Representation Of Racism And Stereotyping In When The Emperor Was Divine

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S government feared that Japanese-American citizens would ally themselves to Japan and engage in acts of sabotage and espionage against American. In the 1980s, however, a congressional commission reviewed the situation and having found little evidence of them having expressed any disloyalty to the United States. In its recounting of one family’s experience of internment, Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine explores the various racist stereotypes surrounding Asian identity that contributed to the unjust incarceration of so many people. Otsuka demonstrates how fear of the Japanese-American disloyalty stems from the racist tendency to group all Japnese people together as the same. The internment camp was a product of racism against Japanese rather than a legitimate concern about national security.

“All summer long they had lived in the old horse stalls in the stables behind the racetrack. In the morning they had washed their faces in the long tin troughs and at night they sleep on mattresses stuffed with straw…On their first night there her brother had plucked the stiff horse hairs out of the freshly white-washed walls and ran his fingers along the tooth marks on top of the double Dutch door where the wood was soft and worn” (pg.30). In this passage, the Japanese-American families are herded into horse stables and treated like animals. They’re forced to sleep and live in the same quarters that used to house horses-moreover, the Japanese are self-aware and see the evidence of the link between their own lives and those of the horses. The boy sees the bite marks that the horses have made in the wooden doors of the stables.

The passage underscores the dehumanizing effects of the Japanese internment camps. The Japanese families who were imprisoned during WWII had committed no crime, and many of them were proud Americans, and yet they were treated like dangerous criminals, and imprisoned for their potential disloyalty to America. In the process, the Japanese came to see that their government didn’t think of them as people at all, just dangerous animals.

Even the main characters’ namelessness embodies how racism eradicated individuality. Racism works by applying a stereotype or judgement to an entire group of people, erasing the individual identities to an entire group of people. “For it was true, they all looked alike. Black hair. Slanted eyes. High cheekbones. Thick glasses. Thin lips. Bad teeth. Unknowable. Inscrutable”. In this passage, the boy arrives at the internment camp and immediately notes a long row of Japanese prisoners. The prisoners are all American citizens, but to the boy, they all look exactly the same. One could certainly argue that the boy has internalized some of the racist ideas of his society, the old, offensive stereotype that all Asians look like, and are somehow “inscrutable” (part of the reason why they were imprisoned in the first place). Otsuka illustrates the prevalence of these beliefs at the time by showing how the boy has internalized the same racist beliefs as white Americans. SInce the boy has lived his entire life in American, he is assimilated into American culture that he adopts the same beliefs towards Japanese people. So when he arrives to the camp he uses racially insensitive terms to describe how they’re all the same. One could say that the boy is responding to the dehumanizing effects of the internment camp: a proud Japanese American has been dehumanized by their stay at the camp, and in the process they’ve lost some of their individuality and personality.

As the story continues, the mother makes a difficult choice. The army has come to the interments came and asked for volunteers to join the military. There’s a clear vision of cohesion going on here, if someone refuses to join then you will get punished. Presumably, the mother is understandably frightened that something bad will happen if she doesn’t agree to the loyalty pledge. She’d been in America for almost twenty years now. But she did not want to cause any trouble- “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”-or be labeled disloyal. “There’s no future for us there. We’re here. Your father’s here. The most important thing is that we stay together.”.. Loyalty. Disloyalty. Allegiance. Obedience. “Words,” she said, “it’s all just words”. In the end, the woman agrees to pledge her loyalty to the U.S, because she thinks that her pledge is meaningless. She isn’t particularly interested in the abstract notions of allegiance to the United States. Her real priority is her children, and she will do whatever she needs to do to stay with them, even if this means compromising her ideals and “keeping her head down.”

The children and mother return to their old lives, and they find that little has changed: the radio programs are the same, their food is the same, everything is the same. The children are young enough to think that their lives can go on, exactly as they had before the war, without any further problems, as long as they try to deny their Japanese heritage and fit in with the American ideal. Nothing’s changed, we said to ourselves. The war had been an interruption, nothing more. We would pick up our lives where we left off and go on. We would go back to school again. 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 would dress just like they did. We would change our names to sound more like theirs. And if our mother called out to us on the street by our real name we would turn away and pretend not to know her. We would never be mistaken for the enemy again!”. The Japnese-American community has come to see how fragile its place in the U.S really is. Granted, many Japanese families returned to their old lives after being released from the camps, and found prosperity and acceptance within the American mainstream, but this passage suggests that they partly were so desperate for American success because of a desire to avoid being imprisoned again. They believed (consciously or not) that if they kept their heads down, didn’t make trouble or demand justice, and succeeded in school and work they’d never be “mistaken for the enemy again.” This shows how the very idea of the “model minority” is flawed and racist, and the result of an internalized “imprisonment” (suppressing one’s culture and true desires out of fear) that is just another incarnation of the literal imprisonment of the internment camps.

To sum up, the book When the Emperor was Divine tells a story about the Japanese family’s sufferings during World War Two. This Japanese family’s ordeal is just an epitome of numerous Japanese Americans at that time; the depiction of their mistreatment penetrates through the whole book through two aspects: on the one hand, there are so many nameless important characters in the book. As the main manifestation of inequality, they have been deprived of their rights because of the war. Compared to many unimportant but named characters, the main characters are all nameless which also indicates they all endured the same pain. On the other hand, the Japanese family members’ ordeal and their changed personalities are also due to the war. Through their ordeal and unequal treatment, racism can also be represented.  

16 December 2021
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