Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “When the Emperor Was Divine” as Want to Read:
When the Emperor Was Divine
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

When the Emperor Was Divine

3.7  ·  Rating Details ·  12,982 Ratings  ·  2,049 Reviews
Julie Otsuka’s commanding debut novel paints a portrait of the Japanese internment camps unlike any we have ever seen. With crystalline intensity and precision, Otsuka uses a single family to evoke the deracination—both physical and emotional—of a generation of Japanese Americans. In five chapters, each flawlessly executed from a different point of view—the mother receivin ...more
Paperback, 144 pages
Published October 14th 2003 by Anchor (first published 2002)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
filter  |  sort: default (?)  |  Rating Details
Feb 19, 2015 Nataliya rated it really liked it
“But we never stopped believing that somewhere out there, in some stranger’s backyard, our mother’s rosebush was blossoming madly, wildly, pressing one perfect red flower after another out into the late afternoon light.”
It's easy to make a story like this melodramatic, moralistic, overwrought with feelings. A less skilled writer would have done it. A story of an unnamed Japanese-American family banished from their quiet life in Berkeley to spend over three years in an internment camp for a sim
Feb 16, 2017 Diane rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This historical novel is both gorgeous and heartbreaking. It follows a Japanese-American family that is sent to an internment camp in the Utah desert during World War II. The story follows the family as they get the news of the forced relocation, the trip to the camp, how they lived in the barracks, and finally, after more than three years of incarceration, their return home. I appreciated this novel because the Japanese internment is a dark chapter of U.S. history, and one that seems overlooked ...more
Megan Baxter
Aug 08, 2012 Megan Baxter rated it really liked it
How do you write about trauma? Are you verbose and expansive? Terse and straighforward? In this case, you use elegant and spare prose that brings home the extent of the wrong by never quite stating it in so many words.

Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the recent changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here.

In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook
I love Otsuka’s voice, judicious metaphors, and understated emotional hooks in this child’s eye view of the Japanese internment in World War 2. I have already had the pleasure of her 2011 gem, “The Buddha in the Attic”, which covers the same subject from an adult perspective that often breaks into powerful incantation in a broad “we” mode. In this novella eight years earlier, the narrative tends to be more conventional, yet it still has fresh and lyrical approaches for portraying this sad chapte ...more
Mar 15, 2015 Pooriya rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, novella
داستان درمورد زندگی مهاجران ژاپنی در آمریکا در بحبحهی جنگ جهانی دوم است. خانوادهای که به واسطه نژادشان تنبیه میشوند! زیرا که انسان گرگ انسان است. هر فصل از این داستان از زبان و دیدگاه یکی از اعضای خانواده نوشته شده که درگیریهای ذهنی خودش و خانوادهاش را با زبان و تفکر خود بیان میکند. فضای سیاه آن روزگار به شکلی صریح و مینیمالیستی بیان شده و سقوط انسان را در حاشیه جنگ جهانی دوم نشان میدهد. ...more
As of this moment, there are various rules and regulations being pushed through the US government regarding the formation of internment camps for refugees fleeing through the US-Mexican border from the drug wars of the USA's creation. There's nothing new under the sun here, nothing beyond the standard protocol of a country that has been at war for 214 of the 235 years of its existence and has only increased the size of its playground over time. What that last part translates to is the fire and t ...more
Jul 22, 2014 Eve rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-2014
I finished reading When the Emperor Was Divine a couple of days ago, and I was at a loss for words for my review. Everything that I noticed, felt, and appreciated about the denseness of this sparse little book was neatly encapsulated in the synopsis of this edition. Check it out if you haven't already.

Anyway, part of my goals this year is to review every single book I read, and so OCD got the better of me, and here I am now. How can I sum up this book without being redundant? Simply this: this i
Aug 11, 2009 Derek rated it it was ok
I recognize that the terse language, namelessness of the characters, and relatively uneventful plot in Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine are all aesthetic choices. They’re just not choices that I agree with.

Otsuka details the experiences of a family of Japanese Americans placed in an internment camp during World War II. It’s an engaging topic, one not overly explored in American historical fiction, but her methods of conveying the important story only serve to undermine the urgency of t
Apr 26, 2012 Mark rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Lovers of understated emotion
Recommended to Mark by: itself
The reasons I can pick up or purchase a book veer from recommendation and suggestion, which seems normal and sensible, through its association or appearance in a previous read, understandable and explicable, or its fabulous title, thank you Dan...up to it's being a lovely looking book.

