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When the Emperor Was Divine

3.75  ·  Rating details ·  19,241 ratings  ·  2,776 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 receiv
Paperback, 144 pages
Published October 14th 2003 by Anchor Books (first published 2002)
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Anne It was about a family who was forced to leave their home in San Francisco and ended up in the Topaz Internment Camp in Utah.

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Average rating 3.75  · 
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 ·  19,241 ratings  ·  2,776 reviews

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Feb 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2015-reads
“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 s
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 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Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the recent changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement.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
Ahmad Sharabiani
When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka
When the Emperor was Divine is a historical fiction novel written by American author Julie Otsuka about a Japanese American family sent to an internment camp in the Utah desert during World War II. The novel, loosely based on the wartime experiences of Otsuka's mother's family, is written through the perspective of four family members, detailing their eviction from California and their time in camp. It is Otsuka's debut novel, and was published in the Uni
Aug 11, 2009 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
Jul 22, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
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
Apr 17, 2017 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
Mar 24, 2012 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
Apr 26, 2012 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
Elyse  Walters
Feb 07, 2014 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
Aug 30, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: japan, usa, sample-g, audible, hf
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
Barbara H
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 given us a taste
Dec 10, 2015 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 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
Apr 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My, what a painfully raw, poignant, brief, yet eloquent period piece of story-telling, historical fiction, literary fiction, and ... social commentary (which, alas, is all too relevant today as the ugly head of populism and ignorant tribalism again rears itself and proclaims its message of hate and fear with a small-minded, yet full-throated, roar).

Sparse prose ... but a clear vision ... a splendid, effective, humane work. To the extent that research suggests that reading fiction enhances our c
Jeanette (Ms. Feisty)
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
Timothy Urges
Oct 29, 2019 rated it liked it
Devastatingly straightforward depiction of the United States’ xenophobic desire to barricade and to forget.
When the Emperor Was Divine is a powerful book that portrays the internment of those of Japanese ancestry after the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II and is told from the perspective and point of view of the father who is taken from their Berkley, California home by the FBI and imprisoned in New Mexico for the duration of the war. We also get the points of view of the mother, the 11-year old girl and the 8-year old boy as they are transported to an internment camp in a desert in Utah a ...more
May 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
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 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
Nov 29, 2012 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
Liz Janet
Feb 04, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Lisa (Remarkablylisa)
if you're not well knowledged in history, you'll enjoy this quick book on what it meant to be Japanese during the world war and it'll make you go back and do proper research on the intermittent camps build across America and Canada. ...more
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 i
Sandra Zaid
Jun 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Phenomenal. Atypical prose. I was going to give this book 3 stars when on chapter 2...but this book just gets deeper and deeper into the heart of the historical fiction that it ends as a brilliantly done piece of Lit fully deserving a 5 star rating.
Read it. Read it.
Dana Melinda
Mar 11, 2008 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
Bam cooks the books ;-)
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
Camille Maio
Sep 20, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a small book that packs a punch. At first, I wasn't sure I liked it. It's got a literary bent, which is not my favorite style, but the subject - Japanese internment - was intriguing to me since I knew little about it.

This is not a book full of dramatic moments or witty dialogue. It's *very* subtle. But then I realized that its subtly is *exactly* the point. If there were big moments that horrified or appalled the reader, then the reader would stay at an arm's length - there's something t
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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 Em

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