This is one of the 2006 selections for the Silicon Valley Reads
program. This novel paints a portrait of the Japanese internment camps unlike any we have ever seen.
Julia Otsuka's quietly disturbing novel opens with a woman reading a sign in
a post office window. It is Berkeley, California, the spring of 1942. Pearl
Harbor has been attacked, the war is on, and though the precise message on the
sign is not revealed, its impact on the woman who reads it is immediate and
profound. It is, in many ways she cannot yet foresee, a sign of things to come.
She readies herself and her two young children for a journey that will take them
to the high desert plains of Utah and into a world that will shatter their
illusions forever. They travel by train and gradually the reader discovers that
all on board are Japanese American, that the shades must be pulled down at night
so as not to invite rock-throwing, and that their destination is an internment
camp where they will be imprisoned "for their own safety" until the
war is over. With stark clarity and an unflinching gaze, Otsuka explores the
inner lives of her main characters-the mother, daughter, and son-as they
struggle to understand their fate and long for the father whom they have not
seen since he was whisked away, in slippers and handcuffs, on the evening of
Moving between dreams, memories, and sharply emblematic moments, When the
Emperor Was Divine reveals the dark underside of a period in American history
that, until now, has been left largely unexplored in American fiction.
Julie Otsuka was born in Palo Alto and studied art at Yale University. After pursuing a career as a
painter, she turned to fiction at age 30. One of her short stories was included in Scribner's Best of
the Fiction Workshops 1998, edited by Carol Shields. When the Emperor Was Divine is her first novel.
She lives in New York.
Author's website: www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/0902/otsuka/
From Publishers Weekly
This heartbreaking, bracingly unsentimental debut describes in poetic detail the
travails of a Japanese family living in an internment camp during World War II,
raising the specter of wartime injustice in bone-chilling fashion. After a woman
whose husband was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy sees notices posted around
her neighborhood in Berkeley instructing Japanese residents to evacuate, she
moves with her son and daughter to an internment camp, abruptly severing her
ties with her community. The next three years are spent in filthy, cramped and
impersonal lodgings as the family is shuttled from one camp to another. They
return to Berkeley after the war to a home that has been ravaged by vandals; it
takes time for them to adjust to life outside the camps and to come to terms
with the hostility they face. When the children's father re-enters the book, he
is more of a symbol than a character, reduced to a husk by interrogation and
abuse. The novel never strays into melodrama-Otsuka describes the family's
everyday life in Berkeley and the pitiful objects that define their world in the
camp with admirable restraint and modesty. Events are viewed from numerous
characters' points of view, and the different perspectives are defined by
distinctive, lyrically simple observations. The novel's honesty and
matter-of-fact tone in the face of inconceivable injustice are the source of its
power. Anger only comes to the fore during the last segment, when the father is
allowed to tell his story-but even here, Otsuka keeps rage neatly bound up,
luminous beneath the dazzling surface of her novel.
"Exceptional. . . . Otsuka skillfully dramatizes a world suddenly
foreign. . . . [Her] incantatory, unsentimental prose is the book’s greatest
strength." – The New Yorker
"Spare, incisive. . . . The mood of the novel tensely reflects the
protagonists’ emotional state: calm surfaces above, turmoil just
beneath." – Boston Globe
"Prose so cool and precise that it’s impossible not to believe what [Otsuka]
tells us or to see clearly what she wants us to see. . . . A gem of a book and
one of the most vivid history lessons you’ll ever learn." – USA
"Shockingly brilliant. . . . it will make you gasp . . . Undoubtedly one
of the most effective, memorable books to deal with the internment crisis . . .
The maturity of Otsuka’s. . . prose is astonishing." – The
"The novel’s voice is as hushed as a whisper. . . . An exquisite
debut. . . potent, spare, crystalline." – O, The Oprah Magazine
Used with the permission of Anchor Books, a division of the Knopf Group, Random House, Inc.,
New York, NY.
This is one of the 2006 selections for the Silicon Valley Reads
program. Weaving together her father's raw, poignant letters with her own journey, Steinman presents
a powerful view of how war changed one generation and shaped another.
When Louise Steinman was growing up in 1950s there were three rules: 1. Never
cry in front of father 2. Never wear black in his presence and 3. Never ask
questions about these rules. It was only after her parents' death, when she made
a chance discovery that Louise Steinman began to understand why. Hidden among
her parents' belongings was an old metal ammunition box. Inside were hundreds of
letters her father wrote home during the Pacific War. "Dearest," he
writes in one, "After months of dreading nighttime, it is so hard to
change. You see I need you to help me get over that type of fear and use the
nights for what they were meant for." He wrote this letter after 167 days
of straight combat. Louise Steinman was astonished--here was a side of her
father she never knew. To her, he was a gruff, practical man--a pharmacist,
actually, who worked 13-hour days, and kept mostly to himself. She never knew
that he fought in a campaign that set the record for consecutive days of combat
in the war. He had never talked about it. He had never told her how, at 24, he
was yanked from his young wife who was pregnant with their first child, to fight
in a place that was completely foreign to him. His letters home were his only
connection to all that he knew and loved--they were his lifeline. As Louise
poured through them, she found a Japanese soldier's flag-a souvenir he later
regretted sending home. Japanese soldiers carried these flags for good luck.
THE SOUVENIR is the heartbreaking and heartwarming story of a woman
discovering her father, the men he fought with, and the men he fought against.
