This short novel tells the story of a Japanese-American family’s internment during World War II. They are living comfortably in Berkeley, California, when their nightmare begins. Soon after Pearl Harbor the husband/father is arrested by the FBI--taken away in his housecoat and slippers. We learn of this through the narration of the eight-year-old son, his ten-year-old sister, and their mother--who are rounded up several months later and sent to a camp in Utah. The father remains shadowy--a figure of memory, wishful thinking, and censored letters stamped "Detained Alien Enemy Mail." The reason for his arrest is never explained, as if there is no reason to question the man’s loyalty.

After her husband’s arrest, the mother is left to take care of her children and the house. A few months later she must pack up the household belongings, give away the family cat, kill and bury the family dog, tell her daughter to let loose the pet macaw. They are allowed to bring with them--where to they do not know--only what they can carry. They take an endless train ride through the Nevada desert to reach an internment camp in Utah, "a city of tar-paper barracks behind a barbed-wire fence on a dusty alkaline plane high up in the desert" (49).

Here they remain until the war ends, some three and a half years later. They learn to live in one room with a single light bulb; to stand on line for everything; to eat in the mess hall; to avoid rattlesnakes, scorpions, and the sun; and to "never say the Emperor’s name out loud" (52). They are unable to avoid the desert dust that covers and gets into everything. The children attend makeshift classes, play cards, are bored, lonely, and confused. The boy misses and has fantasies about his father, the girl reaches adolescence and becomes cynical, the mother is too depressed to eat or read.

At the end of the war, the three are allowed to go home "with train fare and twenty-five dollars in cash" (117). Their house has been vandalized; neighbors, teachers, and classmates either ignore them or are openly hostile. Finally their father is released from detention in New Mexico, a changed man both in appearance and spirit.


The story is told through the eyes of each family member, none of whom is named--the boy, the girl, the woman. Hence it is the tale of a group as well as of individuals. The most moving and vivid narrative is that of the boy, perhaps because his perspective is that of the youngest and most dependent family member. In simple, unsentimental language this first novel by the author evokes the disbelief, humiliation, despair, and resignation of people who had settled and made a life for themselves in the United States, and who suddenly found themselves despised and marginalized by current events and mass paranoia. The dislocation of West Coast Japanese-Americans during World War II is only recently receiving public attention; this novel is a powerful and moving representation of what government policy means for individual lives.

Useful accompaniments to When the Emperor Was Divine are the paintings of Henry Sugimoto, some of which have been annotated in this database. Sugimoto, a California artist born in Japan, was interned in Arkansas during the war. His paintings of the camp and camp life depict vividly the depressing surroundings and disruption of family life.


For background of author and the book, see interview at:


Alfred A. Knopf

Place Published

New York



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