Critically analyzes TWO quotes from Julie Otsuka’s novel, When the Emperor Was Divine. There should be some kind of thematic connection between the two quotes. Explains the larger, societal message th

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Cultural Assimilation and Loss of Identity in ‘When the Emperor was Divine’ by Julie Otsuka.


‘When the Emperor was Divine’ is a text written by Julie Otsuka. This novel was written in 2002, bearing four family members; the woman, boy, girl, and the man or father. The book revolves around the lives of people with a Japanese background. The story begins in creating internment camps for Japanese people in that family; the woman, the boy, and the girl are sent to one in Utah after receiving an evacuation order along with other people from a Japanese background. This happens after the woman’s husband, the man, was arrested and taken to a detention camp under suspicion of being a spy, a Japanese spy. As a result, the family has had to resemble the American community even if it meant doing away with their culture or associating themselves with another culture that was accepted. This is illustrated when the woman tells the boy and the girl to “No more rice balls… and if anyone asks, you’re Chinese.” The boy had nodded ‘Chinese,’ he whispered, “I’m Chinese” (Otsuka 75). Rice balls is a staple food in the Japanese culture and therefore denying them, is like refusing them the privilege to enjoy their cultural heritage and on top of that asking them to relate with an entirely different culture. This statement affects the children later on after coming back from the camp, “Nothing changed, we said to ourselves. The war had been an interruption, nothing more. We would pick up our lives where we had left off and go on. We would study hard, every day, to make up for lost time. We would seek out old classmates… we would listen to their music; we could just dress like they did. We would change our names to sound more like theirs” (Otsuka 114). The Japanese community conforms to the American culture where they live the American dream to the fullest and avoid being perceived as Japanese by other people who are surrounding them. This leads to confusion and conflict about their role in society and questions about their background and personality, more of a gradual loss of one’s identity.

Cultural assimilation can be defined as the process in which a particular culture resembles another dominant culture where they reside. It can happen to an individual or a group of people, either quickly or a gradual change. It mostly happens to immigrant and minority groups in society. In the novel “When the Emperor was Divine,” the characters seem fully absorbed into the American culture despite being from the Japanese culture. This can be identified when the boy and the girl come back home from their internment camp. “Nothing changed, we said to ourselves. The war had been an interruption, Nothing more. We would pick up our lives where we had left off and go on. We would study hard, everyday, to make up for lost time. We would seek out old classmates… we would listen to their music; we could just dress like they did. We would change our names to sound more like theirs” (Otsuka 114). This statement shows that even before the eviction of Japanese people, they had already come to resemble and pick up the American culture, from music, dress code, the whole way of life. The woman in this novel lives the life of a middle-classic lifestyle. She had picked up the “American dream” and achieved it. She owns a home in the suburbs, hires a housemaid to aid in the house chores, and dresses like a wealthy woman; white gloves and all. Although she has achieved the American dream and completely assimilated into the American culture, that does not protect her from being evacuated and sent back into internment camps.

Before the family is faced with the war and detained, their home is full of markers from both cultures. For example, a grand piano and a picture of a classic western artwork to represent American culture and a Japanese flag and portraits of a member of the family wearing a Japanese military uniform to represent the Japanese culture. This shows that there is a possible coexistence between these two cultures. However, after the government detains the man or husband, the woman destroys everything that links the Japanese culture to them in their home. This war against Japanese people costs the family to give up their Japanese cultural heritage to show that their loyalty solely lies to the American side of the identities. Consequently, assimilation costs them their cultural identity, but it does not have them from being evacuated and taken to the internment camps. The girl is also fully assimilated; she likes music like “Don’t Fence Me In.” She was a young girl, but she had already become like every young American girl; she liked bored black Licorice and Dorothy Lamour, a legendary American actress, and singer. She chooses to be like other American girls to fit into the community by resembling them, even if it is not through physical appearance, at least character-wise. The woman and the girl are not given specific names to show they represent everyone from minority groups who uses assimilation as a form of self-defense from racism, discrimination, and other prejudices thrown in the way of the minority groups. The woman chases the American dream while the girl chooses to resemble her peers. All these are tactics that are employed by minority groups even now in our communities.

