Sun, Apr 06, 2003 - Page 18 News List

Exploring the collateral damage of distant wars

Looking back on the treatment of Japanese living in the US during World War II, Julie Otsuka raises questions about racial prejudices in times of conflict

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

When the Emperor Was Divine
By Julie Otsuka
148 pages

Wars are the worst thing people can do to each other, and they also have their incidental victims, far from the firing line. This short novel is about Japanese living in the US who were interned during World War II. The author has based the book on the experiences of her family. Her grandfather was arrested the day after Pearl Harbor, while her grandmother, mother and uncle were interned somewhat later. This is her first novel.

The 1940s must have been one of the more depressing decades of the 20th century, as the middle story in The Hours suggested. This particular tale opens with a housewife and her two children living in a modest house in Berkeley in the spring of 1942. She listens to tunes and songs like In the Mood and Don't Fence Me In on the radio, and a reproduction of Millet's The Gleaners hangs on the wall. Her husband, it transpires, has already been rounded up.

The mother has seen a notice: "Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry." They are stapled to every telephone pole in town and displayed in the post office window, and so she begins to pack. She kills the family dog with a shovel and frees the caged bird out of the window. Then, a few days later, she reports, along with her two children, to the Civil Control Station in the local First Congregational Church.

Next we see them some months later -- the reason for the time lapse isn't clear -- in a steam-driven train traveling to Utah. Not un-friendly soldiers patrol the corridors. The shades have to be kept down, but someone nonetheless succeeds in throwing a brick in through a window.

The camp is utilitarian rather than grim. Even so, there is a barbed-wire perimeter fence and guards in high towers. The location is high desert, and sage brush is the only vegetation in sight. No books in Japanese are permitted, and no Emperor-worshipping Shinto religion can be practiced.

This book achieves its effects by accumulation of detail, and the ambience of the era continues to be built up in the chapters set in the camp. There is a jitterbug contest, someone hums Begin the Beguine, and on the radio they listen to swing bands and rumba dance music. Letters arrive from the father, interned near the Mexican border, but they often have passages blacked out, or excised with a razor blade, by the censors.

Other implied details of the time that are that some restaurants wouldn't serve Japanese and that the internees' bank accounts were frozen.

The night the grandfather is taken away is vividly evoked. Two men with FBI badges and black fedoras had told him to grab his toothbrush, then led him away in his bathrobe and slippers. "You're coming with us. We just need to ask your husband a few questions. Into the car, Papa-san." Someone else has been arrested in his golf-shoes while practicing his swing on the lawn.

One day the camp is visited by the War Relocation Authority and some of the younger detainees are allowed out to do agricultural work. When they return some months later, many say they prefer life behind the perimeter fence.

Movie theaters wouldn't allow them in, and signs on the windows everywhere, they reported, read: "No Japanese allowed."

Winter arrives. Some days it's 20 below, and at Christmas the kids receive candy and gifts from the Quakers and the American Friends Service. One contains a note from the donor: "May the Lord look down upon you always."

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