Persimmon, Magnolia, Maple

Danny Karlin

  • When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
    Viking, 160 pp, £9.99, January 2003, ISBN 0 670 91263 8

Julie Otsuka’s novella When the Emperor Was Divine tells, in discontinuous sections and different narrative modes, the story of a Japanese-American family split up in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor – the father detained in military camps, the mother and two children interned in the Utah desert. The first part of the story – from Roosevelt’s issuing of Executive Order 9066 to the family’s leaving their home in Berkeley, California – is told, with superb assurance, through the eyes of the mother. The second part opens several months later, on the train journey from the temporary relocation centre (at the Tanforan racetrack south of San Francisco) to the desert camp; the point of view is the daughter’s, who is 11. The voice in the third and longest part, which bears the title of the whole book, is that of her eight-year-old brother. The fourth part describes the family’s return home; here both children combine in ‘we’. A brief final section is ‘spoken’ by the father, or by the composite ‘alien’ he has been forced to become. Together these shards of perspective and time are used to reflect not just on what happened but on what it was like for it to happen – on fugitive interior impressions of injustice, exile, dispossession and breakdown. The Japanese-American presence and consciousness are central; white Americans appear only as they impinge on the characters (and black Americans not at all), as uneasy neighbours, impersonal authority figures, schoolfriends who ‘forget’. With somewhat heavy-handed irony, whites are themselves represented as absent – those who had lodged in (and pillaged) the Berkeley house while the family was interned, and who left only traces of themselves behind: ‘empty food tins . . . soiled mattresses and old magazines filled with pictures of naked young men and women’.

The story’s insider-perspective makes demands of its presumed audience: the readers who are implicitly being asked to sympathise with the Japanese-American family cannot all be Japanese-Americans. Indeed, part of the point may be to redress a kind of ignorance other than that of the historical events themselves, which, despite the publisher’s claim that Otsuka’s book explores ‘unfamiliar’ history, are well documented. Not only has there been extensive historical research, but the episode is well established in cultural consciousness, official and otherwise. The educational pack produced by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute compares the ‘infamy’ of the relocation programme to the ‘Day of Infamy’ at Pearl Harbor. (Will a future curriculum pack compare the ‘infamy’ of 11 September 2001 with that of Guantanamo Bay?) The San Francisco State University website records the dedication, in April 2002, of a Garden of Remembrance honouring ‘Americans of Japanese ancestry’ who suffered in the war; the University’s president, Robert Coogan, declared that the memorial’s purpose was ‘to acknowledge the past, honour those our nation wronged, and rededicate ourselves to a future in which such things will never – never – be repeated’.

What happened has been addressed before in art, too. Bad Day at Black Rock, made in 1954 and starring Spencer Tracy, powerfully exposes the prejudice and hostility directed at Japanese-Americans, though Japanese-Americans are themselves absent from the film. The story concerns the expropriation – indeed the murder – of a Japanese-American farmer, whose son has died fighting in the US Army in Italy. Just as, in Otsuka’s book, the whites who occupied the family’s home are known only by what they have left behind, so, in the movie, the presence of the father and son is limited to material traces – a medal won by the son overseas, wild flowers growing on the father’s unmarked grave – which simultaneously suggest their absence and above all their silence, their inability to speak for themselves. Of women there is no trace at all. The rhetorical strategy of Otsuka’s book redresses this imbalance, giving ‘voice’ to the victims, and ensuring that women as well as men speak. But the approach is not without its problems.

If the history were, indeed, unfamiliar, then much of When the Emperor Was Divine would be obscure or even impenetrable. There is no reference to the sequence of events after Pearl Harbor, the legal and political framework within which the internment of Japanese-Americans was ordered, or the broad spectrum of reaction to it. On a wider front, there is no context for understanding the Japanese presence in America (the differentiation, for example, between the issei, the first-generation immigrants, and the nisei, who were born in America and so could claim citizenship). Nor is there anything about prewar anti-Japanese sentiment or the communal structures which arose to deal with it. The family in the book is not shown as embedded in a Japanese-American community. The father has an (unspecified) office job, and they live in a mixed, predominantly white neighbourhood, apparently indistinguishable from their pleasant middle-class neighbours; their ‘normality’ has only a slight ethnic inflection. Their family history is left as vague as the public history. The circumstances in which their migration took place, their contact with family members still in Japan, or indeed with other Japanese-Americans – all this must be gathered from apparently casual, glancing or incomplete allusions. (They are not casual, of course; Otsuka shows unsentimentally how the scattered signs of ethnic difference – a photograph of an uncle who had served in the Japanese Imperial Army, silk kimonos, records of Japanese opera, a tea set – become frighteningly visible when trouble comes, and must be burned.) We are never told why the father was arrested; he is not rich or important or in a sensitive job. In fact he is pointedly average: the little boy keeps thinking he sees his father in the camp because, to him, all middle-aged Japanese men look alike. An observant reader will piece together a sense of the tangled root-system of loyalties, instinctive attitudes, and ill-advised hopes which nourished this transplanted family in America, only to be torn up or poisoned by the war, but a full understanding of the story depends on a framework of knowledge which Otsuka, with reason, takes for granted.

