Japanese American History and the Movie Snow Falling on Cedars

Japanese American History and the Movie Snow Falling on Cedars

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Japanese American History and the Movie Snow Falling on Cedars


The author of Snow Falling on Cedars did a good job with his research into the first to middle half of the 20th century experiences of Japanese immigrants. Unfortunately, like most movies based on extensive books, I believe this movie may underachieve in representing the author’s intentions. This movie seems almost as an outline to what it should be. The major problem area is with portraying the emotions between characters. For example, the bond between Ishmael Chambers and Hatsue Miyamoto seems significant at first, but does not seem to be as painstakingly hard to break as they try to represent towards the end. Also, hints of prejudice are revealed in various places through out the movie, but they fail to represent the attitudes that were more prevalent during the era.

The first trace of good research for the movie is realized with the fact that it takes place on a fictional island near Puget Sound, Washington. This is an acceptable setting because Japanese immigration into the U.S. was focused mainly on the West Coast. Also, depicting the Japanese as grape farmers represents the fact that most of the immigrants moved to rural areas and 40% of them were farmers by 1940 (213).*
Japanese immigration rose in 1882 after the Chinese Exclusion Act. This was in part to fill the gaps in the labor supply. These Japanese in turn were discriminated against. Much of the American prejudice against the Japanese was carried over from feelings about the Chinese. The ideas were that the Japanese were racially inferior, cruel, crafty, and threatening (222). It is also apparent by social distance scales that extreme prejudice existed at the time against the Japanese. In 1946 they ranked at the very bottom of the list, even under the more traditionally stigmatized groups such as the Mexican Americans, African Americans, and other racially identifiable groups (38).
The movie does a good job of representing the social distance between the Japanese and White Americans. It makes it apparent that there is not much interaction between the two segments of the adult population. This most likely stems from the fact that during the time most Japanese immigrants functioned in the rural economic enclaves based on agriculture. This limited secondary structural assimilation, and thus primary structural assimilation.

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Furthermore, the movie shows that the kids do not integrate on the school bus. Although social distancing occurs between the kids, some of the main characters break from the societal norms. Carl Heine and Kazuo Miyamoto are friends as kids, but they separate at adulthood. This is a prime example of culture-based prejudice theories that link prejudice to being raised in a racist society.

Some of the only attempts by the movie to demonstrate overt racism are through comments made in the trial by the lawyer Alvin Hooks. For example, when Alvin cross-examines Kazuo he says, “You have no answer? You sit there in silence, with no expression. You're a hard man to trust, sir...” This represents the stereotype at the time that the Japanese were expressionless and cold. Alvin even attempts to play along racist lines with his closing statement, “Look into his eyes...consider his face...ask yourself...What is my duty...As an American?”

The bus scene after the Pearl Harbor attacks where the bus driver harasses the Japanese students with comments about the FBI searching for “Jap” traders is a great example of overt racism. The scene is especially important in demonstrating that this period of time is when racism against the Japanese immigrants dramatically increased. The increased discrimination is also demonstrated when Ishmael exclaims, “Fucking Jap bitch!” after his arm in sawed off. Many White American soldiers developed the same opinions of Japanese Americans during the war.

The movie further portrays the movement of West Coast Japanese immigrants to internment camps. The movie demonstrates that the camps are overcrowded when Hatsue’s dad Hisao is writing a letter to them in a large gymnasium with many bunk beds. Also, it depicts the lack of privacy when Hatsue and Kazuo do not have a private room on their wedding night. Furthermore, Carl’s mother Etta Heine undercuts Kazuo’s family by selling their land before they could complete the payments. This demonstrates the abrupt evacuation procedures that left Japanese immigrants with few of their possessions.

Overall, the movie did not seem to focus on these scenes well enough. In fact, the whole movie does not seem to focus on the topics strongly enough and leaves the viewer with the feeling that it is just the shell of a movie. Dabs of racist expressions here and flashes of life in the internment camp life there accomplish encompassing a wide variety of issues, but do not demonstrate each issue well. Shindler's List is an example of a movie that successfully captures the human experiences of a minority group, albeit the conditions were more shocking.

