This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by professional essay writers.

The Issue of Racial Prejudice in Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

downloadDownload printPrint

Remember! This is just a sample.

You can get your custom paper by one of our expert writers.

Get custom essay

121 writers online

Download PDF

Born and raised in Seattle, Washington, David Guterson stands most recognized by his critically acclaimed book Snow Falling on Cedars, composed over a period of ten years while he taught school. Snow Falling on Cedars, set in the fictional isolated village of San Piedro in the Pacific Northwest, focuses on the trial of local fisherman Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese American charged with the murder of Carl Heine Jr. after the sheriff found Carl dead, tangled in his own fishing net with a suspicious headwound. With the trial underway, memories of a forbidden love affair between two teenagers, Ishmael Chambers and Hatsue Imada, who later becomes Kabuo’s wife, still haunts the Island, along with memories of World War II and what happened to the Japanese inhabitants of San Piedro Island as they were sent away while the hakujin, white people, watched. The events, opinions, and emotions of the novel concerning the trial relate to the racial tensions in the community, caused by previous prejudices and the hysteria surrounding World War II. Intolerance of interracial relationships also shapes much of the novel, in which the dehumanization of the Japanese-American population leads to hatred and racial discrimination. Throughout the course of the novel, Guterson manifests the racial prejudices in the Pacific Northwest, fostering the debate of good versus the evils of racism and its impact on the inhabitants of the Island of San Piedro.

Guterson focuses on the exigence that started the building of prejudices in the Pacific Northwest during World War II and provides an impetus for the racism that impacted the inhabitants of his novel. According to the History Channel’s article on Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, hundreds of Japanese fighter planes descended on Pearl Harbor, a U.S. Navy Base near Honolulu, Hawaii, destroying virtually 20 American Naval vessels, as well as eight battleships and more than 300 airplanes. Over 2,400 Americans died during the attack. After the events in Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt demanded that Congress declare war on Japan.

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor caused the U.S. War Department to suspect that Japanese Americans could act as espionage agents, even though the department lacked any hard evidence to support the claims. At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, “approximately 125,000 Japanese Americans lived on the mainland in the United States”. Political leaders urged U.S. forces to round up Japanese Americans, specifically those living along the West Coast, and began relocating them in detention centers. On March 31, 1942, the government ordered all Japanese Americans living along the West Coast to report to control stations and to register the names of every member of their family. They were told when and where to report for removal to an internment camp.

Through a flashback structure, Guterson introduces the historical events of the war and its impact on the Japanese Americans living in San Piedro. Throughout the novel, Guterson draws parallels between events during the war and the current events involving the murder and the islanders. In the book, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, “fifteen transports of the U.S. War Relocation Authority took all of San Piedro’s Japanese Americans to the ferry terminal in Amity Harbor” corresponding to the government ordering all Japanese Americans to report to these camps during the nonfictional war.

While the Japanese inhabitants of the island were brutally taken away and loaded onto ships to be transported to the internment camps, their white neighbors just watched “this exorcising of the Japanese from their midst”. They felt as though “this exiling of the Japanese was the right thing to do” because of the war and the change in sentiment towards the Japanese inhabitants. The war “forever altered these relationships”. Whether motivated by fear or something else, the white civilians stood by and watched the innocent Japanese residents be taken away, and they did nothing to prevent or stop it. By the islanders not standing up for the innocent Japanese inhabitants, the beginning of the evils of racism conquering the good launches.

Once the war ends and Japanese inhabitants return to the Island, their relationships with the other civilians change. The Islanders begin referring to the Japanese American population as “Japs” reflecting the anti-Japanese views that the civilians held during World War II. Similarly when the Japanese Americans first came to the island of San Piedro in the early 1880’s in search of employment and opportunity in the United States, they found work in the lumber mill in the nearby community. The Japanese immigrants weren’t referred to by name, but instead as “Jap Number 1, Jap Number 2, Jap Number 3,” similar to how the those of Japanese descent were referred to in their internment camp during World War II. Racist labels were used to distinguish Japanese immigrants in the work place. The numbering system in the 1880’s also foreshadowed the names used to track Japanese and Japanese American internees. Through the racism prevalent after the war, the white inhabitants continue to show that the evils of racism and hatred of others still outweigh that of good.

