Friday, November 23, 2012

Eyes of the Emperor by Graham Salisbury

Eddy Okubo, 16, may have parents who were born in Japan, but he was born in Hawaii and considers himself strictly American.  Eddy is a smart kid and has already graduated from high school.  So far, though, all has been doing is helping his father out with his boat building business, not really know what he wants to do in life.

Now, Eddy thinks enlisting in the US Army might be something he would like to do after hearing about it from his friends, Chik and Cobra, both 18, who have just been drafted.  Trouble is that his Pop has other plans for him - he wants Eddy to go to Japan to learn about his culture and even expects Eddy to be loyal to the Emperor.  Pop's attitude has caused many clashes between Eddy and his father, who still holds on dearly to his Japanese heritage.

But, with Japan already at war, both are aware that things are heating up on the island for the Japanese who live there and it is no real surprise when the boat they have just finished building is set on fire and sinks.  In an attempt to prove his loyalty as an American citizen, Eddy forges his birth certificate and joins the army.  No sooner does he announce this at home, and his father stops speaking to him.

Seven weeks later, on his first leave, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor.  Eddy's father sees the sneak attack as cowardly and shameful and tells Eddy "No make shame for this family.  You go. Fight for your country.  Die, even, but die with honor." (pg 41)  Eddy races back to his barracks, where soldiers are being loaded into trucks, everyone except for Eddy, Chik and Cobra and about 600 other island boys.  Instead, they are given tools and told to dig trenches on the base, and for the first time, they are referred to as "Japs" by their new Lieutenant.  Worse still, as they dig the trenches, machine guns are pointed at their backs, ready to shoot should they make one wrong move.

From then on, life in the army changes for Eddy and his friends.  No longer treated like soldiers, they become "grunts" and "Japs," isolated from the rest of the soldiers.  Eventually, the small number of Japanese Americans are separated from the rest of the island boys and forced to live in tents near the shoreline, again with machine guns pointed their way at all times.  Their job - to shoot any Japanese soldiers who might try to land or be shot themselves.

After a while, they are sent to the mainland, and while traveling to Camp McCoy, WI, they see other Japanese Americans who have been herded into internment camps.  At Camp McCoy, Eddy's unit is finally given the designation the Hundredth Infantry Battalion and for once, their immediate superiors are also of Japanese descent.

After a short stay at Camp McCoy, around 25 members of the Hundredth are transferred again.  A Swiss émigré had managed to convince President Roosevelt that dogs could be trained to sniff out enemy Japanese because they have a different smell than non-Japanese people.  Eddy and his friends are picked to go the Cat Island, MS, where they must participate in the training of army dogs by becoming the "hate bait" necessary to teach the dogs to hate and kill Japanese soldiers under the direction of the Swiss émigré.

This is the longest and by far the most disturbing part of Eyes of the Emperor.  And as I read it, it boggled my mind to think that we could treat human beings with such complete disregard for their lives, since much of what they were forced to do is insulting, humiliating and dangerous.  But remembering his father's words, Eddy always does what he is ordered to do - with honor.

In his very informative Author's Note, Salisbury writes that Eddy's story is based on real events and interviews he had with soldiers from the Hundredth Infantry Battalion Separated (as they were referred to, meaning separated from the rest of the army).  Some of the characters in the story are real men who actually experienced the events Salisbury writes about.  In addition, many of the men in the battalion eventually went on to distinguish themselves in battle when they were finally allowed to do what they had signed up for.  In fact, Salisbury points out that every man who was on Cat Island received at least one purple heart and one bronze star.  Salisbury has written a sensitive, perceptive yet hard hitting novel dealing with xenophobia and how it is experienced by those it is directed at simply because of how they look.  Indeed, this novel resonates even today.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was bought for my personal library

A PDF teaching guide for Eyes of the Emperor and Under the Blood Red Sky, both by Graham Salisbury is available here.

The experience of one Japanese American soldier, Ray Nosak, who was forced to participate in the Cat Island experiment can be found here.


  1. I bet that Japanese people at the time did have a different smell, not because they're Japanese but because their cuisine was so much different than ours. They say that the Vietcong could smell an American a mile away.

  2. Maybe that's true, but the experiment was a failure as far as teaching dogs to smell the enemy was concerned and for other reasons as well.

  3. This book sounds very interesting. I recently read a Dear America book- The Fences Between Us and it discussed the way Japanese Americans were treated during the war. I think I could learn a lot from the book you reviewed. Thanks for sharing.

    1. This is an interesting book, as is The Fences Between Us. They both say a lot about how people view other people who are different from them during a war. And it introduces a wartime program most people know nothing about - including myself.

  4. I think this is a must read. What a powerful story.

  5. Such an important book. And so very necessary for people to know about. For myself though, I couldn't bear to read it. Did the same thing happen to German/Americans in the US during the war?