Whenever i go to Hay on Wye, a marvelous town on the welsh/english border containing 37second hand book shops, I cringe at the shops that sell leather bound books by the foot or metre so as to populate some wealth
Apr 17, 2017 Teresa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

While not as lyrical as The Buddha in the Attic, Otsuka’s first novel achieves much of the same cumulative power. The penultimate chapter, written in first-person plural, is, of course, most reminiscent of the former and perhaps in its writing Otsuka discovered the style she would later use for The Buddha in the Attic. But it is the last and shortest chapter that packs the hardest punch, pointing out even more so the absurdness, danger and sadness of this time (a time that could come again i
Ero in biblioteca per riportare il Conte di Montecristo, ho fatto un giro tra gli scaffali e lo so, non dovevo, ma non ho resistito e l'ho preso ^^
Questo libro è un pugno nello stomaco. E anche se di poche pagine ho fatto fatica a "digerirlo".
Lei è sempre delicata, e pungente nello scrivere. A me piace molto la sua scrittura, anche se ammetto che è particolare, e all'inizio ci si deve fare un pò l'abitudine.
Mentre nello scorso libro abbiamo una visione corale (il libro è scritto sempre in prima
Mar 24, 2012 Sue rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a difficult book to read, as well it should be, a book of loneliness, deep sadness and alienation during an episode of fairly recent history. During World War II, in fact, mere months after Pearl Harbor, thousands of Japanese residents of the United States were labeled enemy aliens and removed from their homes, transported across country to camps set up in the middle of the desert, inhospitable spots of searing heat in the summer and terrible cold in the winter.

This book is the story of
Aug 30, 2011 Chrissie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: usa, japan, hf, sample-g, audible
Assuming you have read the book description, you already know this book’s theme is the treatment of Japanese during WW2 and Japanese internment camps in the USA. It is more a study of the psychological than factual treatment of Japanese. You will not get historical facts or precise, detailed descriptions of the camps. What you will learn is how the Japanese Americans felt and how their war experiences changed them. You will feel the discrimination they experienced.

This very short novel reads as
Feb 07, 2014 Elyse rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
With already so many wonderful reviews -- I'm going to just add one quote I thought about (something Jewish people often think about)

"You can't remember everything", she said.
"And even if you can you shouldn't", said the girl
"I wouldn't say that", said her mother
"You didn't", said the girl

note: Sometimes find yourself reading a novel --its taking a lot of your concentration -- then you see a Goodreads friend post a beautiful review of a book you 'must' read....(you might even own it, whi
I am back for another taste of Julie Otsuka's writing. It's another trim one! She certainly has the knack of saying much with brevity and skill- and making her point (s)!


Many books have been written about the outrageous internment of Japanese Americans during WW II. There have been respectable treatments of this topic, such as Farewell to Manzanar, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Snow Falling on Cedars, to name a few. Julie Otsuka had gi
Dec 10, 2015 Nick rated it really liked it
As I was pondering what to write about this slim, impressionistic book about America's internment of Japanese, including citizens, the leading candidate for one of the two major parties in the United States praised that painful and wrong-headed moment in our history. It is astonishing to me that anyone can think it acceptable for the national government to take any action on the basis of race or religion, and Julie Otsuka's book is a primer, not just on the venality but on the ineffectiveness of ...more
Mar 06, 2009 Amelia rated it liked it
Of all the books I've read about the Japanese-American internment camps, this one wasn't my favorite. But I'd still recommend it. It focuses on a family - mom, dad, girl and boy - and how they dealt with the ordeal before, during and after. The family is forced to leave their home in California and stay in a camp in a Utah.

The writing style was unique: unsentimental, simple and poetic. The story was gripping, but it was a bit choppy and left some holes. It's a short read, just under 145 pages, a
Arielle Walker
May 26, 2015 Arielle Walker rated it it was amazing
Gorgeous in its spareness, and heartbreaking in its simplicity.

This is, quite honestly, a history I knew nothing of previously (being miles and worlds away, and the school curriculum as hideously limited as it still is) but I think through Julie Otsuka can be learned so much more than any dry textbook could ever hope to teach.
Feb 02, 2014 Lisa rated it it was amazing
After reading "The Buddha in the Attic" by Julie Otsuka, I was interested in reading this book. As in the first book, "When the Emperor Was Divine" is prose that reads like poetry. It is so delicately expressed that it feels like a pen and ink brush painting. Nevertheless, the book deals with a subject rarely discussed - the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. While "The Buddha in the Attic" deals with the whole Japanese immigrant experience leading up to the internment, "When ...more
Liz Janet
Feb 04, 2015 Liz Janet rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favourites
I had never read a book about Japanese relocation camps, at least not works of fiction, and now I know why. It is not because I would not feel a connection, which what most people have told me, or because this author is not as popular as others on this particular sub-genre, but because I did not want to experience the "move" from the perspective of children, who were not spared this fate, even if their families were not "traitors." The U.S. likes to forget this moment in history, we focus on the ...more
Ron Nie
Feb 04, 2015 Ron Nie rated it it was amazing
A precisely written novel that demands you take your time while reading. Otsuka's book is a deceptively portable saga about a Japanese family before, during, and after being placed in an interment camp. I don't have much to say in this review because I actually feel quite shattered by the last chapters. These characters are going to haunt my thoughts for a while. This was an effective, impressive book.
Anna [Floanne]
Avevo già avuto modo di apprezzare lo stile della Otsuka in Venivamo tutte per mare, ma in questo breve romanzo, secondo me, fa un notevole salto di qualità. Narrando con frasi essenziali, ma meno telegrafiche del precedente romanzo, accende i riflettori su una vergognosa pagina di storia americana : l'internamento da parte del governo americano dei cittadini di origine giapponese che seguì l'attacco di Pearl Harbour. Quelli che fino al giorno prima erano cittadini americani a tutti gli effetti ...more
Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist"
This is a very fast and worthwhile read about a Japanese family who suffers the indignities of the World War II internment camps here in the U.S. This book can easily be read in two or three hours if you have uninterrupted time. The construction is rather floaty and impressionistic rather than linear, but the prose is good and clean and easy to follow.

