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When the Emperor was Divine

Photographs from the Internment Camps

This year’s convocation speaker, Julie Otsuka, spoke about the photographs she had seen from the internment camps where Japanese Americans were held during World War II.  She highlighted the difference between the photographs taken by Ansel Adams, which she felt covered up some of the harsher realities of life in camp, and those taken by Dorothea Lange. Because these photos have been digitized and made available from the National Archives and the Library of Congress, let’s take a look.

Here is one of Lange’s photos, of elementary school girls at Manzanar:

Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California. An elementary school with voluntary attendance has been established with volunteer evacuee teachers, most of whom are college graduates. No school equipment is as yet obtainable and available tables and benches are used. However, classes are often held in the shade of the barrack building

“Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California. An elementary school with voluntary attendance has been established with volunteer evacuee teachers, most of whom are college graduates. No school equipment is as yet obtainable and available tables and benches are used. However, classes are often held in the shade of the barrack building.” Photograph by Dorothea Lange, available at the National Archives.

And here is one by Ansel Adams, also of a young girl in Manzanar:

"Girl and volley ball, Manzanar Relocation Center, California" Photograph by Ansel Adams, available from the Library of Congress.

“Girl and volley ball, Manzanar Relocation Center, California” Photograph by Ansel Adams, available from the Library of Congress.

What do you see when you compare these two photos?  What can you tell about the perspective of the photographer?

Now here’s another thought: the photos by Ansel Adams have been widely available for a long time, but the images by Dorothea Lange have only recently been made available (1).  If you had only seen the above photo by Adams, what might you conclude about life in the camp for school-aged girls?  What additional perspective does Lange’s photo give us?

Otsuka book and Wheelock convocation programThis year, I was excited to read Otsuka’s novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, and to talk about it with incoming first years at Wheelock.  We had a great discussion during orientation, and towards the end, these brand-new college students were asking really insightful questions.  “Why weren’t we taught about this in American history class?”  “My teacher mentioned the camps, but why did we never talk about what it was like for the people who were in them?”

These questions are complex, and those students who pursue degrees and careers in education and social justice fields might spend their professional lives attempting to answer them.  Since I’m a librarian, my perspective on the topic is all about information– what information we see, what we don’t, and how we find more.  Primary sources, like photographs and oral histories, provide important perspectives on historical issues.  And the primary sources that we have available to us can affect the way that we view history.

If you were intrigued by the novel, the Theatre Espresso performance, or Julie Otsuka’s speech, here are several places to find primary sources on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II:

Resources from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA):


(1) Dinitia Smith, “Photographs of an Episode That Lives in Infamy,” New York Times, November 6, 2006,

This post is the fourth in a series that will explore the topics found in this year’s Wheelock summer reading selection, When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka.

A Comfort and a Curse: Rice Balls in When The Emperor Was Divine

photo 3

Rice balls

Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine, Wheelock’s summer reading book, tells the story of the Japanese American Internment during WWII through the eyes of an unnamed Japanese family. While food plays a small role in this story, the impact of the description of rice balls is poignant. The mother in the story considers rice balls with pickled plums, known as umeboshi,  to be a comfort food and eats them with pleasure in the beginning of the novel. Later on, however, we learn that one of the things Japanese families did in an attempt to “blend in” as the anti-Japanese sentiment grew in the US was to stop eating their traditional foods. Rice balls no longer went to school with the children in their lunch boxes. Rice balls in the story bring a sense of comfort while simultaneously acting as a symbol of unwelcomed otherness. Rice balls are a truly delicious and surprisingly simple dish to make, and I found myself thinking of the family in this story, and their complicated relationship to this wonderful dish, as I made my version.

My mold and my fillings

My mold and my fillings

The first thing you need to do to make rice balls is make sushi rice. This is NOT the same as “sticky rice” so don’t get confused! I followed Alton Brown’s recipe here. Once you have made your rice, you need to fill and mold your rice balls. Taking my cues from this recipe for rice balls, I used a small dish I had in my kitchen for the mold. I went the easy route on the filling and picked up some “Asian salad” and grilled teriyaki salmon at Whole Foods to use as my filling. My first attempt at molding a rice ball didn’t go very well because, in my haste to get one of these in my belly, I used tin foil to line the mold instead of plastic wrap. Not ok! Tin foil and sushi rice…stick together. A lot. SO, after I ditched the tin foil, I pressed rice into a plastic wrap lined bowl, added about a teaspoon of filling, then topped with more rice.  I folded the plastic wrap over the top and pressed down to mold the rice balls, then turned them out onto my plate.

A peek at the filling

Finished rice balls with a peek at the filling

They came out great! These snacks were fun, easy, and a great way to connect with one of important food-related cultural moments in When the Emperor Was Divine.  

This post is the third in a series that will explore the topics found in this year’s Wheelock summer reading selection, When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka.

“Now the names have been changed, but the story’s true…”

I first learned about the Japanese American Internment through an 8th grade English class while reading Farewell to Manzanar (J 940.547 H81), a memoir of one girl’s experience at the Manzanar camp and the aftermath.  I think I may have learned more about the Japanese American Internment through that book than in the US history class I had later taken  – and I had learned a lot of other things in that US History class.  I understand that given the limits of time and print space, not everything can be covered in depth.  You’d have to seek out other ways of exploring, learning, and enhancing what you’re just starting to know.

I would like to bring your attention to the below video set to the song, “Kenji”, by Fort Minor, a hip-hop project managed by rapper, Mike Shinoda. The song speaks of the Japanese immigrant experience during World War II and the Japanese American Internment through the eyes of the titular character, Kenji.  Interspersed are excerpts of interviews Shinoda held with his father, who was born in an internment camp, and his aunt.  The video isn’t the official music video but a project created by a student, Venus Ko.  The pictures chosen in this video came from the national archives and various digital libraries and hit on the bleak reality of a time that has seemed like a bad dream.  Watch it and compare what you hear, see, and feel in the music video to Wheelock’s summer reading book, Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine.

