Jul 15, 2020 in Literature

Loss of Freedom in the ‘When the Emperor was Divine’ Novel

The issue of freedom and slavery is quite controversial in the When the Emperor was Divine’ novel ‘. This work of American author Julie Otsuka is devoted to such an unpleasant and still not advertised topic as displacement of Japanese Americans from the West Coast in special camps during World War II. The reason of such was fear of the Roosevelt's government that there can be the spies and traitors among the respectable shopkeepers, engineers, and accountants. However, in practice, the much more real reason was a racist rejection of the Japanese than a real threat to their cooperation with their historical homeland. In this novel not only people but also animals face these existential concepts in opposition and hesitation. The novel is filled with symbols and fence in the camp are both really existing phenomenon, and symbolic image. Being in camp and having no right to gate close to its fence means the absence of freedom, which internment persons experienced.

The novel tells the story of these events from the perspective of a family of Japanese-Americans, whose names remain unknown. Strangers took away father of the family in the middle of the night in pajamas and flip-flops, and the mother, daughter and son were exiled from California to camp in Topaz, Utah. It was located on a dusty alkaline plain high up in the desert. 

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The fence around the camp was with the twenty-four-hour watch by armed sentries in surrounding watchtowers. It was forbidden to the internment persons to exit out of the camp and to cross it or even to get close is deadly dangerous. On the first day in the camp, Woman tells her son to never touch the fences, and to never to say the Emperor’s name aloud. The irony is that Girl’s favorite song on the radio was "Don't Fence Me In". 

One day a Japanese man tried to cross that line and paid with his live. The guard claimed that gave the Japanese command to stop, but he did not listen to. Therefore, his actions were interpreted as an attempt to escape. Among the prisoners there were rumors that this man had just been reaching out to pick the flower outside the fence. One can not objectively judge this case - perhaps he was too fascinated by flowers, and maybe just did not understand the cries of the guard, and probably really wanted to escape. In addition to that fence was under constant guard, prisoners were forbidden to move camp freely. In addition, management is constantly monitored them. Nevertheless, one can conclude that the fence is a cage. The cage from where is no exit.

In the novel there is also another image of the cage. At the beginning of the trip Japanese were settled in horse stables behind the city racetrack, which at the time was for horses the same cage as for the people. This episode has several meaning. On one hand, army was treating the Japanese Americans as animals rather than human beings and dehumanizes them – they crowded into the racetrack, each living in one of the stables. It was the beginning of losing internment persons’ dignity and identity. On the other hand, there were teeth marks which horses left on the wood. They illustrate the pain of detention, which experienced horses. Domesticated horse becomes a symbol of injustice of life creatures’ detention, because they are intended to be free, are they people or animals. The image of horses is also associated with the doom atmosphere, but often these animals are contrastly free. It is closely linked to the theme of freedom and captivity. When Japanese people go to train and feel overwhelmed, boy see wild horses through the window. Free wild animals have a strong impression on him, and then he often imagines his father in image of a bold reckless cowboy at the camp fence. But wild horses image serve for one more purpose. With its help Otsuka associates freedom with the very essence of being alive.  When Boy in camp asks his sister about meat, which soldiers brings to them, she answers that they kill wild horses around the camp. Such killing the wild horses became the symbol of stealing freedom 

There many problems of freedom erased in the novel. When a woman tries to set her pet parrot free, it initially refused to leave the cage. Bird feels at home, it knows that it will be warm, that predators do not lie in wait for it here and that it do not have to get their own food. But it has to fly to freedom. But the Japanese do not feel happy at the fence, being fed, dressed up and engaged in the usual activity.

An impressive analogy can be found between the bird, which gained freedom, and prisoners. Farmers - recruiters recorded inmates to work in the autumn. However, people who were on liberty, returned to the camp in despair and said that they would never want to be there and they would stay behind the fence. Local people referred to him with fear and contempt. They were shot at, spit on. They were not allowed to go to public places such as diners, theaters, and stores. This attitude of the society was the first result of public policy, which faced the Japanese American with.

The analogy with the shot Japanese is also in the first chapter of the novel. Before leaving their house, Woman kills her White Dog out of pity for it. She knows that it is forbidden to bring pets to the camp. But no one will accept White Dog. It will be forced to roam stealthily. Belonging to no one, it would find its food itself, but it will be difficult for it. Woman killed the family pet White Dog and buried it between trees. The Woman acts coolly, like an automaton, despite her emotions. Thus, there raises another existential question in the case of the Japanese shot and killed dog - what is better - to be shot or live in a society which can not accept you.

Trees are very important symbolic image in the novel. They remind internment people their houses. Soldiers have got the word to plant trees, but they die at spring because of poor soil. The names of the trees also used to give the name of the street in the camp. Girl ironically says that now they at least know the name of your street, and the woman said that they are equally at home. Thus, the author argues, that no tree neither tree names can replace native home. 

According to the author of the novel, the loss of national identity is identical to the loss of freedom. It seems that government and military, tied American Japanese in a ring of fence, depriving the possibility of doing things they love. The Japanese are under constant pressure because of their nationality, and this gives rise to the fear to be themselves. It seems they seek to deprive names of the Japanese (such as the shot man's name does not sound at funerals). Instead, the society is already made it for them - the children of Japanese Americans are on their way to assimilation with the national majority. But stay in the camp affect the main characters of the novel. Isolation from familiar life, being in Japanese environment will inevitably evoke their ethnic identity characters. For children it is the acquisition of new knowledge about the Japanese world, for adults - the reconstruction of cultural and historical memory. The Women recalls the time spent in the parental home, imagines her childhood. Only after that there is a smile on her face. She tells her children about Japan, its traditions, thus restoring the link between generations. In the third chapter, there is connection with the initial mythmaking experience. The boy, who does not know the Japanese language, repeats the name of the Emperor, although in the camp it was banned. It clarifies the meaning of the name of the novel "When the Emperor was a god" -recovery of lost connections, introduction to the experience of the ethnic group.

To sum up, work of American author Julie Otsuka ‘When the Emperor was Divine’ is a book dedicated to the repression of Japanese-Americans in connection with the Second World War. The novel raises questions of freedom and national identity, it is filled with symbolism. The main symbols of the novel are the trees that represent the native house, wild horses symbolize freedom, and a dog and a parrot symbolize the impossibility of living in freedom after being imprisoned. Very important is that the main characters' names are unknown. The fence around the camp, where internment Japanese live, restricts the freedom of people who do not have the right to free movement. However, the outside world is becoming more and more hostile to the Japanese. Stay in the camp is reviving the national consciousness.


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