Identity And Ethnicity In When The Emperor Was Divine

In When the Emperor was Divine, Otsuka purposely does not label the ethnicity of any character to universalize the discrimination that Japanese Americans face, so that readers from all cultures can relate to the story. Nevertheless, although Otsuka never explicitly states her characters’ ethnicities, the Japanese American characters in the story share the commonality of bearing no name and being perceived as lacking self-identity, allowing the readers to demarcate the racial difference effortlessly.

All Japanese characters, even the main characters, remain nameless throughout the story. Rather than name them to avoid confusion, Otsuka addresses her four Japanese protagonists as the woman, the father, the son, and the daughter. As one’s name is a crucial factor in social interactions, such a way of portraying nameless protagonists suggests that the characters are constantly perceived as outcasts and alienated from American society, implicitly indicating their minority group ethnic background. As proof, the boy in the novel once tried to “[write] his name in the dust across the top of the table” in one evening, but “by the morning his name was gone.”(Otsuka, 64) When analyzing this sentence closely, the boy writing down his name represents Japanese Americans’ eagerness to become apart of American society. Nevertheless, having the name gone in the morning foreshadows that such efforts will only end up in vain as a result of racial discrimination. Significantly, the word “dust” in the sentence generates a feeling of death and absence, as dust is usually found in forgotten places — it collects on objects that have been put aside and are no longer the focus of attention. Having dust erase the boy’s name, therefore, represents the situation that white Americans never care about the existence of Japanese Americans or even bother to know their names. Another intriguing detail in the sentence is the temporal shift: the author packs many hours of experience into one sentence, revealing that depriving the Japanese’s rights and ignoring their existence is in fact with ease and demand little efforts. Subsequently, by revealing the lack of difficulty in dehumanizing Japanese Americans, the author further emphasizes the difference between the minority group and the dominant white majority for the readers.

Considering that all four main characters are anonymous, it is noteworthy that many unimportant Caucasian characters in the book have names. For instance, the readers know immediately that “Joe Lundy” is the store owner, “the moment [the woman] walked through the door” (Otsuka, 5) at the beginning of the novel. The contrast between nameless protagonists and named unimportant store owner indicates that although Japanese Americans have been part of the United States for a long time, they are still considered by the natives as outsiders. Another example of named minor character is “Miss Shirley” –t he dirty doll belonging to a young girl of five or six on the train to relocation camp. One intriguing contrast in the scene is that the girl asks Miss Shirley’s name in refined manners; however, her name is never asked by anyone on the train. Strong sense of irony is therefore created: all Japanese Americans’ names were unknown throughout the novel, while even a doll – which, of course, must “[have] yellow curly hair and big china eyes” (Otsuka, 35)– owns a name. In conclusion, whether maintain a name is an important criterion for the readers of When the Emperor was Divine in determining the ethnicity of the characters, highlighting the alienation of Japanese Americans from the Caucasian majority at the time period.

Besides the nameless features, the Japanese American characters in When the Emperor was Divine share the difficulty of being labeled as inferior and regarded as indistinguishable. Otsuka embeds many prevalent racism belief in the dialogues and interior monologue, in which Japanese Americans are constantly portrayed as lacking self-identities. Case in point: when the boy realizes that all the male adults in the relocation camp look like his father, he thinks to himself that “For it was true, they all looked alike. Black hair. Slanted eyes. High cheekbones. Thick glasses. Thin lips. Bad teeth. Unknowable. Inscrutable.” (Otsuka, 49) In this racist belief, the boy uses several detailed phrases to prove that all the Japanese look similar from the outside. Noticeably, all the physical characteristics described – hair, eyes, cheekbones, lips, etc. – are facial features, which can be observed easily from a distance or at a glance. The selection of these nouns hint that White Americans have never really looked at the Japanese. What’s more, most adjectives utilized in the sentence – black, high, thick, thin, etc. – are so objective that they indicate no signs of humans. In fact, these words work perfectly fine in describing inanimates, such as a black box or a thin paper. The only word with emotional coloring is “bad”, which, however, is a derogatory term. The readers can, therefore, get a deeper understanding that Japanese Americans weren’t considered human but only objects at the time period from the uses of nouns. Next, in contrast to the much effort put on describing appearance, the boy simply summarizes all the other traits of Japanese Americans in two words – “unknowable” and “inscrutable”. The striking comparison demonstrates the ignorance of White Americans towards Japanese Americans’ individual differences. In their perspectives, there isn’t any distinction between loyal Japanese Americans and “enemies Japanese” who attacked Pearl Harbor, explaining the establishment of relocation camps from root.

In contrast, many minor Caucasian roles in the story are confirmed with individual identity, who cannot be generalized into a certain type solely based on their race. When the father finally “confesses” in the end, he describes the white officer as “Tall and handsome. Big eyes. Long nose. Broad shoulders. Perfect teeth… Mows his lawn every Saturday and goes to church on Sundays…sometimes talk with his mouth full”. Similar to the portrayal of Japanese Americans before, the description also starts with a few phrases depicting the officer’s outlook. Unlike the stereotype, the vocabulary selected are all mostly positive – white people’s “perfect teeth” and “big eyes” compared to Japanese’s “bad teeth” and “thick glasses”. Particularly, the perfect teeth of the officer can be seen as a kind of economic status symbol – only rich people have money to see the dentist and get their teeth fixed. The good teeth can also be interpreted as the consequence of better genes, implying the Caucasian as the superior group in the stereotype. After the short appearance portrayal, the description puts much more attention – about eight lines – on the officer’s social identity and economic status. Take the word “lawn” as an example – one person must be wealthy enough to own a house with a lawn. Also, mowing the lawn weekly is proof of the officer’s high engagement, as messy yards usually connects to isolation and disconnection in literature. Another outstanding word in the sentences will be “church”. Considering the time period when the Internet isn’t that prevalent, the church serves as a social and cultural hub. In addition to faith reasons, people go to church because it is the place to connect and build relationships. As a result, going to church every week tells about not only the officer’s religion but also the fact that he is highly involved in his local community. These small details about his daily life and social connection are so specific and personalized, that the officer can never be misunderstood as someone else or replaced by anyone.

In conclusion, although never explicitly labelling any character’s ethnicity, Otsuka emphasizes the difference between Japanese Americans and Caucasian Americans enough that the readers can easily tell the race of any character: named characters, who are defined by others on the basis of his behaviors and personal identity, usually hold a Caucasian background in the book. On the other hand, the nameless characters that are perceived by the external world through a set of exaggerated and inaccurate generalizations about their races are often Americans with a minority group ethnicity, mostly Japanese Americans. 

16 December 2021
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