This post is the second in a series that will explore the topics found in this year’s Wheelock summer reading selection, When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka.

Elegy for the Young: YA Literature of War

Wheelock College’s summer reading book, When the Emperor Was Divine (813.54 O889w) by Julie Otsuka, details a fictional account of a Japanese-American family’s harrowing ordeal in 1942 California.  It chronicles lives torn apart by war though they be far from the battle front.

Otsuka’s work is lyrical and difficult, simple and profound.  So too is much of the literature written in and about war.  Here are a few Young Adult works (in no particular order) for those inspired to dwell longer with the pain and beauty of souls in conflict.

10. Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo (J 949.742 F47z)

A non-fiction narrative written by eleven-year old Zlata Filipovic, the book recounts Zlata’s everyday life with typical worries and concerns (piano lessons, friend’s parties, etc.) But as the Bosnian conflict rages, Zlata writes candidly of food shortages and her growing fear. Poignant and telling, Zlata’s story demonstrates what war looks like through the eyes of a child.

9.  Maus I:  A Survivor’s Take:  My Father Bleeds History

Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus is a masterful retelling of his own father’s true story of living as a Jew during the Nazi regime. Spiegelman casts the Jews as mice, the Germans as cats, the Americans as dogs, and still more nations as other animals. The words and images combine not for a comic book effect, but for a chilling look at history.

8.  Weedflower (J K113w)

Like When the Emperor Was Divine, Cynthia Kadohata’s Weedflower tells the story of a Japanese-American family after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Twelve-year old Sumiko and her brother Tak-Tak are separated from their family when their uncle and grandfather area taken to a prison camp.  Sumiko befriends a Mohave boy and learns that the prison camp is situated on land taken from the Mohave reservation.  Sumiko begins to see the Mohave’s plight as similar to that of those imprisoned unjustly.

Book covers of Zlata's Diary, Maus, and Weedflower

7.  When My Name was Keoko

Sun-hee and her older brother, Tae-yul, live in Japanese-occupied Korea with their parents in Linda Sue Park’s book When My Name was Keoko. Sun-hee and Tae-yul study Japanese and speak it at school; their real names, their own language, their flag, the folktales Uncle tells them are all part of the Korean culture that is now forbidden. When World War II comes to Korea, Sun-hee is horrified when Tae-yul enlists to fight in the Japanese army to protect his aging uncle from being recruited. The bonds of creed, nation, and family are all stretched to the point of breaking, as cultures war for the hearts and minds of the world.

6.  Forge (Seeds of America)

Forge, sequel to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, tells the story of Curzon, a runaway slave who encounters the British while traveling away from his southern captors.  Curzon witnesses the desperate conditions on the battlefields of Valley Forge and the deteriorating state of armies on both sides.  The narrative of this book weaves together a former slave’s narrative with scenes that balance bloody gore with the humanity of fallen soldiers.

5.  Fallen Angels (J M99f)

Walter Dean Myers’ Coretta Scott King Award winning novel Fallen Angels tells the tale of Perry, a Harlem teenager who enlists in the service in the late 1960s.  His platoon meets the Vietcong while fighting for the US in the Vietnam War.  Questions of race and nationalism come to the forefront as Perry quickly transitions from boy to man.  He searches for redemption for himself, his fellow soldiers, and for the country that sends young men of color on the most dangerous missions to likely die.

Covers of When my Name was Keiko, Forge, and Fallen Angels

4.  When Zachary Beaver Came to Town (J H74w)

Kimberly Willis Hold weaves a dense, lyrical narrative in When Zachary Beaver Came to Town.  The titular Zachary Beaver is the “Fattest Boy in the World,” and arrives in Toby’s sleepy Texas town as the Vietnam War rages half a world away.  When the brother of Toby’s best friend dies in the battle, the conflict rock’s Toby’s life in ways greater than Zachary Beaver’s arrival or the departure of Toby’s own mother.  Though the war is more background to this novel, the ways in which international crises play out in a body’s oridnary life shine through.

3.  My Brother Sam is Dead (J C69m)

A book sure to become a classic of children’s litearture, James Lincoln Collier’s My Brother Sam is Dead tells the story of Tim Meeker, a boy who has looked up to his brother Sam all his life.  Everyone thinks Sam to be intelligent and courageous until he joins the Contintental Army (to the horror of his loyalist father).  Tim begins to realize the horror of war, especially when Sam’s death comes from a tragic, unexpected side effect of the conflict.

2.  A Long Walk to Water (J P213L)

This trim novel by Linda Sue Park weaves together the stories of Nya, who walks eight hours a day to retrieve water for her family, and Salva, who leaves his village to find his lost family.  The two tales, one from 2008 and one from 1985, tell the story of troubled war-torn Sudan and the children it forgot.  Nya and Salva are determined survivors whose tales are as hopeful as they are compelling.

Covers of When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, My Brother Sam is Dead, and A Long Walk to Water

1.  The Diary of Anne Frank (949.2 F85d)

Of course any list of YA war literature has to include Anne’s work.  Like Zlata, Anne’s story is decidedly non-fiction.   Her words are distinctly those of a young girl, but those of one brighter, more poised, and more adept at describing the unfolding horror around her than almost any other.  Anne’s thoughts and feelings transcend just one time and one war.  They speak for and of the children who have been, throughout history, trapped in adults’ conflicts.

Anne Frank

This post is the first in a series that will explore the topics found in this year’s Wheelock summer reading selection, When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka.