The City of Attleboro, Massachusetts, where I have lived for 24 years, participates in the annual Big Read, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (www.neabigread.org). It is a community wide program of reading and discussing together a book of historical and literary significance by an American author. This year’s book is “When the Emperor was Divine” by Julie Otsuka, which portrays the day to day existence of a Japanese American family held in an internment camp in Utah during World War II. Some 120,000 Japanese Americans (80,000 of whom were citizens born in the USA) were imprisoned from 1942 to 1945 by Executive Order 9066 issued by President Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt was acting in response to the rampant fear on the West Coast of an imminent Japanese attack, although the FBI had told him that Japanese Americans were loyal and no threat. Even though Roosevelt was an exemplary President in many respects he was captive to the widespread racism and discrimination against Asian Americans. He had famously said that the only thing Americans had to fear was fear itself, yet here he yielded shamefully to fear. Their possessions, homes and businesses were plundered by unscrupulous profiteers. It was not until 1980 that President Carter appointed a commission which investigated and found little evidence of Japanese disloyalty. President Reagan signed legislation in 1988 and apologized awarding $25,000 in reparations to each person still living.
The book itself When the Emperor Was Divine is devastatingly simple and powerful (and short at 144 pages). The story is told from the points of view of a mother, father, son and daughter, without naming them. This is a literary device that I have encountered only once before, in the Gospel of Luke chapter 24 (The Road to Emmaus story). The anonymous disciple in that Emmaus story is an invitation to the reader to put him/herself into the story. I think the device works the same way in Otsuka’s book inviting us to imagine ourselves in the story. The confusion and disillusionment of the family is described poignantly. The situation of the father was particularly painful. He had been sent to a camp for dangerous enemy aliens and when he returned to their home in San Francisco he was never the same, not able to go to work, a shadow of his former self.
A Big Read panel discussion at Bristol Community College in Attleboro featured a 90 year old Yutaka Kobayashi, who as a teenager was sent to a camp with his family. He described his own experience as a confusion and betrayal of his identity. He was born in the U.S.A. and always considered himself American yet he was treated as an alien, a potential recruit for the enemy. He said: “I did not know who I was”. The same confusion and betrayal is related by the son and daughter in the book. Another panel member was Paul Watanabe, Director of the Institute for Asian American Studies and Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He said that Roosevelt was blind to his own complicity in racism against Asian Americans. “Military necessity” makes a lot of people blind to the truth. Yet there was a clear double standard since Hawaii (much more vulnerable to invasion) did not have a widespread evacuation of Japanese Americans since they constituted one third of the population. Economic necessity trumped any thought of “military necessity”.
The book was a vivid reminder to me about the threat to liberty posed by fear during wartime or rumors of war. Fear is a monster that grows out of all proportion to the threat. We should be loath to give up our liberties in response to the winds of war. The other reminder is how much governments may lie to their people during time of war. Recent American examples include Vietnam and Iraq. As the famous quotation says (and no one seems to know who said it): “the first casualty of war is truth”.