The Use of Symbolism in the Novel "When the Emperor Was Divine"

Paper Type:  Argumentative essay
Pages:  5
Wordcount:  1248 Words
Date:  2022-03-09

During the Second World War, many Americans of Japanese ancestry underwent forced to leave their homes for the internment camps. No other author who captures the heart-breaking experiences from a Japanese-American more than Julie Otsuka in her debut novel, When the Emperor Was Divine. Otsuka expertly captures the horrendous scenes Japanese-Americans had to endure after the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent US' declaration of war against the Japanese Empire. From forceful evictions to the internment camps, the author does not disappoint in highlighting the plight of Americans at the hands of their government. How does she achieve this? Otsuka uses symbols of tress, darkness, gleaners, and animals to reveal the psychological torture, isolation, and suffering Japanese-Americans endured during World War 2.

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Trees play a critical role in contrasting the life that life of the family in its home in Berkeley, California, and the internment camp in a desert in Utah. While the family is at home, the reader is introduced to an episode where the mother frees a bird from the cage and directs it to go the trees. She says, "Go. Get out of here"(Otsuka, 20). The mother had earlier planted a bonsai tree in the garden. The symbol of trees can also be seen in the description the girl gives while traveling on the train to Utah. She provides a picture of a home full of the trees, just like the mother did in freeing the bird. Here, the audience sees a family moving from an environment of tress to a desert when the US army confines them. Trees are essential as they allow oxygen to circulate, and life as well gives a given place a homely feel. Such is the picture lacking in the internment camp since there are no trees. The presence of trees at home and the absence of trees in the camp enables the reader to relate suffering from happiness. At home, the trees symbolize joy and life, while the lack of trees in the internment camp denotes pain that of living in bondage.

Besides the trees, the Gleaners painting occupies a vital position in developing the theme of Otsuka's story. The artwork is of Jean-Francois Millet, which depicts three female gleaners bent over while gathering leftovers of corn using hands. People often keep paintings that seek to communicate the value of the things they treasure and usually have a strong emotional connection with such forms of art. This is evident in the desire to pack the painting and travel with it to the internment camp. However, the mother no longer has any soft feelings towards the painting after the order of evacuation was given to Americans of Japanese descent. As a result, she throws away the painting in disgust. The reason for disposing of the painting is that "it bothered her, the way those peasants were forever bent over above that endless field of wheat"(Otsuka 8). She indicates that she felt like instructing those women in the painting to look up and stop expending their energy on such jobs. Such a position shows the frustration of the Japanese-Americans during the internment period. The end of admiration for the Gleaners paining symbolizes the end of respect of America as a land of the free from the perspective of Japanese-Americans. In the past, they considered America as a destination for freedom, but such perception has changed, as seen in the mother's decision to throw away the painting she previously treasured.

Adding to the list of the symbols is darkness, which signifies the problematic situation that the Japanese-American family faces, as well as the perception held by the US government towards Americans of Japanese origin after Pearl Harbor attack. The dark color is often used in literary works to represent something bad or evil. In the book, Otsuka has used color to depict the harrowing experience of Japanese Americans during the internment. At the shop, the Otsuka notes that Joe Lundy tries to wipe the stain away while talking to the mother. But the stain appeared stubborn. The author records, "Then he began to wipe the side of the register with a rag. There was a dark stain there that would not go away"(5). The dark stain at the store of Lundy suggests that the Japanese Americans were regarded as an enemy within and, therefore, they needed to be uprooted from their homes to avoid further threats to the United States. Since the stain is dark, it denotes evil who are, in this case, the Japanese-Americans. The effort to wipe the dark stain and its stubbornness reflect the internment experience and dawning of reality before American foreign policymakers that Japanese Americans are part and parcel of the US society, and no amount of harassment would deny them that right. As a result, the dark stain and the action of Lundy capture the internment process and release after the end of World War 2.

The last symbol to be considered is how the characters treat animals, especially the dog, with violence and how such violence reflects the situation of Japanese-Americans. In the story, pet and domesticated animals suffer following the receipt of the evacuation order. The mother has been so angered by the order that she decides to kill the dog. The dog does not live with the family as it is confined in the backyard of the family. Such violence reflects not only the emotional torture that Japanese-Americans underwent but also the racial discrimination the US government showed when it forced these people into concentration camps where they were completely isolated from the rest of society. The racism can be seen when one day, the girl came home and wondered whether she was different from the rest of the people she interacted with daily. Otsuka indicates that the girl one day came back home and asked the mother, "is there anything wrong with my face?"(15). Such a question shows the disdain with which society and the US government towards people of Japanese ancestry. This form of racism was the other motivation behind the internment. Although the attack on Pearl Harbor played a significant role in the detention of Japanese-Americans, the symbol of animals suggests that these people were viewed with high suspicion in the period preceding the order. They were regarded as foreigners in their own country, and their physical appearance made it convenient for the US government to play the racial card to carry out the internments.


In conclusion, it can be seen that Otsuka was effective in employing symbolism to communicate the suffering, isolation, and discrimination Americans of Japanese origin endured during World War 2. The author uses the symbol of the color darkness to show that Japanese-Americans were regarded as a scar in American society during the war. Additionally, Otsuka presents trees contrast the pictures of the lives of the Japanese-Americans before and during the internment. The Gleaners painting and the message that it demonstrated represent the realization among Japanese-Americans that they were not considered friendly to the United States. The mother's decision to throw the painting is a testament that Japanese-Americans had lost their love for the American Dream. The treatment of animals reflected the cruelty and racism that the Japanese-Americans suffered during the internment. If Otsuka intended to reveal to the readers the painful experience during World War 2, then she has successfully done her job, and symbols have proved useful in helping accomplish the objective.

Works Cited

Otsuka, Julie. When the Emperor Was Divine. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2002.

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The Use of Symbolism in the Novel "When the Emperor Was Divine". (2022, Mar 09). Retrieved from

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