Prior to reading this, I'd only read about the Manzanar camp in California. So it was interesting to read about the Topaz camp in Utah. The last
May 05, 2013 Roberta rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
La storia è fatta dai vincitori, quindi è ovvio che si sappia poco dei campi di internamento giapponesi in USA. D'altrone in Europa c'erano altri campi, con finalità ben diverse, ad aver catturaro tutta l'attenzione.
Julie Otsuka, con lo stesso stile delicato ma meno frammentato di Venivamo tutte per mare, racconta tale internamento dal punto di vista di una famiglia di 4 persone: madre, padre, un figlio e una figlia. I genitori sono immigrati, ma i figli si sentono solo americani (non parlano n
We would change our names to sound more like theirs. And if our mother called out to us on the street by our real names we would turn away and pretend not to know her. We would never be mistaken for the enemy again.
A historical novel based on forced relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans as a result of the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Julie Otsuka's grandfather was arrested as a spy and the grandmother, mother and uncle lived in the internment camp in the Utah desert. This novella is
An excellent book about the Japanese-American experience following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, told through the experiences of one unnamed family--from the father being taken away in the middle of the night for questioning by the FBI, to the mother and children's internment in a camp in Utah, and finally their return to their home in Berkeley, CA, after three years and five months, and the reception they received in the community. The last chapter is the father's 'confession.'

The writing is si
Jul 22, 2013 Sarah rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This is listed as adult fiction, but feels much more like Young Adult material.

The book tells the story through different points of view in each chapter, but the audiobook has no chapter divisions. So we shift views often, and recount events, which feels like jumping around chronologically. The feel is very disjointed.

The book is full of symbolism. It describes the everyday lives and how that changes for a family of Japanese descent living in America during WWII. The language is both poetic and
Nov 29, 2012 JDK1962 rated it it was ok
This reads like an MFA thesis project. It's competently written at a technical level, but curiously flat and uninvolving because it always remains on the surface. Whatever weight or gravitas it has comes from the historical aspect (internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, for no reason other than their ancestry). The characters are not sharply drawn, and it feels like every time the author approaches any truth or insight, she scampers back to trivial surface detail. Which is a shame, becaus ...more
Dana Melinda
Mar 11, 2008 Dana Melinda rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: those who question society, and who love great writing
I loved how different this book is from many others I've read. It's written from the point of view of several characters, whose names are never mentioned. It almost seems like the author excluded the names to make them appear generic, as if they could be any Japanese person living in America during World War Two.
This book explores the thoughts and feelings of members of one Japanese family before, during, and after they've been shipped off to a desert camp during WW2. I was left at the end with
Nek0 Neha (BiblioNyan)
When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka was a remarkable novel. To be perfectly honest, I finished it last week and I have been struggling with writing this review. I rarely cry when it comes to books, but this title was extraordinarily poignant that I was moved to tears. For the past five days, I have sat down at my computer, or grabbed a notepad and black inked pen, in an effort to compose all of my feelings and thoughts into a cohesive review. But the truth of the matter is that there’s ...more
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
Around the Year i...: When the Emperor was Divine, by Julie Otsuka 1 11 Mar 07, 2016 10:02PM  
Has anyone read this? 11 95 Oct 08, 2014 01:28PM  
The ending 2 21 Jul 02, 2014 10:20AM  
  • The Meaning of Consuelo
  • Extravagance
  • A Month of Sundays: Searching for the Spirit and My Sister
  • Quattrocento
  • Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems of Julia de Burgos
  • Rescuing Patty Hearst: Growing Up Sane in a Decade Gone Mad
  • My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath
  • The Song of Names
  • Nervous System: Or, Losing My Mind in Literature
  • A Quiet Storm
  • The Song Reader
  • My Life in Orange
  • The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age
  • Bone
  • Monsieur Proust
  • Pushkin: A Biography
  • Sacred Time
  • Swimming with Giants: My Encounters with Whales, Dolphins and Seals
Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. After studying art as an undergraduate at Yale University she pursued a career as a painter for several years before turning to fiction writing at age 30. She received her MFA from Columbia. She is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Asian American Literary Award, and the American Library Association Alex Award.

Her first novel, When the Empe
More about Julie Otsuka...

Share This Book

“And if anyone asks, you're Chinese. The boy had nodded. "Chinese," he whispered. "I'm Chinese." "And I," said the girl, "am the Queen of Spain." "In your dreams," said the boy. "In my dreams," said the girl, "I'm the King.” 24 likes
“Mostly though, they waited. For the mail. For the news. For the bells. For breakfast and lunch and dinner. For one day to be over and the next day to begin.” 15 likes
More quotes…