National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
When the Emperor Was Divine

When the Emperor Was Divine

by Julie Otsuka

Mostly though, they waited. For the mail. For the news. For the bells. For breakfast and lunch and dinner. For one day to be over and the next day to begin.


These activities may be linked to other Big Read community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local library, a student assembly, or a bookstore.

  1. Photo Essay: Research photographic archives of the Japanese internment camps such as Manzanar, Topaz, and others. Create a photo essay that illustrates the living conditions, daily life, and struggles of Japanese Americans interned at these sites. Write captions for your selected photographs that explain the historical context and significance, and any relation to the novel that the pictures might have. Display your photo essay in your school, a public library, or other Big Read venue.
  2. Room for Debate: President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 into action in February of 1942. In 1944, the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the order in Korematsu vs. United States.

    As time progressed, our nation's leaders took another look at these events. During his term in office, President Jimmy Carter's Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians investigated the history of Japanese internment. In a report entitled "Personal Justice Denied," which was issued during President Ronald Reagan's time in office, the committee urged the government to pay reparations to those families whose civic integrity was betrayed as a result of interment.

    Along with a group of other students, research the history of American judicial involvement in the case of Japanese-American internment, especially Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 and the Korematsu vs. United States Supreme Court decision. With the help of a local judge, lawyers in your community, a debate coach, or mock trial club moderator in your school, argue the legal merit or error of Executive Order 9066 and the Korematsu case for your class or school.
  3. A Communal History: Every community in America has people who have experienced both the joys and the troubles of being recent immigrants to this country. With an eye towards investigating the dual identity that often comes with being an immigrant—the sometimes tenuous connection between one's native country and one's adopted one—conduct a series of interviews with three or four recent immigrants. Develop a list of interview questions that will help you investigate these new immigrants' sense of identity and their perceptions of acceptance by other citizens. Numerous guides to doing oral histories can be found online to help you craft open-ended questions that will facilitate the interview process.
  4. To the Letter: Imagine that you are a son or daughter in a family that has been forced into an internment camp. Compose a series of fictional letters written to your mother or father, who might be separated from you and detained at another camp. Think about what you might write early on in the internment; how that might change over the time you spend there; and what the letters might reveal to the recipient about your life and conditions at the internment site. Perhaps you could "publish" these in some form as a diary or journal to be displayed in a community library or bookstore.
  5. Objects of Art: Many Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes with little time to gather important belongings. Given these circumstances, they often left objects that identified them as Japanese at home. If you were forced to leave your home with little warning and only a suitcase or two, what would you pack? What would be the hardest thing(s) to leave behind?

    In art, an assemblage is a three-dimensional composition in which the artist selects a group of objects and images that have some related or symbolic meaning. Utilizing the objects (or images of objects) you might bring with you, create an art installation that speaks to the hurt and trauma of a person's or a family's forced removal from home.
  6. By Its Cover: Gather as many images of the front book cover of When the Emperor Was Divine as you can find. What do you notice about the designer's selection or arrangement of the image or artwork on the front cover? Why do you suspect the artist chose this image for the particular cover?

    For display in your school, public library, or community bookstore, design your own book cover for the novel. It should include, at the very least, the author's name and the title of the novel. What image, object, or arrangement would you select and why? What would be your color scheme and why? How might you choose differently than the artists who have designed the covers already published?
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