Teaching Japanese Internment Using Julie Otsuka’s When The Emperor Was Divine

PALS is happy to have a guest post from Jessica Thelen, who is an incoming PhD student in English at the University of Delaware. Thelen writes about teaching Japanese Internment in her Introduction to American literature classses and, in addition to providing useful teaching ideas, Thelen makes astute observations about what subjects are and are not taught routinely in American schools. 

Introduction

In a fall 2017 survey that I distributed to both of my sections of English 215: Introduction to American Literature, one student suggested that in teaching this course next semester, I include a unit on Japanese Internment since this was an era of American history that they wanted to learn more about. When creating the syllabus for my Spring 2018 iteration of this course, I recalled this student’s comments and decided to teach a mini-unit on Japanese Internment. I had not taught Japanese Internment before, but I believed it would be a fruitful topic for the course, particularly since some of the objectives of this course are to “cultivate an understanding and appreciation of the value of creative writing in addressing historical and contemporary questions pertaining to the outlined themes of the course (race, ethnicity, and identity)” and to “critically examine our own biases and positionalities while recognizing and taking different perspectives into account.” In order to introduce my students to this era of American history, I decided to use Julie Otsuka’s 2002 novel When The Emperor Was Divine, which focuses on an unnamed Japanese American family, the majority of which is interned at the Topaz Incarceration Camp for most of WWII. Although fictional, Otsuka deftly uses historical accounts to create her narrative and constructs an accessible text for high school and college students.

downloadSetting Up the Novel: Historical Contexts and Supplemental Materials

Since I teach at a small, predominantly white institution, I knew that bringing in historical contexts before starting Otsuka’s novel would greatly contribute to students’ understanding and engagement with the text. This was made clear when, on the first day of this mini unit, I asked my students if they had learned about Japanese Internment in school or in some other context, and only a handful of students raised their hands out of a class of twenty-eight. That class period I had planned to show a documentary on Japanese Internment, entitled Rabbit in the Moon, but unfortunately it was no longer available online, so instead I gave the class a general overview of Japanese Internment: anti-Japanese sentiment prior to WWII, Order 9066 (the executive order President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed on February 19, 1942, which officially began Japanese Internment), as well as the FBI raids where many Japanese and Japanese American men were arrested prior to Internment beginning in earnest.

Since the documentary was unavailable, I decided to spend the next class having students listen to and answer questions on Chapter 1 (“The Roundup”) of a new podcast entitled Order 9066. In this podcast, scholars discuss Japanese Internment and internees share their experiences in the camps. Before listening to the podcast in class, I introduced it by distributing a set of questions for students to answer while listening, which included questions such as:

  1. What were some of the reactions of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans upon hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941?
  2. What were some stereotypes regarding Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans that were part of the popular consciousness (even prior to Pearl Harbor)?
  3. What was the FBI’s role in the beginnings of Japanese Internment? What were some reactions to the FBI raids on Japanese immigrant and Japanese American homes?
  4. What is your main take away from this podcast? What is something that your learned from it that you would like to discuss with the class?

This podcast and the related questions were very effective in encouraging student engagement, as seen in a survey I distributed at the end of this unit (two weeks after ending it). In completing the survey, one student wrote, “To hear the podcast and to hear what people went through is amazing.” After listening to and discussing this episode of Order 9066, I assigned two chapters (Chapters 10 and 11) of Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America: A History (2015) that focus on Japanese Internment. I began that class with a Free Write, asking students to think about and do some writing on the following questions:

  1. How were Canada, Peru, and other Latin American countries involved in Japanese Internment in the U.S. and abroad?
  2. What helped to establish the premise of “military necessity” of Japanese Internment?
  3. How did some Japanese Americans resist orders before and during Internment?
  4. What was life like for Japanese Americans after they were released from the camps?

The students were, at that point, able to use their knowledge from Order 9066 and Lee’s book to discuss these questions, as well as possible reasons why Japanese Internment is not frequently taught in schools. Many students suggested that it was because the U.S. does not like to recall its wounds and shameful past, and would, rather, as they stated, “sweep it under the rug.” Once students had this context and had begun to consider such questions and their implications, we began to read When The Emperor Was Divine.

Teaching When The Emperor Was Divine

I taught Otsuka’s novel over the course of five 50-minute class periods. Since I run a discussion-based course with brief segments of lecture, I typically begin each class with a Free Write where students take some time to process their thoughts, answer questions, and come up with points and questions to discuss with the class.

Textual Analysis

For the first segment of the novel, I had students focus on (pages 1-22). One of the Free Write questions I asked students to focus on for that day was: “How are the unnamed daughter, mother, and brother, reacting to Internment (physically and psychologically)? Some students were able to then make connections between the characters’ experiences and those of past Internees who told of their experiences in Chapter 1 of Order 9066. Connections made included the destruction of any family artifacts connected to Japan, feelings of uncertainty and fear, as well as the fracturing of families, as many heads of households, like the father of the unnamed family in When The Emperor Was Divine, were arrested and interned months before their other family members were.

Over the course of the novel, students also focused on the symbolism Otsuka employs to emphasize that Internment had both psychological and physical effects. This symbolism often takes the form of animal imagery: wild horses underscoring the desire for freedom and escape, and the tortoise standing for the family and their loss of identity (in one scene, the son/brother carves the family’s identification number onto a tortoise’s shell that he keeps as a pet). A few students also brought up that symbols also took the form of plant life: a tulip grown in the internment camp symbolizing hope, growth, and renewal, the lack of trees in the camp signifying isolation, harsh conditions, and homesickness, and the rose bush as the desire for normalcy.