Cultural assimilation witnessed in the lives of the characters in the novel results in a loss of identity, which happens personally. The children are the ones who are affected the most by this. The woman tells them to “No more rice balls… and if anyone asks, you’re Chinese.” The boy had nodded ‘Chinese,’ he whispered, “I’m Chinese” (Otsuka 75). The woman’s demand to the children caused confusion and conflict on the boy. This is shown after a man asks him if he is Chinese or Japanese, he answers Chinese, and when he is further away, he shouts that he is, in fact, Japanese. He tries to fight for his Japanese identity. However, this conflict portrays the boy’s loss of identity due to the conflicting identities, not to say he is Japanese to avoid trouble and to use the Chinese identity to do so. The boy is torn between his original identity, being Japanese, the Chinese identity that he has to use to cover his Japanese face, and the culture he lives in and is expected to conform to.

The girl’s loss of identity occurs even before they are evacuated; she has issues with her appearance, like a young American girl and listens to American music. Same case scenario as her mother after being in the internment camp, she develops psychological issues due to the stress and deplorable conditions they are subjected to. After the children come back home, they go to school to find their names crossed off roll books, their desks, and Lockers. Name is a critical determinant of a person’s identity; therefore, crossing their names of these records is like erasing them like they never existed, which is a major blow to their identities. Following the school environment, the Japanese children continue being isolated because of their identity; therefore, they have to get rid of it to conform to the identity of those around them hence their loss of identity and, in the process, their unique personalities. 

Fearing being taken back to the camps, the children fully conform to the assimilated selves, thereby losing their uniqueness and personal identities. They follow all the rules and regularities, apologize all the time, and avoid being noticed not to get into trouble. This means they cannot do anything that will attract other people’s attention or cause a mention of their names. The last chapter of the book is written in a collective pronoun, “we,” which means the children’s personal unique characters are no longer distinct, which means that the pronoun represents all the minority groups. Even the boy, who fought hard to keep his Japanese identity, has finally succumbed to the assimilation norms. He and the girl have become one unit because they are not different; they have both lost their identities. Everything that made them unique has been taken away from them. The novel ends with the man or father writing about himself. The children and his wife remember him as a soft and delicate man, but after he returns, they notice he is very different from his dressing behaviors. After his detention, he losses his original identity. The easy-going father becomes an ever angry and irritable man who barely spends time with his family or speaks to them. He is in a world of his own, empty and a ghost of his former self. Although he knows very well that he is not a spy, he writes of how he lied after being interrogated and how spies are everywhere. This shows how much resentment and anger the man has towards the government.

The novel “When the Emperor was Divine” illustrates how prejudice such as racism, discrimination, and stereotypes in the society can result in people’s sense of self-awareness by being forced to be more like those around them. These institutional prejudices are still being witnessed today, many years after this novel was written. Many minority groups lose their personal and cultural identities in conforming to the major groups or trying to resemble them. Many of them do not notice until after a long time. People have to understand that loss of identity can cause psychological breakdowns. Being dehumanized by those around a person, especially the government that one expects to protect them, can dehumanize themselves. As mentioned earlier, assimilation is mostly used as a form of defense mechanism against all these prejudices. However, they eventually catch up with people from minority groups. Whether they choose to chase the “American dream,” dress like the major groups, speak like them and do everything like them, there will always be a loophole that can associate them with being from minority groups, and all these attempts to be like the majority cannot protect one from these prejudices. This novel illustrates all these and how they can contribute to the loss of a person’s identity.

Works Cited.

Otsuka, Julie. When the emperor was divine. Anchor, 2007.

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