Otsuka herself belongs neither to the issei nor the nisei, but to the sansei, the next generation; the mother and father in When the Emperor Was Divine are based on her grandparents, the daughter on her own mother. But the nisei themselves have written about their experiences. Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter, a memoir published in 1953, tells the story of a 22-year-old college student relocated to ‘Camp Harmony’ in Washington state, whose ‘American Dream’ is tested almost to destruction, but endures. It ends with the healing of the narrator’s ‘sadly split personality’: ‘The Japanese and American parts of me were now blended into one.’ John Okada’s novel No-No Boy, published in 1957, is bleaker; its title refers to a loyalty oath exacted from Japanese-Americans, which contains two key questions about their willingness to serve in the American Army and renunciation of allegiance to the Japanese Emperor. Answering ‘No-No’ led to imprisonment and occasionally to forced repatriation; it could also lead to ostracism by one’s own community. Anguish at the crude enforcement of ‘loyalty’ (‘with us or against us’); reflection on the harsh mundane experience of the camps, and on a homecoming poisoned both by the terrible details of Japanese war crimes and by the ‘black rain’ of Hiroshima; all this features in Japanese-American fiction and poetry from recent decades.

Otsuka handles the larger themes of her story poorly. The weakest section in the book is the last, entitled ‘Confession’, in which the long-absent father gives vent to his rage and frustration at the malign idiocy of his interrogators. It’s meant to be a satirical indictment of white prejudice and stereotyping, but the caricature makes the speaker himself sound like a propaganda tool:

I’m the secretary of the Haiku Association. I’m a card-carrying member of the Bonsai Club. Such a delightful little people! Everything so small and pretty! I’m the one you call Jap. I’m the one you call Nip. I’m the one you call Slits. I’m the one you call Slopes. I’m the one you call Yellowbelly. I’m the one you call Gook. I’m the one you don’t see at all – we all look alike. I’m the one you see everywhere – we’re taking over the neighbourhood.

Otsuka’s writing shows no embarrassment here at its own lifelessness; on the other hand, she is clearly uneasy with comparisons which she must know will suggest themselves to her readers – comparisons with the treatment of prisoners of war in Japanese camps or, even more disturbingly, with the Nazi camps. When the family returns to Berkeley they become aware of Japanese atrocities, which are rendered in stylised fragments of overheard speech:

They shoved bamboo splinters under our fingernails and made us kneel for hours.

We had to stand at attention with our hands at our sides while they beat us.

We were just numbers to them, mere slaves to the Emperor.

We may indignantly repel the notion of a scale of suffering, but the unworthy thought persists. Panic (fuelled by greed), injustice, bureaucratic harshness, maddening absurdity, alienation and self-estrangement – all this, but not, in the end, mass murder based on an official racial ideology. The lynching of the farmer in Bad Day at Black Rock was not repeated on a national scale.

Otsuka is at her best when such considerations don’t weigh on the story, when she stays close to the detail of experience. Partly for this reason the novel gets worse as it goes on, clumsier in its symbolism, more contrived, more vociferous. Its opening chapter, laconic and oblique, is a taut and resonant short story; there are very good things, too, in the second chapter, which exploits the close quarters of the train journey. The heart of the story lies in these first two episodes, and especially the first, which describes the days before the family has to leave Berkeley. Stoical, inexpressive, consciously blank, the mother goes about the business of packing what can be taken, securing what must be left behind, destroying what cannot be saved. She feeds the family dog its last meal – rice balls, a cracked egg, some salmon – and kills it with a shovel. She takes the macaw from its cage and puts it outside. The children come back from an ordinary day at school and eat (without realising it) the chicken whose neck the mother had snapped earlier in the day ‘beneath the handle of a broomstick’. Unobtrusively, throughout this chapter, the presence of trees is remarked – persimmon, magnolia, maple – trees whose cool shade will be torturingly absent during their desert exile. Otsuka’s style in this chapter belongs to an American literary tradition of concrete description, emotional restraint and ironic objectivity, which beautifully fits the portrait of the mother’s virtues: her clear-sightedness, her methodical tenderness – eating a plate of pickled plums, ‘dark and sour’; hearing the macaw imitate her husband’s voice and kissing the top of its head, ‘I am right here, right now.’ Sentence follows sentence with near-perfect touch; it is exasperating to see this fine work dissipated by what follows.