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Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson gives readers an idea of what it was like to be Japanese in the 1940’s and 50’s. In our nation at that time, much of the population felt that Japanese and Japanese Americans could not be trusted. Americans did not like the immigrants coming here and taking jobs that were once theirs. Last, of course, the evacuation and containment of the Japanese and even Japanese American citizens made it clear that America did not trust them.
Prejudice against Japanese and Japanese Americans was most prominent in the western states, more specifically California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, and Nevada. These also happen to be the states most populated by people of Japanese descent. The disproportion can be seen in a poll taken in December of 1942 by the American Institute of Public Opinion. When asked “Do you think the Japanese who were moved inland from the Pacific Coast should be allowed to return to the Pacific Coast when the war is over?” Seventeen percent nationally said they “Would allow none to return,” whether they were citizens or not. In the western states, nearly twice as many felt this way, an astonishing 31 percent (Merrick 207). This data does not show, however, whether the inlanders were less prejudiced or merely wanted to send the Japanese back to the West. It seems the war was an excuse to lock these people away for a while. Discrimination existed long before the war began with a swift attack on Pearl Harbor. Interestingly, Hawaii had few racial problems, despite being at the site of the devastation.
People often fear what they do not understand. Why did Germans and Italians not experience such distinct discrimination? European culture is fairly similar to American culture; it is, after all, where most of American culture and inhabitants came from. The Japanese, on the other hand, have severely different customs than the United States, customs that must have been hard for people to understand or value. Many White people saw the quiet reserve of the Japanese descendants as an indication of a cold, heartless, unfeeling person. To Caucasians, dark faces with slanted eyes were something they could not understand; and therefore, could not trust.
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As war drew nearer, the American public was filled with propagandist ideas, characterizing the Japanese as sly and untrustworthy. These films and brochures did not show the enormous amounts of Japanese Americans who signed up to fight for the United States of America against her enemies, even against Japan. To the American people, the Japanese American citizens looked just like the faces at the cinema, in comic books, newspapers and pamphlets.
Last, the most obvious discrimination against Japanese and Japanese Americans was the war relocation effort. Japanese were removed from “military areas” (spanning the whole state of California and then some) and detained in internment camps, without having committed any crime, without any charges against them. They were not granted hearings, or due process. They were detained solely because they had Japanese ancestors (Korematsu 1). In the 1943 case of Gordon Hirabayashi, the court states, “We cannot close our eyes to the fact, demonstrated by experience, that in time of war residents having ethnic affiliations with an invading enemy may be a greater source of danger than those of a different ancestry” (McWilliams 163).
By the end of 1942, the shortage of workers resulting from the absence of Japanese labor became so great that 9,000 detainees were released to work in agriculture, where they were commended for their hard work in rescuing the crops. This is quite a variation from Idaho Governor Chase Clark ‘s comments in May or 1942. He said, “The Japs live like rats, breed like rats, and act like rats” (McWilliams 163-4). California, however, must have still clung to this belief. In order to avoid using evacuee labor, they imported 30,000 Mexican Nationals (165).
The prejudice evident in the U.S. was much like the prejudice in Snow Falling on Cedars. Kabuo Miyamoto is presumed guilty by the jurors because he is not a man that can be trusted; he has a guilty face that shows no expression. The whole issue starts with coroner Horace Whaley’s statement to “start looking for a Jap with a bloody gun butt” upon inspecting a wound to the deceased’s head (Guterson 59). He also makes a comment to Sheriff Art Moran about “playing Sherlock Holmes.” This comment really gets to the Sheriff and puts pressure on him to find some culprit, or some scapegoat, and confirm his skills as sheriff. His feeble search leads him to Kabuo Miyamoto.
Throughout the book are examples of the poor treatment of Japanese Americans. In the courtroom, there was no written law directing Asians to the rear seats, but the community required it nonetheless. In the last census, the counter had failed to even take their proper names; he listed them by nicknames or numbers (Guterson 75).
As for the legal aspects, the Japanese could not own land, because “the law said they could not own land unless they became citizens; it also said they could not become citizens so long as they were Japanese” (Guterson 76). Zenhichi had done the best he could to obtain land that his son Kabuo, an American born Nisei, could someday own, but his plans were ruined when his family was swept away to the Manzanar internment camp. Because of this he lost his land, his house, and his job. This also stirred up public disapproval of the Japanese. If their country did not trust them, why should its people? After his release, Kabuo enlisted to fight for the very country that had kidnapped him from his home, he felt he had to in order to prove his loyalty (92).
Hatred was present, not only in the government, but in many of the citizens as well. Arthur Chambers supported the Japanese Americans in his newspaper and often cited their good works even more than their Caucasian counterparts. This was a great risk for him to take and it cost him several nasty letters and 15 cancelled subscriptions (Guterson 191). His wife felt “It’s a shame, I have to think it’s a travesty. That they arrested him because he’s Japanese” (343). The Japanese had a few people on their side, but there were still those throwing rocks through the windows. Lastly, the prosecution attorney, Alvin Hooks, appeals to the prejudice in the jurors he knows is there, asking them to “look into [Kabuo’s] eyes, consider his face” (415).
A bad set of circumstances brings Kabuo to trial, but juror’s prejudice almost convicts him of a crime that didn’t happen. The jurors did not understand their Japanese neighbors; did not trust them. Their heads had been filled with propagandist ideas, and they had seen how they looked just like the enemy invading our country. The relocation camps had expired, but here was a chance to put one more away. Why not then, get rid of one more threat to society? Snow Falling on Cedars gives us a realistic look into life of the fictional Kabuo Miyamoto; a man with a guilty face.
Guterson, David. Snow Falling on Cedars. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
“Korematsu v. United States: Murphy Dissenting.” 14 April 2002
McWilliams, Carey. Prejudice: Japanese-Americans: Symbol of Racial
Intolerance. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1945.
Merrick van Patten, Louise. “Public Opinion on Japanese Americans.”
Far Eastern Survey 1 Aug. 1945, 14.15:207-208. JSTOR. Clemson
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Oakie, John H. “Japanese in the United States.” Far Eastern Survey 26 Jan.
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