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Loss of Identity in When the Emperor was Divine Essay

“As we got off the bus, we found ourselves in a large area amidst a sea of friendly Japanese faces, “, stated by a once twelve-year old Nisei Florence Miho Nakamura in her account of her internment camp experience (Tong, 3). This initial experience was common among many Japanese, as they were uprooted from their homes and relocated to government land. Although, they had been asked to leave their homes and American way of life, many had no idea of what was to greet them on the other side. As a result of the unknown, many Japanese had no time to prepare themselves for the harshness and scrutiny they faced in the internment camps. Interment camps not only took a toll on the Japanese physically, but also emotionally; thus, resulting in a shift in their overall lives. The novel When the Emperor was Divine explores the loss of self, physical, and cultural/social identity among the Japanese during World War II. Initially we must understand how the idea of internment camps came to pass in order to provide a contextual background of why the Japanese suffered harsh treatment. On December 7th, 1941 Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. This unfortunate event created hysteria among Americans. Many were outraged as well as terrified of what had taken place. Amidst this hysteria, many Americans felt a distrust among the Japanese, many whom at this time were classified as Nisei, and aimed to disassociate themselves with the Japanese.

The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor the United States as well as Great Britain declared war on Japan (JARDA). Nearly, 74 days later, the lives of many Japanese would change (Rentelen, 619). Approximately 122,000 Japanese were required to leave their homes and relocate, due to Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was the belief that the Japanese would be separate from Americans in order to provide safety on the home-front, as well providing time to sift through the Japanese during WWII in order to distinguish those who were loyal, from those who were not (JARDA). It was during this time, at the internment camps, that a loss of identity began to occur among the Japanese. In “When the Emperor was Divine” one of the immediate things noticed is the fact that the four main characters are nameless. Often times in a novel, the characters are provided names in an effort to help the reader better understand the character as a whole.

Sometimes characters are even given names that are rather descriptive such as; Lois Lowry’s , “The Giver” in which one of the main characters is named Giver as a means of emphasizing the insight and lessons he gives to Jonas. Awkwardly, in “When the Emperor was Divine” we do not gain such insight through the characters names, for they are simply known as the Mother, Father, Daughter, and Son. Consequently, the fact that the family is uprooted from their home and placed in internment camps where they are treated like prisoners and assigned numbers works to support their namelessness (Rentelen, 619). Therefore, it is evident that the authors desire to keep the characters nameless, simply showcases the loss of individuality many Japanese faced when they were removed from their homes and normalcy and transported to government land. It is clear that the characters we meet in the beginning of the novel differ from the characters we have come to know at the end of the novel. They no longer feel afforded the opportunities they once held, nor respected by the friends they once associated with.

Their identity has demolished and their names mean nothing in the community, they are simply recognized as Japs-the enemy. Moreover, along the same lines of showcasing a loss of identity ties into how the characters are stripped of the things they love and enjoy. In the opening of the novel we realize the family is leaving, although we do not know exactly where they are headed, we realize they have to leave everything behind that they cannot fit in their duffle bags. Among the things to be left behind are the animals as well. Like most individuals with animals, pets are considered part of the family. It is clear that White Dog is a part of the family, and has been for quite a while now. The boys concern when he cannot find White Dog works to show the connection they have, for it is apparent it is routine that he checks on the dog each day after school. Likewise the characters, like many of those who endured internment camps, continue to lose the very things they once cherished. In Justin Ewer’s “Journey Into a Dark Past” 15 year old Betty Abe says, “Some whites swooped down on Japanese communities looking for bargains. Cars, silverware, furniture-all were gobbled up for a fraction of their value (Ewers, 3).”

Likewise another reading that explored children of the internment camp speaks of how many of the children were initially excited to take a trip but, “Such feelings, however, were tempered by the impending losses of friends, pets, and toys (Tong, 13).” We see the same type of instances in the novel. As the novel unfolds we witness the boy’s loss of his favorite umbrella and turtle, both significant in meaning to him. Overall the family loses dad, their home (although temporarily), their pets, rosebush, respect of others, etc. More importantly, it is through the characters being stripped of their possessions that we begin to see a shift in their identity. We own things because they represent us, make us feel good about ourselves, make us happy, etc. Through the loss of possessions often leads to the loss of identity. Likewise, the loss of possessions also affects the overall hobbies of the family. The boy who was fond of baseball and kites soon losses access to both. We see him divert to playing war games with the kids in the internment camp and carrying a Swiss knife and a blue stone around as his newfound treasures. We no longer see the girl playing the piano or reciting her math facts. She actually begins to seem quite distant from her family.

