Snow Falling on Cedars takes place before, during, and after World War II on the fictional island of San Piedro off the coast of Washington in the United States. During this time, Japan’s alignment with Nazi Germany resulted in a tremendous amount of prejudice within the U.S. against its Japanese population. The bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese military in 1941 escalated these existing racial tensions. Fearing espionage and the possibility of future attacks, the government ordered the relocation of people of Japanese descent to internment camps across the western United States, which the novel gives a fictionalized account of. In Snow Falling on Cedars, Guterson suggests that prejudice towards Japanese people during WWII had a deep and lasting impact on American society, as demonstrated by the racially motivated trial and investigation that befalls Kabuo, a fisherman of Japanese descent, when he’s accused of the murder of Carl Heine.
One marked example of prejudice in the novel is the double standards applied to stoicism, or enduring life’s hardships quietly and without external signs of suffering. When the novel’s white characters are silent, it’s perceived as a marker of their inner strength and character. Guterson reveals early on that “on San Piedro the silent-toiling, autonomous gill-netter became the collective image of the good man. He who was too gregarious, who spoke too much and too ardently desired the company of others, their conversation and their laughter, did not have what life required.” Among the islanders, silence among white fishermen is seen in a positive light, a signal of quiet strength. The late Carl Heine is an example of one of these revered, silent white men. Art Moran, the sheriff, observes: “He was silent, yes, and grave like his mother, but the war had a part in that […].” Moran sees Carl’s unreadable demeanor as acceptable and even expected.
In contrast, the islanders are immediately suspicious of Kabuo’s silence, revealing their underlying prejudice against him as a man of Japanese descent. The prosecutor Alvin Hooks’s closing statement paints Kabuo as a “strong, cold, unfeeling man.” While islanders see silence as an indicator of good character in white men, Kabuo’s silence is somehow menacing, suggesting that that this is actually an issue of race. Hooks implores the jury to “Look into his eyes, consider his face, and ask yourselves what your duty is as citizens of this community.” When he asks the jury to “consider his face,” he draws the jury’s attention to Kabuo racial difference—not necessarily his stoic facial expression—playing on the prejudice he knows the jury holds. Guterson further exemplifies this double standard as the jurors convene after the lawyers’ closing statement to discuss the case’s verdict. One of the jurors remarks: “Wouldn’t put it past him, […] The man looks damn sly to me.” Like Carl Heine, Kabuo is a fisherman, a quiet man, and a World War II veteran. But unlike Carl, Kabuo’s race prevents him from receiving the benefit of the doubt.
Kabuo had initially believed his stoicism would make him appear favorably in court, but he soon recognizes his naiveté: “It had seemed to Kabuo that his detachment from this world was somehow self-explanatory, that the judge, the jurors, and the people in the gallery would recognize the face of a war veteran who had forever sacrificed his tranquility in order that they might have theirs. Now, looking at himself, scrutinizing his face, he saw that he appeared defiant instead.” The court’s racial bias prevents them from seeing Kabuo’s silence in a positive light.
Prejudice plays out outside of the murder trial, as well. Throughout the novel, ethnic German islanders’ potential loyalty to Nazi Germany is never even considered while the ethnically Japanese islanders’ allegiances are called immediately into question. Despite the fact that the Japanese islanders had been their fellow workers, neighbors, and friends, most white islanders feel no remorse when residents of Japanese decent are forced to uproot their lives and relocate to concentration camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, reasoning “that this exiling of the Japanese was the right thing to do,” and “that the Japanese must go for reasons that made sense: there was a war on and that changed everything.” In the eyes of many white islanders, race alone is enough to be skeptical of their Japanese neighbors. But not all of the white islanders were born in America; in fact, Carl Heine’s mother, Etta (who harbors immensely hateful prejudices toward the Japanese islanders) is from Germany and speaks with a thick accent. Following the logic of many white islanders, that “there was a war on and that changed everything,” ethnic Germans should be equally suspicious. Yet none of the prejudice directed at Kabuo, his family, and the rest of San Piedro’s Japanese population is extended to the island’s ethnic Germans. Islanders take for granted their German neighbors’ loyalty to the U.S. because these people are white and of European descent. In other words, because the German characters look more stereotypically American (that is, white) than the Japanese characters, it’s assumed that they are more committed to upholding American ideals and values.
The prejudice exhibited on San Piedro shows that racism is not an amorphous set of discriminatory beliefs, but is a serious warping of perspective that can result in real, lasting consequences. For Kabuo Miyamoto, the San Piedro residents’ racism results in a biased, unfair trial that robs him of many months of his life. The residents’ racist double standards and hypocrisies demonstrate the extent to which prejudice saturates the fabric of a society, even infiltrating its institutions and norms.
