The Urgency of Knowing: A Profile of Julie Otsuka

Renée H. Shea

Born in 1962 in Palo Alto, California, Julie Otsuka grew up in what looked from the outside like a traditional middle-class family. Her father, who was born in Japan and came to the United States on a student visa in 1950, when he was twenty-four, was an aerospace engineer; her mother was a lab technician who stopped working to raise her daughter and two sons. The family moved to Palos Verdes, just south of Los Angeles, when Otsuka was nine. She says she was a “nerd” in high school, active in student council and senior class president. She entered Yale University intending to study history, but she surprised herself—and her parents—with a newfound passion for painting. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in art in 1984. She spent a few years waitressing while building up her portfolio, and entered an MFA program at Indiana University in Bloomington, which she left after three months. She relocated to New York City, supported herself as a temp doing word processing, took some art courses in a nondegree program—and then quit. Otsuka explains rather matter-of-factly that she “failed” as a painter; she simply could not get what was in her head onto the canvas.

For three years she worked nights, and found both solace and inspiration reading fiction, having discovered an affinity for the novelists she calls her “outdoor guys”: Ernest Hemingway, Richard Ford, and Cormac McCarthy. To amuse herself and her boyfriend, she began writing what she says were “comic sketches,” which proved more than a humorous distraction when they earned her admission to Columbia University’s MFA program in 1994. Her thesis was composed of what would become several chapters of her debut novel.

In the acknowledgments section of When the Emperor Was Divine, Otsuka cites Maureen Howard, one of her professors at Columbia, “for her early encouragement and support.” Otsuka says when she began writing about the Japanese internment in Howard’s workshop, it was the first time she had written anything other than humorous short stories. She credits Howard with recognizing their worth as fiction as well as their importance to Otsuka. “She read two stories—that later became the first and second chapters of Emperor—and encouraged me to keep writing about this family and the war. If it hadn’t been for her, I would have considered those two stories the aberration they then seemed to be—they seemed to have come out of nowhere, but clearly, at some deep unconscious level, I needed to write about the war. Maureen gave me the green light to keep going. Sometimes that’s all it takes, a nod, a word of encouragement.”

While The Buddha in the Attic came to Otsuka, as she says, “in the rhythm of the language,” When the Emperor Was Divine came to her in images, initially a specific one: a woman standing on a street, looking at a sign on a telephone pole that announced Executive Order 9066, issued in 1942, calling for the relocation of Japanese Americans into internment camps. Eventually one hundred twenty thousand people were held in these camps for the duration of World War II. That bit of history inspired Otsuka to write five spare and streamlined chapters, narrated by four members of an unnamed family—a mother and father and their two children—who survive the camps only to return three and a half years later to a home still hostile and mistrustful toward Japanese Americans.

When the Emperor Was Divine is dedicated to Otsuka’s parents “and in memory of Toyoko H. Nozaka,” her maternal grandmother who was interned at Topaz, Utah, with her son and daughter (Otsuka’s mother). Otsuka’s grandfather, who died when she was quite young, was arrested on December 8, 1941, the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and incarcerated in various camps until 1945. His situation, Otsuka points out, was not unusual: He was a prominent businessman who worked for a Japanese import-export company, and the FBI targeted leaders of the Japanese American community. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the family eventually gained access to his file, where she says much was blacked out, though there was no evidence that he had engaged in even remotely suspicious activities.

In the late 1980s, while moving her grandmother from her house to an apartment, Otsuka’s family found a box of letters and postcards on the floor of the fireplace. Her grandfather had written these to his wife and children and sent them from various detention camps where he was imprisoned. Although they were censored and the family never located any that the grandmother had written to him, Otsuka began to piece together a story she had heard in bits and pieces. While she was growing up, her family used the camps as an occasional point of reference rather than a source or focus of anger or recriminations. Her family rarely spoke of their experience at Topaz or their return from the camp.

When the Emperor Was Divine was widely praised when it was published in 2002. New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani pointed out Otsuka’s “lyric gifts and narrative poise, her heat-seeking eye for detail, her effortless ability to empathize with her characters.” Since 2003 the novel has been chosen as a campus read by over thirty colleges. It was also the community read for Boulder, Colorado; Greenwich, Connecticut; Seattle; Iowa City; Santa Barbara, California; and the statewide Vermont Reads program, among others. One reason for its popularity seems to be the parallels many see between what happened to Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and the attitude toward Arab and Muslim Americans after 9/11. Whereas Otsuka’s grandfather and other Japanese Americans were classified as “dangerous enemy aliens,” the contemporary term “enemy combatant” strikes a similar chord. Campus and community reading programs often use When the Emperor Was Divine as a vehicle to question whether what most consider a disgraceful chapter in American history could happen again.