At one point the boy even comments on how she leaves in the morning and does not return until late at night. Similarly, Charles Kikuchi, a youth that endured the internment camps said that his adolescent sisters, “Increasingly diverged from their parents’ expectations of modesty, domesticity, and chastity. They insisted on wearing trendy dress, dating male peers, and ignoring their chores.” The article goes on to relay that much of the youngsters decline to conformity played out through vandalism, stealing, smoking, gambling, truancy, and general insubordination( Tong, 17). These behaviors, in some ways, mirror the girl’s behavior in the novel. Moreover, the mother soon losses interest in all things related to war. She stops following the news, and often has an unopened book in her hand. She rarely even talks. These are the very things that defined the nameless character in the earlier stages of the novel. From another stance, the characters also lose their physical identities. The mother is initially noticed for her nice and well-kept appearance. In the opening of the novel she is dresses in a red beautiful dress, with new glasses, a handkerchief, nice white gloves, with her hair hanging down. At Lundy’s Hardware, Joe Lundy complimented her a couple times, “Nice glasses” and “That’s a nice red dress (Otsuka, 5-6).

These comments lead us to believe she was acknowledged for wearing nice things. In due time these beauty trends begin to fade. In route to the internment camp the daughter notices the mother beginning to look tired and older, she asks, “When did you stop wearing lipstick (Otsuka, 37)?” This question works to set the tone for a shift in the mother’s appearance. Later on in the novel we see the mother dressed in a wool head scarf, baggy trousers, and a heavy sweater- total contrast from her initial attire. Similarly the father, experiences a shift in physical identity when he is removed from the home in the middle of the night. Like American fathers, Japanese fathers are considered the head of the home, the breadwinners and providers, the strong one of the family. The fact the father was dragged from his home in the middle of the night, hatless and in slippers, goes against the preexisting image of the father -who is recalled as often wearing a suite, hat, and clean shaven. We notice a constant struggle within the son to come to terms with his father being humiliated while the neighbors peeked out their windows. Writer Jeanne Wakatssuki Houston recalls being 7 years old when her father was removed from their home by the FBI, in which her mother broke down crying as she clung, “to her legs, wondering why everyone was crying (Tong, 12).”

This sight to a child can be quite disheartening; likewise, a father that has to endure being taken away from his children may work to physically break him down. Moreover, the father’s letters often depict him as doing well, but we see this isn’t quite the case when he is released from the authorities. It is bad enough that the boy’s image of him begins to fade while away at the internment camp, as he randomly mistakes other males as his father. Even more saddening is when the father arrives at the train station, in a completely different image. “Our father, the father we remembered, and had dreamed of, almost nightly, all through the years of the war, was handsome and strong. He moved quickly, surely, with his head held high in the air –The man who came back on the train looked much older than his fifty-six years. He wore bright white dentures, and he’d lost the last of his hair. Whenever we put our arms around him we could feel his ribs through the cloth of his shirt (Otsuka, 132).” This very instance supports the notion of the father’s physical identity loss. The family also suffered a loss of physical identity in relation to their geographical location. With the establishment of the internment camps, many Japanese faced a sudden change in the atmosphere.

At least 100,000 Japanese were forced to leave the west coast and travel to desolate lands of California, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, and Arkansas. Moreover their destination was not like the homes they were accustomed to, but rather racetracks, livestock pavilions, and fair grounds encompassed by barbed wire that were transformed in to uncivilized housing. Small rooms, like the family in the novel lived in, was often 16 by 20ft with little or no privacy and unclean (Rentelin 619-620). The novel states, “There was no running water and the toilets were a half block away (Otsuka, 51).” Often the heat would drop below zero and rise to 130 degrees Fahrenheit (Rentelin, 620). This unfamiliar environment removed the family from everything that was normal to them. They lived in a neighborhood, had a nice house, slept in their own personally decorated bedrooms, played outside on their nice green lawn, and now all they knew had vanished. Thus, in a sense their environment change led to a psychological and physical change.

