Board members of a school district in southeastern Wisconsin rejected the use of “When the Emperor Was Divine,” a novel about Japanese American incarceration during World War II, for a high school class.
The Muskego-Norway school district’s curriculum committee had previously endorsed the 2002 novel by author Julie Otsuka for use in a 10th-grade accelerated English class.
The book, which is about the incarceration of a Japanese American family during World War II, was the recipient of the American Library Association’s Alex Award and the Asian American Literary Award.
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Parents who attended the meeting stated that board member Laurie Kontney said the book was selected for being “diverse.”
Ann Zielke, a school district resident, recalled asking Kontney why that would be an issue.
“[Kontney] said it can’t be chosen on that basis and I asked again if she had proof of that,” Zielke noted. “Which they don’t. She said it can’t be all about ‘oppression.’”
According to Zielke, school board president Chris Buckmaster and board member Terri Boyer, who serves on the Educational Service Committee, told her that the book would create a problem with “balance,” partly because of a 10-page excerpt from a nonfiction book about the concentration camps already included in the class curriculum.
As Buckmaster explained to Zielke, a more balanced approach would include a discussion of the Rape of Nanjing, the mass killing of Chinese civilians committed by the Japanese in 1937.
“So what he’s saying is, what you would need in this class is some sort of historical context of how horrible the Japanese were during World War II to understand the American government's viewpoint in interning the Japanese,” Zielke said.
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Prior to the meeting, over 130 parents and community members signed a petition supporting the selection.
“As residents of the world and heirs of its history, we must be given the opportunity to reflect on the past and point out the pain and suffering caused in the past,” the petition stated. “This reflection is meant to prepare ourselves to create a stronger country and world by rejecting outright the mistakes of the past.”
In a letter to the Muskego-Norway School Board, Japanese American Citizens League Executive Director David Inoue called such a “balanced” viewpoint racist.
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“The call for a ‘balanced’ viewpoint in the context of the incarceration of Japanese Americans is deeply problematic, and racist, and plays into the same fallacies the United States Army used to justify the incarceration,” he wrote. “We urge you to reconsider your position on the book’s use, understanding that while not every book and story can be told, to deny the use of one such as this under the pretenses you’ve given is wrong.”
Jordan Pavlin, Otsuka’s editor at publishing house Alfred A. Knopf, also wrote to the Muskego-Norway board, noting that the book “has been course adopted in hundreds of schools throughout the country, where it has become a staple of high school English classes.”
According to Pavlin, the novel “has the power not only to edify but to transform and deepen our perspectives; it enables us to look outward, beyond the confines of our circumscribed lives, with greater sympathy and understanding.”