Racism and Prejudice ThemeTracker
Racism and Prejudice Quotes in Snow Falling on Cedars
All in all, Art decided, Carl Heine was a good man. He was silent, yes, and grave like his mother, but the war had a part in that, Art realized. Carl rarely laughed, but he did not seem, to Art’s way of thinking, unhappy or dissatisfied.
Thus on San Piedro the silent-toiling, autonomous gill-netter became the collective image of the good man. He who was too gregarious, who spoke too much and too ardently desired the company of others, their conversation and their laughter, did not have what life required.
The fishermen felt, like most islanders, that this exiling of the Japanese was the right thing to do, and leaned against the cabins of their stern-pickers and bow-pickers with the conviction that the Japanese must go for reasons that made sense: there was a war on and that changed everything.
The inside of the tree felt private. He felt they would never be discovered here. […] The rain afforded an even greater privacy; no one in the world would come this way and find them inside this tree.
What could he say to people on San Piedro to explain the coldness he projected? The world was unreal, a nuisance that prevented him from focusing on the memory of that boy, on the flies in a cloud over his astonished face […] the sound of gunfire from the hillside to the east—he’d left there, and then he hadn’t left. […] It had seemed to Kabuo that his detachment from this world was somehow self-explanatory, that the judge, the jurors, and the people in the gallery would recognize the face of a war veteran […]. Now, looking at himself, scrutinizing his face, he saw that he appeared defiant instead.
Sitting where he sat now, accused of the murder of Carl Heine, it seemed to him he’d found the suffering place he’d fantasized and desired. For Kabuo Miyamoto was suffering in his cell from the fear of his imminent judgment. Perhaps it was now his fate to pay for the lives he had taken in anger.
“Not every fact is just a fact,” he added. “It’s all a kind of…balancing act. A juggling of pins, all kinds of pins, that’s what journalism is about.”
“That isn’t journalism,” Ishmael answered. “Journalism is just the facts.”
“But which facts?” Arthur asked him. “Which facts do we print, Ishmael?”
“That is the fundamental difference, Hatsue. We bend our heads, we bow and are silent, because we understand that by ourselves, alone, we are nothing at all, dust in a strong wind, while the hakujin believes his aloneness is everything, his separateness is the foundation of his existence. He seeks and grasps, seeks and grasps for the separateness, while we seek union with the Greater Life—you must see that these are distinct paths we are traveling, Hatsue, the hakujin and we Japanese.”
She was of this place and she was not of this place, and though she might desire to be an American it was clear, as her mother said, that she had the face of America’s enemy and would always have such a face.
“None of those other things makes a difference. Love is the strongest thing in the world, you know. Nothing can touch it. Nothing comes close. If we love each other we’re safe from it all. Love is the biggest thing there is.”
Art Moran looked into the Jap’s eyes to see if he could discern the truth there. But they were hard eyes set in a proud, still face, and there was nothing to be read in them either way. They were the eyes of a man with concealed emotions, the eyes of a man hiding something. “You’re under arrest,” repeated Art Moran, “in connection with the death of Carl Heine.”
“I’m not talking about the whole universe,” cut in Hatsue. “I’m talking about people—the sheriff, that prosecutor, the judge, you. People who can do things because they run newspapers or arrest people or convict them or decide about their lives. People don’t have to be unfair, do they? That isn’t just part of things, when people are unfair to somebody.”
“The defense hasn’t made its case yet, but you’re all ready to convict. You’ve got the prosecutor’s set of facts, but that might not be the whole story—it never is, Ishmael. And besides, really, facts are so cold, so horribly cold—can we defend on facts by themselves?”
“What else do we have?” replied Ishmael. “Everything else is ambiguous. Everything else is emotions and hunches. At least the facts you can cling to; the emotions just float away.”
“I’m an American,” Kabuo cut in. “Just like you or anybody. Am I calling you a Nazi, you big Nazi bastard? I killed men who looked just like you—pig-fed German bastards. I’ve got blood on my soul, Carl, and it doesn’t wash off very easily. So don’t you talk to me about Japs, you big Nazi son of a bitch.”
The citizens in the gallery were reminded of photographs they had seen of Japanese soldiers. The man before them was noble in appearance, and the shadows played across the planes of his face in a way that made their angles harden […]. He was, they decided, not like them at all, and the detached and aloof manner in which he watched the snowfall made this palpable and self-evident.
“There are things in this universe that we cannot control, and then there are the things we can. Your task as you deliberate together on these proceedings is to ensure that you do nothing to yield to a universe in which things go awry by happenstance. Let fate, coincidence, and accident conspire; human beings must act on reason.”