The Books they Ban: A Novel about the WWII Internment of Japanese

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Mess line, noon, Manzanar Relocation Center, California / photograph by Ansel Adams. (National Archives)

A friend recommended this Julie Otsuka novel to me after it was banned from the curriculum last summer by the Muskego-Norway school board in southeastern Wisconsin, a district of about 4,800 students. Otsuka’s high school staple was banned on the 80th anniversary of the World War II internment of Japanese Americans that it describes. 

There were no complaints about the book. The board took it upon itself to pull it for a subcommittee to review last June after new board members were elected on a “critical thinking, not critical race theory” platform. The book has remained under “review” ever since, according to NBC News.

School board President Chris Buckmaster called the book “too sad.” Terri Boyer, a board member who serves on the committee reviewing the book, said it lacked “American perspective.” Buckmaster also said the school district’s 2020 directive to include at least one book by a woman of color in the 10th grade curriculum was, by definition, discriminatory. The novel in question, When the Emperor Was Divine, has been assigned to incoming freshmen at more than 60 colleges and universities and is a regular “Community Reads” selection in many cities.

Julie Otsuka’s award-winning historical novel When the Emperor was Divine is about Americans put into concentration camps in America by their fellow Americans. Between 1942 and 1945, 128,000 U.S. citizens and legal residents were imprisoned, half of whom were children. My friend’s grandparents were among them, so this latest school book ban in the growing national trend was of special interest to her.

When the Emperor Was Divine (2002) was Otsuka’s first novel, based loosely on her own Japanese-American family’s experience. Her voice is so restrained and the story so graceful one would hardly know what to expect without knowing the history. Reading a book like this is perhaps the best way to learn just how much one doesn’t know.

The story is told through the eyes of a mother and her two young children. The mother and father had lived in Berkeley for decades and their children were born there. In early 1942, the father was taken away by the FBI in his pajamas and slippers. Soon after, the family is packing.

The mother is scrupulous with her preparations. She divides clothes, towels and sundries, leaves a window open for her bird to escape, and prepares a last meal for their aging family dog. The children want to know will it be cold where they are going? Will father be there? Who will live in their house? When the time comes, the 10-year-old girl doesn’t want to leave her friends. The younger boy is upset because he can’t find the dog.

A long train ride with blacked-out windows takes them to a camp of tarpaper barracks surrounded by barbed-wire in the Utah desert. 

The father is somewhere else. They exchange postcards. The children remind him of all the trips he’s promised them. They were going to Egypt to climb the pyramids. They would stroll along the Great Wall of China. They’d paddle boats through Venice.

“Be good to your mother,” he writes. 

Otsuka evokes the quiet damage of the coming years of deprivation and loneliness and tedium not by naming those things, as I just did, but by summoning their corrosive effect one moment at a time.

When the family first arrives, the boy stands by himself in the shade of young willow trees planted to hide the barracks from anyone outside the fence. He idly picks a leaf to save while hoping to see the wild western mustangs he’s read about. Later, horsemeat is served in the mess hall. The willow trees die after the first winter. “I shouldn’t have picked that leaf,” the eight-year-old says to himself, and destroys the evidence.

The girl becomes more interested in the soldiers guarding them than she is in her fellow inmates, whom the government insists they should be called “residents.” She is afraid of getting her first period since she has only one, yellow, dress. She loses patience with her mother, who sits alone all day reliving the last moments of her former life.

“Did I remember to turn off the stove?”

“You always turned off the stove.”

“Did we even have a stove?” 

“Of course, we had a stove.”

“That’s right. The Wedgewood. I used to be quite the cook once, you know.”

When the family goes home in 1945, the trees are taller, broken bottles litter their yard, and someone has dug up Mother’s prized rosebush. The man who said he would rent out the house for them is gone. But people have been there and left nothing but trash and messages scrawled on the walls, words we will never see. The old neighbors are surprised the family has come back. Are you really going to stay? New neighbors stare from their porches and say nothing. The children’s classmates seem not to have noticed they were gone or that they have returned. 

In December, an old man in an old suit walks up to the house carrying a dirty cardboard suitcase. The mother tells the children to go greet their father. They don’t believe her. He’s bald, he’s lost his teeth, he’s bent over. When they put their arms around him, they feel his ribs. “Over and over again, he uttered our names, but still we could not be sure it was him,” says the girl.

We never learn their names; they appear nowhere in the novel. Neither does the word “internment,” nor “guilt,” nor “innocence.” There is no profanity, no sex, no violence, and no overt displays of racism in this banned book that is too sad for 10th-graders in Wisconsin.

Two works that do remain on the 10th grade Muskego-Norway reading list are Romeo and Juliet (trigger warning: underage drinking followed by sex and suicide) and The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s classic and sometimes graphically violent novel about fighting the Vietnam War, there and at home.

According to PEN America, the nonprofit corporation founded to protect free speech in the U.S., Emperor has been taught in our schools for more than a decade without undermining the republic. But now it has been added to the list of banned books PEN keeps track of, which between July 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022 included 1,586 new titles. At the same time, the legislatures of 36 states have proposed 137 bills to restrict or ban what teachers can discuss in their classes about race, gender, and American history. In the last two years, 19 censorship bills became law across the country, including gag orders on public school teachers and librarians, according to the National Education Association.

One other concern expressed by Muskego-Norway School Board President Buckmaster was that teaching this novel would require putting it into historical context, specifically, he said, by having students study the 1937 Nanjing Massacre in China committed by the Japanese Imperial Army. That would certainly go far to expose young minds to the unalloyed terrorism of the atrocities of war, as well as the practical application of such notions as false equivalency and collective punishment, and perhaps even institutional racism.

But more context might be gained by admitting that America was wrong. President Ronald Reagan did that when he formally apologized to all internment survivors after signing a bill into law to pay them reparations in 1988.

When I told my friend I was writing this piece, she said “My grandfather was taken in the middle of the night, like the character in the book. I heard this book was on the banned list; I wanted to learn why. It is because the message from the author is the truth.”

Reprinted and modified from a version in the Key Peninsula News.

Ted Olinger
Ted Olinger
Ted Olinger is an award-winning writer. Updated from his column, “Another Last Word,” Key Peninsula News, September 2019.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for this inciteful piece, Ted. The rise of bookbanning in this country is a horrifying attempt to stifle thought. Coincidentally, I was just reading a New York Times book review (written by Stephen King) of Celeste Ng’s new dystopian novel “Our Missing Hearts” in which Chinese Americans are spurned and books are not just banned or burned, they are pulped and recycled into toilet paper. A nightmare.

  2. Thank you, Ted, for another title to add to my book list.
    When I check this one out from the library, I will wear my ‘I read banned books’ lapel button.

  3. Sherman Alexie said somewhere, that every time a new story appears about his famous, award-winning banned novel, sales go way up. But he’d rather kids read “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” in school. (They can’t keep it on the shelf at Lake Forest Park library). But still, it stays at the top of the list of banned books because (his detractors say) kids don’t need to read about their burgeoning sexuality (snort).

    This is an excellent article, Ted, and I’m grateful for it. And, “When the Emperor was Divine,” is going to be my next read.

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