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Thursday, March 24, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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"Seattle Reads" picks Otsuka's "Emperor" as 2005 choice

Seattle Times book critic

Coming up

"Seattle Reads" films, events


"Conscience and the Constitution" screens at 2 p.m. Saturday and "Rabbit in the Moon" screens at 2 p.m. April 10, both at the Seattle Public Library, Microsoft Auditorium, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle (free; 206-386-4636 or www.spl.org). Director Frank Abe will be at the screening of "Conscience and the Constitution." Co-producer Chizuko Omori will be at the screening of "Rabbit in the Moon."

Other events related to "Seattle Reads 'When the Emperor Was Divine' " can be found at www.bcc.ctc.edu/liberalarts/bccreads.html or call 425-564-2550, and at www.densho.org or call 206-320-0095.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's order, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that all West Coast Japanese Americans be "evacuated" to internment camps far from the coast is commonly regarded as one of the most flagrant errors of judgment the U.S. made during World War II. And one of the most striking novels to address the effect that FDR's order had on ordinary lives is Julie Otsuka's "When the Emperor Was Divine" (Anchor Books).

This 2002 novel traces, in terse but eloquent fashion, the fortunes of a Californian family of Japanese descent from the spring of 1942 — when they are forced from their home in Berkeley — to the spring of 1946, when, much changed, they are reunited. Shifting point-of-view with each chapter, Otsuka explores the spoken and muted character essentials of mother, father, daughter and son. With her canny gift for compression and her intuitive feel for a child's-eye view of family disruption, Otsuka neatly sidesteps any checklist predictability in the book. It's a tremendous pleasure, then, to spread the news that the Seattle Public Library's "Seattle Reads" series (formerly known as "If All of Seattle Read the Same Book") has chosen "When the Emperor Was Divine" as its 2005 selection. The selection was made in conjunction with Seattle Central Community College and Bellevue Community College's BCC Reads! program. Other participants in this community event are Bainbridge Public Library and Densho, a Seattle-based organization dedicated to preserving eyewitness accounts of the internment camps.

Event organizer Chris Higashi, associate director of the Washington Center for the Book at The Seattle Public Library, notes that Seattle City Librarian Deborah Jacobs has been a particular champion of the book. "The themes are so relevant to our own community and current times," Higashi said in a phone interview last week.

Otsuka, a New York resident whose parents and grandparents were interned during the war, will come to town May 2-5. In the meantime, the Seattle Public Library is screening two films about internment-camp history that serve as useful introductions to anyone unfamiliar with this unfortunate chapter of our local past.

First up is Frank Abe's "Conscience and the Constitution" (2000), about a group of draft-age internees who refused to volunteer for military service or, later, to be drafted, until their and their families' civil rights were restored. Abe, a former senior reporter for KIRO Newsradio and KIRO-TV, does a fine job of tracing how this draft-resistance arose, and how it became such a bitterly divisive issue within the Japanese-American community. The Japanese American Citizens League — which adapted more of a "my country right or wrong" attitude to internment and military service — was particularly harsh in its judgment of the draft resisters.

It would be more than 50 years before any reconciliation between the JACL and the draft resisters was effected. The eyewitnesses in this hourlong film are eloquent, wry and level-headed as they make their case about the constitutional principles at stake. Abe has done an admirable job of illuminating the issues behind the divisiveness. The film screens at 2 p.m. Saturday. Abe will be present for a post-film discussion.

Emiko Omori's 1999 film "Rabbit in the Moon" strikes more intensely personal notes than "Conscience and the Constitution" (Omori attributes her mother's death at age 34 from bleeding ulcers, one year after her release from camp, directly to the stress of the family's internment). But the film also offers a broad overview of the internment-camp experience, including family breakdown within the camps, the complete lack of any due process for internees, and the controversies raised by a 1943 loyalty questionnaire (a foretaste of McCarthy-era anti-Communist loyalty oaths, one interviewee says).

"Rabbit" draws on extensive archival footage, including U.S. propaganda films aimed at the general public (one says the camps offer "all the comforts of home"). Omori also briefly makes the point that in Hawaii, where no one of Japanese ancestry was interned, the hard-pressed U.S. military netted close to 10,000 Japanese-American volunteers. The tricks the authorities played with language to make an unpalatable experience go down more smoothly are neatly caught by Omori: "It wasn't a jail, but an assembly center. ... We weren't prisoners, but evacuees."

"Rabbit in the Moon" screens at 2 p.m. April 10 at the downtown library. Omori's sister and film co-producer Chizuko Omori of Seattle, will lead a post-film discussion. Chizuko is one of the film's more dryly devastating interviewees, and should inspire some pointed conversation.

Numerous other events are associated with "Seattle Reads 'When the Emperor Was Divine,' " including "Executive Order 9066: Fifty Years Before and Fifty Years After," a Wing Luke Asian Museum exhibition running April 25 to May 28 in the downtown library's lobby and gallery. For a full schedule of what's going on, go to www.spl.org or call 206-386-4636.

For Bellevue Community College's BCC Reads! events, go www.bcc.ctc.edu/liberalarts/bccreads.html or call 425-564-2550.

Densho is compiling the most extensive list of Otsuka-related events. You can learn more about them at www.densho.org or 206-320-0095.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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