In addition to the racism that grew during the war and its effect on the Island inhabitants, Guterson also extends the racial prejudices exhibited in the trial through witnesses and past relationships. When Carl Heine’s dead body resurfaces entangled his boat’s fishing net, the sheriffs initially presume the incident to be an accident, but after Horace Whaley, the coroner, discovers a small fracture on Carl’s skull, Kabuo Miyamoto becomes a person of interest. In his report, the coroner reveals that a “narrow, flat object about two inches wide” caused the wound. Based on his own experiences in the Pacific during the war, Horace infers that the suspicious fracture of Carl’s head could have been a result of a Japanese field solider “trained in the art of kendo,” leading the sheriffs to believe that someone of Japanese descent committed the murder. Horace advises the sheriffs to start looking “for a Jap with a bloody gun butt — a right-handed Jap, to be precise’. Kabuo Miyamoto becomes the lead suspect in the case, with the primary reason being the racial prejudices against the Japanese Americans, proving that after World War II, it seems as though there is no good left in the Islanders and that the evils of racism have taken over.

The prejudices and evils of racism exhibited before and after the war carry over into the trial. During the trial, twenty-four islanders of Japanese ancestry sit in the back of the court room “no law compelled them to take only these rear seats,” but they had done so instead because San Piedro required it of them without calling it a law”. 

We’re sly and treacherous…. You can’t trust a Jap, can you? This island’s full of strong feelings, Mr. Gudmundsson, people who don’t often speak their minds but hate on the inside all the same. They don’t buy their berries from our farms, they won’t do business with us. You remember when somebody pitched rocks through all the windows at Sumida’s greenhouses last summer? Well, now there’s a fisherman everybody liked well enough who’s dead and drowned in his net. They’re going to figure it makes sense a Jap killed him. They’re going to want to hang me no matter what the truth is.

Even during Kabuo’s testimony, the prosecutor Alvin Hook claims that Kabuo “is a hard man to trust” because of his background. In spite of Kabuo’s testimony, the ‘citizens in the gallery’ still view Kabuo as Japanese and not American. They come to the conclusion Kabuo “is not like them at all’ because of his physical appearance. The racist views of the white citizens in the courtroom still cling to the evil stereotypes of Japanese and Japanese Americans.

A key example of an islander exhibiting the evils of racism over good involves witness for the trial Etta Heine, Carl Heine’s mother, who had a clear vendetta against the Miyamotos. The testimony of Etta, a German immigrant, centers around her past interaction and relationships with the Miyamoto family, specifically Zenhichi Miyamoto, Kabuo’s father. Zenhichi Miyamoto had orchestrated an informal purchase agreement with the Heines to buy part of their land for the Miyamotos’ farm. Etta had advised her husband not to enter into this agreement with the Miyamotos, whom she did not trust because they were Japanese. Her anti-Japanese prejudice becomes apparent in a flashback to a disagreement she had with Carl Sr. over his choice to sell Zenhichi seven acres of land. She told Carl Heine Sr. that they were “not such paupers as to sell to Japs”. After Carl Sr.’s death in 1944, Etta decides to nullify the contract, without telling the Miyamotos and eventually returns the money to Zenhichi that he had paid up until his family’s internment during World War II, and she sells the seven acres to a white farmer, Ole Jergensen. Much to Kabuo’s surprise, when he returns from the war, he pays a visit to Etta and finds out that she has sold the land. They argue, resulting in Etta feeling threatened and going so far as to ask her son, Carl, to keep an eye on Kabuo. Etta’s testimony serves as the first link “in a decade-long chain of events that has now apparently culminated in Carl’s death at the hands of Kabuo,” proving that evil outweighs good in this instance.

