Racism is the notion that ones own ethnic stock is superior to that of someone elses. Most all racism is as result of ignorance. Racism can range from a simple comment to make another human being feel inferior, to complex actions that make others feel unwelcome in society because of who they are. The theme of racism can be seen throughout literature. In the murder mystery novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson, many examples of wartime racism are evident.
The novel is set on San Piedro Island off the coast of Washington in the year 1954. It is a place of five thousand damp souls (5). Kabuo Miyamoto, a member of the island’s Japanese-American community, is on trial for the murder of Carl Heine, a fellow fisherman. Heine’s boat was found drifting one morning, with his body entangled in a net. While the death initially appeared accidental, bits of circumstantial evidence that seemed to implicate Kabuo Miyamoto accumulated. Etta Heine, Carls mother, unjustly cheated Kabuos family out of some land during the war while the Miyamotos were incarcerated in a “relocation camp” in California. This provided motive for the apparent murder. Also, Carls traumatic head wound appeared suggestive of a Japanese kendo blow. Furthermore, Carl Heine’s blood type was found on a wooden gaff on Kabuo Miyamoto’s boat.
As the trial proceeded, the story of Carl, Kabuo, and what happened that night gradually evolved, as did the tale of Ishmael Chambers, the local newspaper reporter. Ishmael had a love affair with Kabuo’s wife when they were both adolescents, just before the Japanese families were sent away in 1942. It was clear, however, that this was more than just a story of one man’s guilt or innocence; it is a story of a community’s fear and prejudice against the Japanese-Americans in the midst of a war. In fact, Guterson even tells the reader that Japanese people who were not American citizens were not even allowed to own property. We gotta take this All this stuff Theres a war on and thats the way it is Any old country stuff we have to take (196). Many of the things that the Japanese people were subjected to during the war were as result of ignorance.
Ignorance seems to be the clue to almost all of the occurrences of racism in the novel. During Kabuos trial, he chose to keep quiet instead of sticking up for himself because in his religion, it was better to die with honor. The white people did not understand his silence, so they chose to interpret it as admission of guilt. Also, Kabuo knew that theyre going to want to see me hang no matter what the truth is. They hate anyone who looks like the soldiers they fought (391). That quote seemingly holds a lot of truth. Much of World War II was waged against Germany, and their persecution of the Jews. Ironically, the most vocal bigot in this story (Etta Heine) is not only of German descent, but was actually born in Germany. Yet, there appears to be no prejudice against Germans on San Piedro Island as a result of the War. This provides a strong argument to the idea that white people were racist towards Japanese people also because physically they looked different. In all of World War II, no person of Japanese ancestry living in the United States, Alaska, or Hawaii was ever charged with any act of espionage or sabotage. This fact is at very least disturbing. Because of the internment camps, Hatsue and Kabuo are forced to spent their wedding night in a public room with only a curtain, and a radio to stop the details of their evening from traveling through the thin walls. They have no choice on what to wear, eat, or do.
It is not only the Japanese who remember the horrors of the camps and the war. Ishmael Chambers, the embittered war veteran who runs the San Piedro Review lost his childhood love when the Japanese were herded up and taken to the internment camps. Ishmael is not an objective witness however. He grew up with Carl and Kabuo. He lost an arm in Tarawa to Japanese machinegun fire. Most important, Hatsue was Ishmael’s boyhood love and it is apparent throughout the book that he has never come to terms with losing her. In the course of the trial he found himself torn between rancor and conscience, loath to forgive Hatsue yet unable to condemn her husband. Towards the end of the novel, Ishmael, Kabuo, and Hatsue seem to acknowledge their respective losses and recognize the sense of mutual indebtedness and need that may survive even the gravest injuries and betrayals–the way in which loss itself may become a kind of kinship. In a place as isolated as San Piedro, “identity was geography instead of blood” (206) and people made enemies reluctantly, knowing that “an enemy on an island is an enemy forever” (439). Ultimately, the snow that falls on the island of San Piedro falls on everyone who lives in it.
At the end of the book, Hatsue tells Ishmael that she does not love him, compared to her husband, whom she met and married in the course of a few short months. The reader is left wondering at this point if Hatsue is really being truthful or if she is merely saying that to honor her mothers wishes to marry a boy of her own kind. Mrs. Shigemura believed that white men carry in their hearts a secret lust for pure young Japanese girls (84). This effectively shows the stereotype the Japanese had of white people. However, there is one key difference, and that is throughout the novel, no matter how they are treated, the Japanese people are always respectful towards everybody.
In the novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson, the exotic sensuality of a Japanese woman, and the frustration of a white man in being prohibited from partaking of her by both his and her societies, are clearly illustrated. The story of a struggle against racism, and an imprisoned culture whose only crime was their face is retold. Yet in the end, one is left to contemplate, Why do people who have lived together in a community for years suddenly turn against one another?