Snow Falling on Cedars

Snow Falling on Cedars Themes

The American Dream

The "American Dream," the hope of political freedom and economic success, has inspired immigrants and their descendants for generations. This dream is illustrated in this novel through the strawberry fields: the lush, gem-like quality of the fruit and the celebration that surrounds its harvest. Overlaid on this dream is the ideal of communal harmony, illustrated by the coming together of the Japanese community with the native islanders, and the Japanese girl who is chosen each year to be the Strawberry Princess. More directly, the American Dream takes the form of owning one's own strawberry farm and cultivating its wealth with one's own hands and with one's children. Both Kabuo and Hatsue share this dream, and Kabuo's father had arranged for the dream to take root during his lifetime. The war, however, with the relocation of Japanese Americans, destroys that dream. By the end of the novel Carl, wanting to make amends for past wrongs, offers to finally sell the seven acres that have been in dispute. Carl and Kabuo would become neighbors again; they would leave the fishing aside; they would do the work they both loved.

Separation of Experience

The women in the novel describe a distance between themselves and their husbands, often attributing the rift to the lingering of war wounds and experiences in which they could not share, but only help to heal. The rift could reflect more than the distance between the sexes at that time; it may also reflect the inevitable, universal difficulty of communicating one's feelings to another. Kabuo, Carl Heine, and Ishmael are all described as having problems talking about the war, now that they feel permanently changed. The change involves a loss of innocence, and the men then seek to reintegrate their experiences with their loved ones through healthy marriages and family life.


The social power of prejudice is in evidence at the trial: the Japanese onlookers sit in the back of the room not because it is the law, but because they are socially compelled to sit there. Prejudice also drives the individuals involved in piecing together the story of what happened to Carl Heine to unfairly target Kabuo, although the facts all told could show that the death was accidental. Kabuo's trial, coming ten years after the end of the war, alludes strongly to the continued negative reaction to Japanese-Americans among other Americans. It was not the war alone that resulted in the relocation camps. Their existence blemished America's ideal of a "just society," demonstrating the country's prejudice against some of its own citizens. Like Kabuo, people suffering from the injustices of prejudice are--by definition--not given the benefit of the doubt.

Notably, prejudice is also communicated strongly in the other direction, by Hatsue's mother Fumiko. She insists on the presence of cultural differences and on her mistrust of white Americans, even though her reaction to them is also in part defensive. The novel points out that cultural exclusivity occurs across many cultural groups in America.

Prejudices also affect a person's interpretation of new information. The American government and American society generally during the war with respect to Japanese-Americans, and the community of San Piedro Island at Kabuo's trial, face the question of whether a suspect is more likely to have a good or an evil nature. In each case, prejudice leads the judges to assume that the suspect is evil and to interpret data in line with that suspicion.

The Cedar Tree and the Snowstorm

The title of the novel Snow Falling on Cedars indicates the importance of the cedar tree. This tree is the secret place where Ishmael and Hatsue discover love of a kind that transcends cultural differences. The place is part of the natural world, apart from human affairs and suspended in time. It represents innocence and hope. The snowstorm during Kabuo's trial, however, blankets the cedar trees, creates chaos in the community, and indicates a kind of catastrophe in the community. Things are at their most desolate, yet both Kabuo and Ishmael manage to find beauty in that snow, its strength, even its chaos. There is a sense of covering over, burial, and purification in the image of "snow falling on cedars." The natural course of human life reflects the seasons, flowing from innocence to a place were innocence is lost and then to be longed for. Even so, the trial of Kabuo is a human affair, while the snowstorm cannot be controlled by any human being.

The Earth and the Sea

San Piedro Island is divided into two worlds: the earth and the sea. Some people are born to be fishermen; some, farmers; others try to cross from one world to the other. On the sea, the fishermen look for their livelihood at night, and they share a strong, honest fraternity. They are considered the quintessential "good men" of the island. At the same time, the sea is lonely work; each person works as an individual. The sea also is fraught with chance, especially the possibility of loss. The earth, in contrast, is characterized by the strawberry fields, governed by the seasons and a colorful harvest, though a livelihood from the earth involves its own risks. Both Kabuo and Carl Heine are fishermen, but they long for lives where they farm strawberries and can stay at home at night with their wives.

Cultural Difference and Love

Cultural differences are challenged by the possibility of a love that can transcend them. This theme is dramatically portrayed in the relationship between Ishmael and Hatsue. Ishmael, the blind idealist, sees nothing other than a future life with Hatsue. Hatsue, on the other hand, is plagued by the awkward feeling that loving Ishmael erases part of the Japanese heritage she prizes. Her mother's pressures, of course, strengthen the divide in her mind and reinforce the importance of maintaining her Japanese identity.

Linked Fates and Independent Choice

The community is a web of relationships. The novel shows how each character's choices and experiences are deeply linked to others; the death of one person casts a shadow over all the rest. Etta Heine's actions lead to a host of repercussions for others, ultimately causing her son's death. Nevertheless, the powerful lesson of the novel's conclusion is that, despite the effects of these turns of fortune, there is room in the human heart for free will and independent choice. That is the place from which just action springs, and this is where a "just society" puts its faith when it asks jurors to deliberate.

Reading the Face

In the character development of Hatsue and Kabuo, we learn something of the Japanese ideal of maintaining composure and stillness. While the face remains still, the inner life may still be chaotic and in turmoil, yet a kind of harmony is achieved. Westerners tend to assume, on the other hand, that one often can read a person's thoughts and emotions on the face. This cultural difference presents a point of misunderstanding between Japanese-Americans and the white American community. Additionally, the foreignness of the Japanese face deepens the negative prejudice that culminates in the mass relocation of all residents of Japanese ancestry during the war.

Generational Inheritance

A key question for each character is the extent to which the qualities expressed by one's parents and family histories will play a role in one's own life. For Kabuo, the question centers on his samurai family lineage. For Carl, the question is whether he is his mother's or his father's son. For Ishmael, the question is whether he will follow his father's example. Finally, for Hatsue, the question regards her overall Japanese identity. This generation of characters is shown as partly a product of their families and their past experiences. At the same time, there is room for each to develop uniqueness. An individual's actions are informed by those who have come before, yet they can break free of the past and define a new future.

Moral Judgment

Questions of judgment and moral conduct permeate the novel. These questions center, first, on the revelation of the truth. For the jury, their responsibility is to discern the truth, being ready to declare guilt only if the guilt seems clear "beyond a reasonable doubt." In other words, they must consider the evidence objectively, crediting the depth of each point of view. In discerning what they believe to be true, they pass judgment. In Kabuo's case, however, prejudice interferes with strict scrutiny of the evidence, and the jurors are more ready to pass judgment than to offer Kabuo the benefit of the doubt. The question of moral action rests mainly on Ishmael who, in knowing the truth, bears a responsibility to act on it. Will he bring the truth to light? Or will he act in a manner that suits other goals?