Carl’s wife, Susan Marie Heine, also continues the debate of good versus evil after the war. Serving as a key witness in the trial, described as having “the air of an unostentatious young German baroness,” she recounts a conversation with her late husband Carl Heine. Her physical appearance and race serves as a juxtaposition with Kabuo’s Japanese characteristics. In her testimony, Susan Marie recounts the day that Kabuo visited her husband to discuss the sale of the controversial seven acres. Once the two men return, Susan Marie asks Carl about the nature of Kabuo’s unexpected visit. Carl feels conflicted about selling the land; he “doesn’t hate Japs, but he doesn’t like them either”. Despite Carl’s apparent prejudice towards those of Japanese descent, Susan Marie reminds Carl that he and Kabuo “were childhood friends”. Carl emphasizes that the relationship only existed “before the war came along,’ and that things had changed. Susan Marie Heine serves as an example of the fact that good nature still exists in the inhabitants of the island, since she refuses to submit to racist preconceptions of Japanese in order to offer a thorough and honest testimony. Susan Marie could have made an argument against Kabuo to boost the case against her husband’s alleged killer, but instead she chooses good by telling the truth.

Despite the racial prejudices revealed during World War II and the later trial, the forbidden love between Ishmael Chambers and Hatsue Imada strives to overcome the evils of racism and bigotry. The moment Ishmael Chambers lays eyes on Hatsue Imada at the Strawberry Festival of 1941 as a young boy, he instantly falls in love, despite Hatsue being Japanese and Ishmael white. Hatsue initially fights the temptation to be with Ishmael, because she knows her parents would disapprove, but she eventually gives in and enters into a secret relationship. Each day, the two meet in a hollowed-out cedar tree hidden deep in the forest that provides a refuge from social restrictions and prejudices. Ishmael’s memories center around his relationship with Hatsue, their time spent together in the hollow tree, and his intensifying feelings for her. He has thoughts of marrying Hatsue after they graduated, even though Hatsue’s mother wants her to ‘marry a boy of her own kind, a Japanese boy from a good family’. Offering a different example of the evils of racism, Hatsue’s mother proves that Japanese Islanders can also commit acts of bigotry. By refusing to let Hatsue and Ishmael be together, Hatsue’s mother demonstrates that the debate of good versus evil exists in almost any situation.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, thoughts of what would happen to Hatsue’s family and the community begin to surface. Ishmael believes that the nation of Japan embodies the enemy, not the Japanese Americans, blaming Japan. But Hatsue does not see it the way that Ishmael views the situation. She says,

“Look at my face. Look at my eyes, Ishmael. My face is of the people who did it — don’t you see what I mean? My face — it’s how the Japanese look. My parents came to San Piedro from Japan. My mother and father, they hardly speak English. My family is in bad trouble now. Do you see what I mean? We’re going to have trouble”.

Hatsue’s declaration highlights that Ishmael does not view her as “Japanese,” proving that the distinction between Japanese and Japanese Americans continues to be often overlooked by the larger social order. He presumes that these world events would have no effect on their relationship because of his faith in their relationship and blindness to the prejudices, but eventually the Imadas, along with the other Japanese inhabitants, must be taken away to the internment camps. Ishmael and Hatsue write each other, but once Hatsue’s mother finds the letter, their relationship ends. By refusing to let Hatsue and Ishmael be together, Hatsue’s mother demonstrates that the debate of good versus evil stands true in almost any situation.

