Snow Falling on Cedars

Snow Falling on Cedars Summary and Analysis of Chapters 11-14

As Kabuo has lunch in his basement cell, he studies his face in the mirror, thinking of how Hatsue told him to be careful with his expression. His mind slips in the direction of the war, and he begins considering the Germans he had killed, one of them a boy. Nels had told him the same thing--to be careful of his face--for, in the courtroom, his face would be his fate (117). His father, however, had told him something different about his expression. According to Japanese tradition, the greater the composure, the greater the strength of the character revealed. But this paradox was not widely understood in America.

Kabuo had told Nels from the start that he had not killed Carl, and Nels responded that the prosecutor was aiming for conviction for murder in the first degree, as well as with the death penalty. Kabuo thought it was karmic retribution, since he had killed men during the war. He did not think, on some level, that he deserved any of his happiness.

The narrative flashes back to the period when Hatsue and Ishmael met in the cedar tree for four years during their youth. Ishmael, hopelessly in love, knew he wanted to marry her. Hatsue, on the other hand, continued to feel guilt about the relationship. When the people on the island heard news of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese community understood that their circumstances would become hard. Suspicions were already running high. Arthur attempted to call the people into check by writing about prejudice and hate and how America must remain, even in the face of war, "a just society." As a result, however, Arthur began to receive hate mail, accusing him of traitorous sympathies for the Japanese.

On February 4, 1942, two FBI agents arrived at the door of Hatsue's home and confiscated all items of a distinctly Japanese coloring--harmless things such as a bamboo flute, a kimono, a sword, even sheet music and Hatsue's scrapbook. When the agents searched outside of the house, they found dynamite, which they claimed Hisao ought to have turned in. He tried to explain that he needed it to clear land, but the dynamite became an excuse to arrest him. Along with many of the other Japanese men on the island, he was taken away to a camp. Fumiko gathered all of her daughters together, telling them that these were times to be strong. Hatsue responded with anger, saying that she wished she had never been born Japanese. To worry her mother further, Hatsue then contradicted herself with a claim that she knew who she was--though, in her mother's eyes, this was far from the truth.

On the cold winter's night before the day of the relocation, Hatsue traveled to the cedar tree, discovering, to her surprise, that she could not admit that she loved Ishmael. When Ishmael asked her to marry him, she responded with nothing. As they grew close to making love, she stopped him and fled from the tree, feeling suddenly that the relationship was wrong.


When Nels tells Kabuo that his fate will be determined by his face, he refers to the way people look into a person's face to gain a better sense of the person's character. "Character," in other words, can determine one's "fate," and the act of judging is essential. But when prejudice is involved, the judgment can be inaccurate or untrue. In Kabuo's case, the foreignness of his expression and his face reinforces the suspicion that he killed Carl, particularly once the story of the land deal comes to light. The reader, however, knows that the Japanese have been culturally taught to avoid outward displays of inner emotion--moreover, that this is how a person's true character becomes clear. White Americans, in contrast, misread this cultural expression, because they read faces with the presumption that the truth of a person's character can often be openly read in a person's face. The reader, aware of this contrast, is called upon to judge the case fairly, withholding judgment until more of the story comes to light.

At this point, Kabuo's father Zenhichi and the Miyamoto samurai heritage are worth attention. A good man and a good teacher, Zenhichi trains his son in kendo, passing along the family's samurai tradition, as well as the history of how Japanese society had erased the samurai's place in it, condemning him to a life of wandering. Many committed seppuku, the traditional method of suicide, in order to preserve their honor. The Japanese had gone so far as to harness the value of honor into a strength in fighting the war. Given this background, to what extent does Kabuo inherit these samurai values? To what extent is he willing to fight for redress of the wrong done to his family regarding the land?

The narrative emphasizes Arthur's role during the Japanese relocation. Arthur had written, through the fog of war, that the community should remember to rise above the irrationality of prejudice that had come to dominate their island. Insisting that America, a "just society," could not compromise its values on any account, the newspaper had filled provided a necessary voice of moral leadership (something the government had failed to do). In Arthur's view, "moral meticulousness" was more necessary now than ever.

The reader is also encouraged to wonder about Ishmael's role in the trial, in light of his encounters with Hatsue. As the war swarmed around them, Hatsue and Ishmael retreated into the cedar tree, away from the rest of the community. Their safe retreat comes to represent their shared innocence and youth. Hatsue, however, at the moment when their innocence and their youth might come of age into adulthood, concludes that her priorities must rest elsewhere. By clinging to the preciousness of the space, her personal American identity and her Japanese inherited identity collide. The circumstances require her to make a choice. As she faces her uncertainty, she watches the FBI agents confiscate the objects that represent her inheritance, in particular something deeply personal: her scrapbook. The scrapbook symbolizes how these residents of Japanese ancestry suffered highly personal losses during the relocation.

Hatsue realizes: "If identity was geography instead of blood--if living in a place was what mattered--then Ishmael was a part of her, inside of her, as much as anything Japanese. It was, she knew, the simplest kind of love, the purest form, untainted by Mind, which twisted everything" (155). Personal love and personal experience did not have to crowd out her cultural heritage, but the new wartime circumstances threatened the inherited part of Hatsue that, despite Ishmael's good intentions and blind idealism, could never become a part of his own future.