Julie Otsuka’s novel, When the Emperor was Divine, is the 2013 New Student Reading Project book, read by all new Cornell undergraduates. The text imagines the historical experience of internment for Japanese Americans through the eyes of one representative, but unnamed, family. Beginning during the days of fear and paranoia following the attack on Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, Otsuka follows the family’s internal struggles as they leave behind their very American life in Berkeley, California, and move with 122,000 other men, women and children of Japanese ancestry on buses and trains, through dilapidated assembly centers, to hastily-constructed internment camps in remote locations, then back again to their fundamentally altered home.
Through photographs, documents, maps, and artwork, our exhibition examines the story through the perspective of Ostuka’s characters—“the woman,” “the girl,” “the boy,” and “the father”— each of whom acts as narrator. We also explore the themes of estrangement and reconciliation, during and after the interment experience. The exhibition aims to stimulate further interest in the story of Japanese American internment by considering a difficult moment in American history.