Incorporating Visuals

In one class period, as a way to break up the pattern of large class discussions and small group work, I pulled up a series of photographs and paintings related to Japanese Internment, made available by the Japanese American Digital Relocation Archive (JARDA). Along with printing out the images and displaying them on the projector, I also passed out a list of questions for students to focus on as we looked at and discussed the images:

  1. What are the noticeable differences between the paintings and the photographs?
  2. As a viewer, which has more of an impact on you (emotional, historical, etc.) – the photographs or the paintings? Why?
  3. What is left out of the photographs that is depicted in the paintings and vice versa?
  4. General thoughts and comments regarding the photographs and paintings?

The first photograph I started with, however, was provided by one of my students—her grandparents’ neighbors in Arizona own a fire hydrant that had been used in one of the Internment camps. The neighbor had been a firefighter and had come into possession of this fire hydrant as a retirement gift. When looking at this photo, students remarked on the everydayness of it. This image in particular was useful in helping students understand that artifacts related to Internment still exist, and that such artifacts include everyday objects—objects that we still use today.

In looking at this photograph, copied below, taken of the Amache Relocation Center in Colorado on December 9, 1942 by Tom Parker, one student remarked on how big the camp was—while reading Otsuka’s novel he hadn’t realized how many barracks there were. Another student remarked on the barren landscape and the monotony of the scenery— how it reminded him of a modern prison—once again making a connection between the past and the present.

Overlooking the Amache Relocation Center, near Granada, Colorado. In the foreground is a typical barracks unit consisting of 12 six room apartment barracks buildings, a recreation hall, laundry and bathrooms, and the mess hall. Photographer: Parker, Tom Amache, Colorado

When looking at the painting included below, entitled “Goodbye My Son,” by Henry Sugimoto, circa 1942, students were drawn to the facial expressions of the family in the middle—how sad yet resigned they look, as well as the fear about what could happen to their son once he is overseas. Another student pointed out the vibrant colors, which makes the scene depicted seem more immediate. And yet another student called attention to the words included, words that were commonly seen in Internment camps: “Mess Hall,” “WRA,” and “Block 23,” as well as the people in the background hanging laundry and talking.

Goodbye My Son

When asked to reflect on what they remembered from our mini-unit on Japanese Internment a few weeks after finishing this unit, many students stated that these images were incredibly helpful in beginning to understand this period of American history: “The photos…provide the visuals to the stories;” “I definitely enjoyed the visual aspect simply because I feel like when you see something[s], especially for what they really were, you sympathize more with it.” Another student wrote that “the picture[s] were hard to look at ‘cause you feel the pain through them.” Looking at the paintings and photographs worked in conjunction with Otsuka’s novel by helping students visualize objects and emotions focused on in her novel, such as the barracks and the sadness that those interned experienced.

Reflections – The Benefits of an American Studies Approach

In finishing up our discussion of Otsuka’s novel, students deftly connected course materials to the family’s difficulties post-Internment. What really struck the students was the indifference and cruelty aimed at Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans post-Internment. One student brought up that this was also discussed in Chapter 11 of Lee’s The Making of Asian America: A History—how the fictional mother in Otsuka’s novel and the nonfictional parents that Lee mentioned struggled to find work post-Internment due to continued discrimination against the Japanese. Another brought up that the internalized racism experienced by the siblings in Otsuka’s novel was similar to that expressed by Gabe and Tomas, two of the main characters in Brian Ascalon Roley’s novel American Son (2002), our first novel of the semester.

In the survey distributed to the class a few weeks after finishing this mini unit, one of the questions I asked was if students enjoyed learning about Japanese Internment in our Introduction to American Literature course, and of the 25 of 28 total students who completed the survey, 23 students responded that they did, mainly because they did not previously know about it, that it was a big part of American history that people should have more knowledge of, and that they were interested in learning more about American history. The overwhelmingly positive, critical, and engaged response from my students when reading Otsuka’s novel and learning about Japanese Internment underscores my belief in the benefits of taking an American Studies approach when teaching American Literature courses (encouraging interdisciplinary thinking by using art objects such as paintings, visual artifacts such as photographs, first person accounts like the podcast, and historical analysis such as the chapters from Lee’s book), as well as my belief that effective teaching is a collaborative effort between students and instructors, resulting in a creative, nuanced learning environment.

Works Cited

Lee, Erika. The Making of Asian America: A History. Simon and Schuster, NY: 2015. Print.

“Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive (JARDA).” Calisphere, calisphere.org/exhibitions/t11/jarda/.

“Order 9066 Podcast | APM Reports.” APM Reports – Investigations and Documentaries from American Public Media, www.apmreports.org/order-9066.

Otsuka, Julie. When The Emperor Was Divine. Anchor Books, NY: 2002. Print.

Roley, Brian Ascalon. American Son. 2002. Print.

 

Bio:

Jessica Thelen is an incoming PhD student in English at the University of Delaware, pursuing their Race and Ethnicity research track. She taught as a Visiting Lecturer in the English Department at Westfield State University from 2016-2018, where she taught courses ranging from English Composition, Introduction to American Literature, and World Literature.

 

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