read The Buddha in the Attic last year and enjoyed it, but that weird POV (the ‘we’) does takes some getting used to–I’m assuming it was the same one in this book? I have When The Emperor Was Divine on my shelf but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Thanks for the review!


    1. It could have been the ‘we,’ but I’m not sure it was. I use ‘we’ a lot when referring to myself, what can I say the royal ‘we’ has a draw to it 😀 I think it had more to do with the lack of emotions displayed by many of the characters. They just seemed super regimented and contained, but that’s also a stereotype/expectation of their culture from what I gathered.


  2. While I don’t necessarily think that college reading should be more challenging than Otsuka’s text, I do agree that there are a number of books which deliver a more satisfactory engagement with that period in history and When the Emperor Was Divine is perhaps best read/studied with a sense of where it fits in a wider literary moment. I usually recommend Obasan (1981) by Joy Kogawa (which is, without exaggeration, one of the most beautiful pieces of text I’ve ever read), No-No Boy (1957) by John Okada or The Electrical Field (1998) by Kerri Sakamoto, but, sometimes, to engage students or reluctant general readers I’ll point to the film Come See the Paradise (1990). There’s even an episode (Family 8108, ep 5.11) of the tv series Cold Case which is brought out in dire moments!
    Anyway, thanks for the review. I hope you enjoy your next read more!


    1. Thanks for stopping by and for the comment! I might have to check out one of the books you mention. I find the period fascinating and it’s something my education growing up barely touched upon.


      1. You’re welcome. I hope you do get the chance to read something else on the subject: it’s an important one, but until recently relatively neglected. If you ever find yourself in need of further recommendations, just ask. It’s a topic I might know a little bit about!


  3. I totally agree that the required college reading is not challenging enough. I love the premise of the program (get more of the student body reading!) but it seems like they could pick better choices. One year in my undergrad the required reading was “The Hunger Games”…Anyway…I’ve never read any books about this time period, but I do feel like it’s something I should devote time to. Hope the next book treats you better!


    1. I agree, the whole point of college entrance/community reading I think is to push people’s boundaries and to get them to question things they haven’t questioned before, and I think this one didn’t push them far enough. The next book was great, I went and read a fun young adult novel 😀 and now I’m reading The Cuckoo’s Calling.


  4. I haven’t heard of this one. Have you read the book No No Boy. I enjoyed that one and showed a part of WWII that not many people know about. I may have to give this one a go. WWII is my specialty. I’ll add it to my list, but who knows, I may never get to it.


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