When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka: A Book Review

I didn’t find out until college that the U.S. government put Japanese-Americans in camps during World War II in the misguided interest of national security.  I’m still appalled that I took several high school history classes and never knew this.

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I’ve been reading World War II fiction, so When the Emperor Was Divine was a perfect fit because it shows a different side of World War II that isn’t often covered.

This slim novel contains just five chapters, and each character is the narrator for one of the chapters.  The book is about a typical Japanese family who, for most of the book, is nameless.  Each member of the family–the mother, the father, the daughter, and the son, narrate a chapter.

A notice goes up in town that all Japanese Americans are now considered enemy aliens, and the mother comes home and matter of factly starts packing.  Soon, the family is on the way to a Utah internment camp, but the government has already classified the father as an enemy and taken him to a New Mexico camp.

The book is often tedious and repetitious, but I think it’s purposely written that way to show the tedium the family must face every day at the camp.  While the internment camps were much more humane than the concentration camps in Europe, the simply fact is that many innocent Japanese Americans had their lives uprooted, lost their livelihood, and were virtually prisoners as the many years of the war dragged on.

If you’d like to learn more about the Japanese American experience of being in an internment camp was like, I highly recommend this book.

I give this book 5 out of 5 stars on the Mom’s Plans’ scale.

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