Anchor Books, 2003

“A crystalline debut novel . . . Otsuka has lyric gifts and narrative poise, a heat-seeking eye for detail and effortless ability to empathize with her characters.”
–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

On a sunny day in Berkeley, California, in 1942, a woman sees a sign in a post office window, returns to her house, and matter-of-factly begins to pack her family’s possessions. Like thousands of other Japanese Americans they have been reclassified, virtually overnight, as enemy aliens and are about to be uprooted from their homes and sent to a dusty internment camp in the Utah desert.

In this lean and devastatingly evocative first novel, Julie Otsuka tells the story of one Japanese American family from five flawlessly realized points of view—the mother receiving the order to evacuate; the daughter on the long train ride to the camp; the son in the desert encampment; the family’s return to their home; and the bitter release of the father after almost four years in captivity. When the Emperor Was Divine is a work of enormous power that makes a shameful episode of our history as immediate as today’s headlines.


“Exceptional. . . . Otsuka skillfully dramatizes a world suddenly foreign. . . . [Her] incantatory, unsentimental prose is the book’s greatest strength.”
The New Yorker

“[A] gentle, understated novel . . . A story that has more power than any other I have read about this time.”
Los Angeles Times

“While you’re reading this accomplished novel, what impresses you most is how much Otsuka is able to convey—in a line, in a paragraph—about her characters’ surroundings, about their states of mind, and about the mood of our country at a time of crisis.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Otsuka’s novel grabs you with its first sentence and doesn’t release its grip until the last page. . . [Her] writing cuts like jagged glass.”
Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Shockingly brilliant . . . It will make you gasp . . . Undoubtedly one of the most effective, memorable books to deal with the internment crisis . . . The maturity of Otsuka’s . . . prose is astonishing.”
The Bloomsbury Review

“The novel’s voice is hushed as a whisper . . . An exquisite debut . . . potent, spare, crystalline.”
–Francine Prose, O Magazine

“Prose so cool and precise that it’s impossible not to believe what [Otsuka] tells us or to see clearly what she wants us to see.”
USA Today

“Spare, incisive . . . The mood of the novel tensely reflects the protagonists’ emotional state: calm surfaces above, turmoil just beneath.”
The Boston Globe

“Heartbreaking, bracingly unsentimental . . . raises the specter of wartime injustice in bone-chilling fashion. . . The novel’s honesty and matter-of-fact tone in the face of inconceivable injustice are the source of its power . . . Dazzling.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Otsuka . . . demonstrates a breathtaking restraint and delicacy throughout this supple and devastating first novel.”
Booklist (starred review, Booklist “Editor’s Choice,” Booklist “Top 10 First Novels”)

“At once delicately poetic and unstintingly unsentimental.”
St. Petersburg Times

“A beautiful little book . . . Otsuka’s writing is accomplished, absorbing, and tight. Her spare prose is complemented by precise details, vivid characterization, and a refusal to either flinch or sentimentalize.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“A story that is elegiac and representative . . . When the Emperor Was Divine carves out its own special place in style and substance. The book is shaped like a parable: Short, unadorned sentences say less while signifying more . . . Stunning economy . . . An exceptional piece of fiction.”
Chicago Tribune

“With a matter-of-fact brilliance, and a poise as prominent in the protagonist as it is in the writing, When the Emperor Was Divine is a novel about loyalty, about identity, and about being other in America during uncertain times.”
–Nathan Englander

“Her voice never falters, equally adept at capturing horrific necessity and accidental beauty. Her unsung prisoners of war contend with multiple front lines, and enemies who wear the faces of neighbors and friends. It only takes a few pages to join their cause, but by the time you finish this exceptional debut, you will recognize that their struggle has always been yours.”
–Colson Whitehead

“Remarkable. The economy and concision of the writing make the impact all the more powerful – an extraordinary evocation of an episode of American history that is frequently ignored. It is a fine achievement by any standards – and as a first novel quite outstanding.” 
– Penelope Lively

“Spare yet poignant. . . . clear, elegant prose.”
Library Journal

“A timely examination of mass hysteria in troubled times. . . . Otsuka combines interesting facts and tragic emotions with a steady, pragmatic hand.”
The Oregonian

“An unforgettable first novel written with haunting imagery . . . The clarity of the sparse prose is astonishing.”
Asian Week

“A book that is powerful in its simplicity, provocative in what it asks us to imagine.”
Arizona Republic

“A powerful portrait of a terrible endurance . . . A terrific first novel, and . . . a timely one, too.”
The Times (UK), Book of the Week

“A blistering first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine vindicates the suffering of the Japanese in America.”
The Times Literary Supplement (UK)

“Julie Otsuka has transformed both history and personal tragedy into art. Her short, beautifully written book is also an indictment of collective hysteria.”
The Sunday Telegraph (UK)

“Honest and gloriously written, this debut novel will haunt you long after you’ve turned the final page. Totally brilliant.”
Elle Magazine (UK)