The dust, extreme heat, and cold became mentally overwhelming at times. Physical changes were also apparent, “His mother said it aged you. The sun. She said it made you grow older (Otsuka, 63).” The loss of cultural/social identity also held great significance in the novel. One of primary ways we can see this is through religion. In an attempt for the American to have greater control over the Japanese, it was demanded that Japanese revoke their right to practice non-Christian beliefs. American’s felt it was quite absurd for the Japanese to worship the Emperor; thus, they banned such practices claiming they aided in Japanese Americans attempt to be untrustworthy and remain loyal to Japan (Rentelin, 625). Likewise, in the novel we see a shift in the way the mother worships. There is no emperor worshiping or Shinto allowed at the internment camp. In an attempt to showcase her American loyalty, we notice the mother takes a portrait of Jesus to the camp with her and places the colorful image over her cot. Oddly enough, the mother’s inability to practice her original beliefs, she begins practicing Christian rituals, such as reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

To view this in a greater contrast the author allows us to become aware of the older Japanese man next door that still chants to the Imperial Palace. Through this moment it becomes more apparent that the mother is separating from her original religious identity. The loss of cultural/social identity is also witnessed through the change in the characters’ eating habits. As the mother is preparing for the move it is mentioned that she enjoys some rice balls and pickled plums- both foods which are common to the Japanese culture. Likewise, before the family leaves their home for the internment camp we notice they are sitting down at the table, conversing, and sharing a meal together. Consequently, we begin to see a shift in these types of eating habits. Dinner is no longer a ritual after school, but rather an unexciting event that is recognized by the sounding of a bell. In relation to food selection, Japanese culture often placed vegetables and rice as important dishes in their meals, but the internment camps replaced these selections with mutton, mashed potatoes, and other undesirable foods.

Often time the food was so bad and uncommon that the internes opted not to eat it, because they could hardly stomach it (Ewers, 3). “Both children and adolescents complained the most about the quality of the bland, sometimes unsanitary, food” which often led to stomach cramps and diarrhea (Tong,14). As if it was not bad enough that cultural foods were replaced with slops, the families were also banned from using chopsticks. The fact that spoons and forks were allowed, but no chopsticks, works to showcases the attempt to breakdown the Japanese culture. “It is apparent that immigrants were expected to shed their prior cultural identity in order to become good citizens (Rentelin, 634).” All in all, Otsuka’s novel gives great insight as to how internment camps worked to strip the Japanese of their self, physical, and cultural identity.

It is clear, through the supporting documents, that the image Otsuka painted of the nameless Japanese family greatly mirrored the actual lives of the Japanese internees during WWII. Through the harsh and unfair treatment inflicted on their lives, many of the Japanese began to feel unworthy and unappreciated; thus, furthering their loss of identity. Even upon returning to their homes, if they even had homes to return to, the sense of being welcome was gone. “If we did something wrong we made sure to say excuse me (excuse me for looking at you, excuse me for sitting here, excuse me for coming back) (Otsuka, 122).” Life wasn’t the same. Their lives had forever changed, mentally, physically, and socially.

Works Cited

Bobo, Lawrence D., and Cybelle Fox. “Race, Racism, And Discrimination: Bridging Problems, Methods, And Theory In Social Psychological Research.” Social Psychology Quarterly 66.4 (2003): 319-332. SocINDEX with Full Text.
Web. 21 Nov. 2013. Ewers, Justin. “Journey Into A Dark Past.” U.S. News & World Report 144.14 (2008): 32-35. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

“JARDA.” Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives. Calisphere, 17 Sep 2013. Web. 15 Nov 2013. <http://www.calisphere.universityofcalifornia.edu/jarda/browse/people.html>. Kunioka, Todd, and Karen McCurdy. “Relocation and Internment: Civil Rights Lessons from World War II.” PS: Political Science and Politics . 39.3 (2006): 509-511. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20451791>.

Otsuka, Julie. When the Emperor was Divine. New York: Random House,Inc, 2002. Print. Renteln, Alison Dundes. “A Psychohistorical Analysis of the Japanese American Internment.” Human Rights Quarterly 17.4 (1995): 618-648. Project MUSE. Web. 15 Nov. 2013. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>. Tong, Benson. “Race, Culture, And Citizenship Among Japanese American Children And Adolescents During The Internment Era.” Journal of American Ethnic History 23.3 (2004): 3-40. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

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