Another fine detail demonstrated by the movie was with the fact that Kazuo fought in WWII for the U.S. At this time 25,000 of the 110,000 Japanese Americans volunteered for military service thus allowing them to escape life in the internment camps (214).

An interesting aspect of the movie is with Etta Heine who is German. This does a good job of contrasting the experiences faced by different immigrant groups up to the mid 20th century. The Germans were part of the first wave of immigration, or Old Immigration. These immigrants had more human capital, were not racially identifiable, and were similar to White Americans in aspects of color and religion. Additionally, they settled in sparsely populated areas where they did not compete with White Americans (87). Most rejection of German immigrants faded with the immigration of Southern and Eastern Europeans, and probably to almost extinction with the immigration of the Chinese and Japanese. The movie showed that the Germans were well off relative to the Japanese. The Heine’s were in the position of selling land to Kazuo’s. Also, it is interesting to note that the German Americans were not sent to internment camps since the U.S. was also fighting the Germans during WWII.

Etta clearly discriminated against Kazuo. She used her dominant position to exploit their situation and make more money on the land. The competitive relationship is reminiscent of the fact that Germans were able to join labor unions in the early 20th century where as some other minority groups were not (89). Competition in agriculture between Japanese immigrants and White Americans led to the Alien Land Act by 1913. This law made it illegal for non-citizens to own land. Also, Japanese immigrants could not become citizens. The movie demonstrates this law in trial when Hooks mentions, “…we all know it's against the law for Japanese-born to own land.” It also shows how the Japanese successfully worked around the law. Kazuo can own the land because he was born in America and is therefore an American citizen.

Kazuo and Hatsue were a part of the 2nd generation of Japanese Americans known as Nisei. They were more culturally and somewhat more structurally assimilated than their parents the Issei. The Issei still taught their kids traditional Japanese values. The film makes this apparent when Hatsue’s mother Fujiko teaches her how to sit and do her hair. Hatsue’s frustration with the social situation is apparent when she exclaims, “I don't want to be Japanese.”

The movie stops with Japanese American depiction at this point, but it is interesting to note their continued history. The Nisei were successful in school, but discrimination kept them from leaving the enclave. After the war, the enclave did not reappear. Some Nisei took advantage of the GI Bill to further their education. Anti-Asian discrimination declined and by 1960 the Japanese Americans were similar to White Americans in their occupational profile. Many chose professional careers that were “safe” and required less contact with the public.

The Sansei and Yonsei, the 3rd and 4th generations respectfully, became further culturally assimilated and more so structurally integrated. Their success in America is likely due to their educational achievements that put them at the same levels as White Americans by as early as 1920 (231). The Jim Crow laws of school segregation that affected African Americans, Native Americans, and Mexican Americans did not affect Japanese Americans.

Japanese have become quite acculturated to U.S. society for a few reasons. First of all, many of the Japanese are born in the U.S. The number of foreign-born Japanese Americans was only 34% in 1990 (219). Therefore, they lack the infusion of Japanese culture from Japan that groups such as Mexican Americans receive from their country of origin. Also, Japanese American acculturation is very apparent in the primary sector and is visible with their intermarriage rate of 34% that is much higher than the 2% for African Americans (227).

Other Asian American groups are not quite successful as the Japanese and Chinese Americans. Their struggles are possibly overshadowed with the success of these groups and go ignored. These new groups lack the same solid base that Japanese and Chinese Americans have built over 150 years. Also, some have lower educational levels. In fact Vietnamese have educational attainments comparable to those of African Americans (225)

Snow Falling on Cedars makes a valid attempt at encompassing the situation of Japanese immigrants in the early to mid 20th century. American society tends to comb over the harsh realities of the treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII and their successive removal to internment camps. This film is one of the first and hopefully not the last efforts in raising this issue. Although the film is factually sound, these issues are almost an aside. Americans need to be further exposed to this dark aspect of past policies. It may be hard to swallow, but they can take it.
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