In a society with a rich history of immigration, the concept of belonging to a particular race affects many aspects of one’s identity including how they fit in with the rest of the communities. Belonging to a particular race may not affect one’s claim to their nationality in such a society but it clearly affects how they feel about their place in that nation. In the United States, there are people from various ethnic backgrounds including European, Asian, and African among others. In most cases, the effect of one’s race on their American identity is determined by the social constructs surrounding their race and its place in American history. The novel When the Emperor Was Divine by Japanese American writer JulieOtsuka, the characters live in a time when the social constructs on their race were particularly negative given that their home country was on the enemy side during the Second World War. As Japanese Americans, they not only faced negative social stigma but also were severely victimized by the government when they were separated and forced to stay apart for over three years in those internment camps in the desert. The paper examines the effect of race on defining the character’s American identity based on the novel When the Emperor Was Divine.
Japanese American: The Conflicting Loyalties
A Japanese American is an American citizen of Japanese ancestry. It means that they are American, but their immigration history can be traced back to Japan. During the Second World War, Japan and America fought on different sides. It implied that the Japanese and Americans were considered enemies and thus, being a Japanese in America was as bad as being an American in Japan at the time. Thus, it was a great challenge to belong to both of the two warring nationalities even by ancestry. The author writes, "We used to try to imagine what it would be like when we finally returned home... We would accept invitations, Go everywhere. Do everything to make up for all the years we had missed while we were away" (Otsuka 126). Japanese American citizens considered themselves more American than Japanese because they had moved to the US and started a new life embracing a new cultural context and becoming quite westernized compared to their fellow compatriots back in Japan. However, this was not the case in terms of the social constructs of the mixed race citizens. They were considered as more Japanese than American based on the ideology of being true to their roots. In this way, Japanese Americans were considered as threats during the Second World War. It was widely believed that they would unite and strike the US from within if they were not contained and thus, the internment camps and secret incarcerations that lasted over three years in this book and possibly more for others.
American Identity: Who Are We?
Japanese Americans in the US during the Second World War were neither Americans nor Japanese. They were not Americans because they were not trusted by the American government and they were taken away from their homes and separated from their loved ones simply because the government was afraid of what they could do if they had the time and the power with respect to the enemy side in the war. Otsuka says, "We looked at ourselves in the mirror and did not like what we saw: black hair, yellow skin, slanted eyes. The cruel face of the enemy" (Otsuka 119-120). Therefore, they had to contain those undefined people to avoid any surprises. They were not Japanese either, given that they had been living in the US for a while, and most of them were even born there. It made them wonder who they really were. In the book When the Emperor Was Divine, the characters do not define themselves as Americans. They are Americans, they live in the US, speak ordinary American English, and live like average Americans, but they look like the Japanese. Thus, their only tie to Japan is their physical appearance and for this, they are forced to pay dearly. They are seen to emphasize on their Japanese roots throughout the book’s plot due to the way they have been made feel by the very society to which they belong. The Second World War was a tricky period in the world. Cultural roots were considered as ground for suspicion, and each nationality had a side to fight for. Being caught in between was not a good option for anyone and more so, between the two main powers involved.
American identity can be defined as being an American citizen, feeling like one, and acknowledging one’s position in the country as a citizen. It implies being able to fit in with the rest of the American society and not being singled out as an outsider for whatever reason. “American identity is thus a concept that varies with one’s race especially when it is at a time when the countries are at war” (Otsuka 54). Throughout the story in When the Emperor Was Divine, the author provides the experiences of the Japanese American family members in first person. These experiences are felt within the context of a society that is remorseful and yet relieved for having to relocate the citizens with Japanese ancestry. Thus, these Japanese Americans felt like aliens in America because they were treated as such.
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