Continuing with the debate of the evils of racism, only after the relationship ends does Ishmael start to see the racial differences and buy into the prejudices. While under the influence of morphine after being injured in the war, Ishmael composes a letter to Hatsue. He tells her that he had been sent to “kill people that looked like her” and that he hates her “with everything in his heart”. The horror stories of the war cause Ishamel to reject the ideals he held as an adolescent. This love he had for Hatsue in spite of her race has been replaced by bitterness and an emotional manifestation of his inability to reconcile the events of the past. Once the war ends and Ishmael returns, he has changed and even begins to refer to the Japanese by the racial slur of “Japs.” Even Ishmael, who vowed he would always love Hatsue despite her race, proves that the debate of good versus the evils of racism does exist, even in unanticipated circumstances.

But Ishmael demonstrates that good can prevail, even when it appears that evil has triumphed over the good. When searching in the lighthouse, Ishmael discovers the maritime records for September 15 and 16, 1954, including the records from the night of Carl Jr.’s death. This information, if revealed, would exonerate Kabuo. Ishmael pays a visit to his mother, Helen Chambers, to discuss details of the murder and how Ishmael still believes Kabuo killed Carl. He realizes that his past prejudices prompted his belief in Kabuo’s guilt. According to Ishmael:

None of it the stereotype of the Japanese as ‘sly’ and ‘treacherous’ is fair or true, but at the same time I find myself thinking about these stereotypes whenever I look at Miyamoto sitting there straight ahead. They the U.S. government could have used his face for one of their propaganda films — he’s that inscrutable. 

At first, Ishmael decides not to present the evidence, but instead writes an article defending Kabuo. Eventually, after rereading Hatsue’s letter to him, Ishmael told the truth. By taking the stand, Ishamel began to reconcile past wrongs committed against the Japanese American community. Ishmael’s decision represents a person’s good nature prevailing over hatred, proving that anyone can overcome the evils of racism.


  • Guterson, David. Snow Falling on Cedars. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1994. Print.
  • Editors. “Pearl Harbor.”, A&E Television Networks, 29 Oct. 2009,
  • Kenney, Susan. “Their Fellow Americans.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Oct. 1994,
  • The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Japanese American Internment.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 3 May 2019,
  • Yogi, Stan. ‘A Friendship Shattered by War.’ Novels for Students, edited by Elizabeth Thomason, vol. 13, Gale, 2002. Literature Resource Center, b28. Accessed 25 Oct. 2019. Originally published in San Francisco Chronicle, 1 Jan. 1995, p. 2.

Remember: This is just a sample from a fellow student.

Your time is important. Let us write you an essay from scratch

experts 450+ experts on 30 subjects ready to help you just now

delivery Starting from 3 hours delivery

Find Free Essays

We provide you with original essay samples, perfect formatting and styling

Cite this Essay

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below:

The Issue Of Racial Prejudice In Snow Falling On Cedars By David Guterson. (2021, Jun 09). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 27, 2022, from
“The Issue Of Racial Prejudice In Snow Falling On Cedars By David Guterson.” GradesFixer, 09 Jun. 2021,
The Issue Of Racial Prejudice In Snow Falling On Cedars By David Guterson. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 27 Jun. 2022].
The Issue Of Racial Prejudice In Snow Falling On Cedars By David Guterson [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2021 Jun 09 [cited 2022 Jun 27]. Available from:
copy to clipboard

Sorry, copying is not allowed on our website. If you’d like this or any other sample, we’ll happily email it to you.

    By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.


    Attention! This essay is not unique. You can get a 100% Plagiarism-FREE one in 30 sec

    Receive a 100% plagiarism-free essay on your email just for $4.99
    get unique paper
    *Public papers are open and may contain not unique content
    download public sample

    Sorry, we could not paraphrase this essay. Our professional writers can rewrite it and get you a unique paper.



    Please check your inbox.

    Want us to write one just for you? We can custom edit this essay into an original, 100% plagiarism free essay.

    thanks-icon Order now

    Hi there!

    Are you interested in getting a customized paper?

    Check it out!
    Don't use plagiarized sources. Get your custom essay. Get custom paper

    Haven't found the right essay?

    Get an expert to write you the one you need!


    Professional writers and researchers


    Sources and citation are provided


    3 hour delivery