Because of these letters and this flag Louise Steinman sets upon on a journey
that takes her across the world, to the snow country of Japan, to a mountain top
in the Philippines, and back home again forever changed. Over the course of that
journey, she finds the family of the Japanese solider, Yoshio Shimizu, whose
flag this once was, and returns it to his surviving family.
Finding her father's ammunition box was a gift--one that unlocked a part
of him that was sealed by the trauma of war. And through the act of returning
the flag she is able to bring about a kind of catharsis--for her father,
herself, and the family of his enemy.
From Publishers Weekly
When Norman Steinman a member of the 25th Infantry Division, which fought in the
Philippines in 1945 died in 1990, he left behind a box full of WWII letters
(more than 400), later discovered by his daughter. Among the souvenirs was a
small Japanese flag, inscribed with words Louise could not read. She had them
translated and found that the flag had belonged to a Japanese soldier. Obsessed,
Steinman began her search for him or his family. This small book, a moving
memoir about reconciliation and honor, is her tale of her successful quest, her
trip to Japan to return the flag and the friendships she forged along the way.
Steinman visited the battlefields on Luzon in which her father battled the
weather, jungle and Japanese. This volume contains many of his letters,
published here for the first time, that show typical G.I. behavior, attitudes
toward the enemy and longing for good food and friends back home. Steinman's
visit to Hiroshima helped her to understand the war from the Japanese point of
view. In coming to understand her father and his postwar behavior, Steinman
discovers how real WWII can become to a survivor's family.
From Library Journal
Clearing out the family's storage locker after her father's death, Steinman
discovered a rusted metal ammo box with hundreds of letters spanning the years
1941-45 that he had written to her mother and a manila envelope with a Japanese
soldier's flag. Intrigued by these "souvenirs" of a time and an
experience in her father's life that she had never really understood, Steinman,
cultural programs director of the Los Angeles Public Library, set out on a quest
to return the flag to the family of Yoshio Shimizu, the Japanese soldier. This
book is the story of the entwined "gifts" resulting from that personal
journey Steinman's discovery of a side of her father that she had never expected
to share ("I never knew my father to cry") and the "softly
uttered" words of the fallen soldier's mother: "You have given us back
Yoshio. The government only sent sand in a box." Steinman comments that
from the letters she wanted to "unravel the connection between my father's
silence about the war and our family's home life." For many, her account
could provide an understanding of how that war changed one generation and shaped
"An affecting memoir and a convincing plea for pacifism: Steinman's
hypnotizing prose exposes the senselessness of war..."
The New York Time Book Review
"...an exceptional book that draws its strength from the complexities it
explores." --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
What most surprised you in your research for this book?
Several things. I had no idea of the extent of racism that existed on BOTH
sides of the Pacific War. The U.S. propaganda against the Japanese was
horrendous-labeling them subhuman vermin-and on the other side, the Japanese
people were told the Americans would practically eat them alive. The fighting in
the Pacific was particularly brutal because the Japanese had been so thoroughly
dehumanized to the Americans. (And also because the Japanese were not allowed by
their commanders to surrender.)
I was also amazed to hear some Japanese people say that they believed, sadly,
that the only way to stop the Japanese military was for the U.S. to have dropped
the bomb. I never thought I'd hear that from someone Japanese. But I did. They
really thought that if there had been an invasion of the mainland, the country
would have been led to a mass suicide. They were making plans for it.
After making this long journey to find the Shimizu family and return the
flag, what do you think is the most important thing to bear in mind about
reconciliation between former enemies?
I think you have to look at shared history together. It's not an easy thing
to do, but it's absolutely necessary. It was such a missed opportunity when
the 50th Anniversary of Hiroshima came along, for the Smithsonian not to have
exhibited material about the effects ofa the atom bomb. And it's quite a
problem that the Japanese don't teach the whole truth in their schools about
Japanese militarism and Japanese aggression and brutality in Asia. The subject
of the war is still very touchy in Japan. By letting the Emperor off the hook,
MacArthur also made it more difficult for the Japanese to look at their own
culpability. To look at history together can be very disturbing, but I think it
offers an enormous opportunity to paint a more complex picture and to understand
I've also come to have a much deeper understanding of the complexity of
apology and forgiveness. I was not apologizing to the Shimizu family, I couldn't
even tell them for sure whether or not my father might have contributed to the
death of their son/brother/uncle. And they did not apologize to me. But
together, we acknowledged our bond and the gravity of what binds us together as
human beings. Reconciliation often falls to the next generation. It may be
beyond the power of the combatants themselves to forgive. But sometimes that
moment of grace can also happen.
How does your book relate to your past work in performance and theater?
In a way, I see the process of trying to find the Shimizu family and
returning the flag to be a long extended performance, intended for as wide an
audience as possible. It's "life art" in that sense. The gesture is
not created for a proscenium stage, but a world stage, so to speak. What binds
the two together is the idea of a ritual gesture. Remember that all kinds of
spectacles are "performance"-weddings, funerals, birth ceremonies.
Witnessing is a powerful part of the theatrical process. The act of returning
the flag, the ceremony if you will, was the most powerful performance I've
ever attended. I was both actor and participant.
How have American veterans responded to your book?
That's been the most gratifying aspect of the book's publication.
Numerous veterans have written to me. They express thanks but they also want to
tell their own stories. Some of them have sent me stories and all of them have
been eye-openers. What these men endured and suffered and in so many cases,
never shared with anyone. If anyone thinks that the effect of war ends when the
battle ends, they're quite mistaken.