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  • Michael Rickard II

"Damned By My Fellow Americans: Examining the Horrors of Xenophobia, Racism, and Hybridity in &

It's been said war is hell, but hell can be found on the homefront as well as the battlefront overseas. Julie Otsuka's novel When the Emperor Was Divine is a powerful examination of the treatment of Japanese-American citizens during World War Two. Here is a paper I wrote on it.

The complexities of hybrid identity are shown in Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine as its American characters of Japanese descent experience the effects of racism and xenophobia by their fellow Americans. Otsuka’s novel examines the many effects of racism and xenophobia experienced by Japanese Americans due to President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 during World War Two. Most of the characters do not suffer direct physical violence as a result of the internment, but Otsuka explores the other sufferings, ranging from being displaced from home to various losses of identity.

The characters (who Otsuka keeps nameless to reflect their loss of identity not only as Americans but as individuals) are displaced from home, something which is psychologically devastating as it creates instability. This is reflected in the girl’s feelings of uncertainty, “Later that evening, the girl awoke to the sound of breaking glass. Someone had thrown a brick through a window but the gas lamps were broken and it was too dark to see” (43). The young girl is confined to a train, parched by thirst and unsure of her surroundings. The Japanese-Americans are not told where they are being taken which is frightening for an adult, let alone a child. As time passes, rumors fly throughout the camp: loss of citizenship, loss of life, or deportation; all because they are of Japanese descent.

The family is separated from their father (and husband in the wife’s case), creating uncertainty which harms each of them. For example, the young boy is confused about his father’s absence. Otsuka’s chilling description suggests the boy’s confusion is bordering on mental harm. “In the beginning the boy thought he saw his father everywhere. Outside the latrines. Underneath the showers. Leaning against barrack doorways. Playing go with the other men in their floppy straw hats on the narrow wooden benches after lunch” (49). It can be argued the boy is merely confused by the other Japanese-American men who resemble his father, but it is also arguable the boy is losing his grip on reality.

Otsuka captures the monotony of camp life and its endless routine “Three times a day the clanging of bells. Endless lines. The smell of liver drifting out across the black barrack roofs. The smell of catfish. From time to time, the smell of horse meat. On meatless days, the smell of beans…Hundreds of mouths chewing. Slurping. Sucking. Swallowing” (50). Sparse meals served to hundreds of people whose routine is arguably that of animals lining up at a trough, a dehumanizing process for all involved. The monotony of life is seen in the characters losing their sense of time. Early on, it becomes apparent there is no need to mark time as the girl recalls, “She had stopped winding it the day they had stepped off the train” (65). The mother stops tracking time, withdrawing into a world of dreams, remembering home. Her son recalls this is the first time in months he has seen her smile (95). To make things worse, the internees have no idea when their internment will end.

The loss of identity as the characters want to be “good” citizens and take punishment for something they did not do. The characters are told they are being interned for their own good and to protect them from their fellow Americans. All of this is due to racism and xenophobia which reduces Japanese-American citizens to a nameless other because they look like the enemy, regardless they have done nothing else.

The harm caused by the family’s internment continues, even after their return home. The family has lost whatever American identity they had before their internment. The family wants things to return to normal. “We would dress like they did. We would change to our names to sound more like theirs. And if our mother called out to us on the street by our real names we would turn away and pretend not to know her. We would never be mistaken for the enemy again” (114). The child’s belief is a fantasy though as the family faces overt and covert racism ranging from vandalism to their home and the indifferent reactions from their neighbors. The townspeople’s racism prevents them from differentiating their neighbors from the enemy overseas. The townspeople’s fear and hatred instills such guilt in their Japanese-American neighbors that their American identity is destroyed. “We looked ourselves in the mirror and did not like what we saw: black hair, yellow skin, slanted eyes. The cruel face of the enemy” (120). The Japanese-Americans have voluntarily endured internment to prove their loyalty, and yet their allegiance is still questioned. Otsuka’s novel is powerful in showing the effects of racism and xenophobia in reducing a person to their outward appearance.

When the Emperor Was Divine illustrates the abuse suffered by Japanese-Americans during and after World War Two due to xenophobia and racism. The Japanese-American characters fulfill what they think is their duty as good citizens, but they pay a terrible price for the fact they look like the enemy, regardless that they are American citizens and have shown no sign of disloyalty.

Work Cited

Otsuka, Julia. When the Emperor Was Divine. Anchor, 2003.

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