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Snow Falling on Cedars | Context


World War II

World War II began in 1939 when England and France opposed the Nazi invasion of Poland. The German Nazis were supported by Axis powers Italy and Japan, both of which had their own goals for territorial expansion. When the Nazis invaded Russia, the Soviet Union joined the Allies (England and France).

Japan resented the United States, which had restricted the sale of fuel and other supplies to Japan. The Japanese military decided to launch a sneak attack against the Americans at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, wiping out much of the U.S. Pacific fleet in December 1941. America joined the war after the Pearl Harbor attack. The war took place in two different theaters, or parts of the world, simultaneously. The war in Europe was fought against Nazi Germany and Italy; the war in the Pacific was fought against Japan. The war in Europe ended in May 1945 with the surrender of Nazi Germany (Italy had surrendered earlier). Japan had vowed never to surrender, so the United States used firebombing and, eventually, atomic bombs, to force Japan to surrender. After the war, many U.S. service people were stationed in Japan, as the United States maintained control of the country until 1952. Several characters in the novel served during World War II, including Kabuo's service in the European theater and Ishmael's and Carl's service in the Pacific theater.

Japanese American Internment

After the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, many in the U.S. government were concerned about saboteurs. They argued that Japanese residents in the United States might covertly damage U.S. facilities or weapons. President Roosevelt authorized the rounding up of all Japanese residents along the West Coast of the United States. These residents, whether or not they were U.S. citizens, were put into internment camps. Internment camps confine, without trials, civilians considered to be "enemy aliens." By the end of 1942, over 120,000 Japanese Americans, 65 percent of whom were native-born U.S. citizens, were imprisoned in these camps. The Japanese characters in the novel, including Hatsue and Kabuo, are imprisoned in the internment camp of Manzanar, in California.

These camps were often set up on fairgrounds or racecourses, and living conditions were basic and often terrible. The Japanese Americans lost all civil and property rights, and their houses or businesses were confiscated. They were held in these camps for the entire length of the war, and their internment represents one of the most flagrant abuses of civil and human rights in U.S. history.

In later years the U.S. government apologized, but the experience left deep economic, political, social, and psychological scars on many Japanese American communities. In spite of the mistreatment of their families, some Nisei (first-generation Japanese Americans, children of Japanese immigrant parents who were born in the United States and were native-born U.S. citizens) served in the Army during the war, some to prove their patriotic faith in the U.S. and some to avoid imprisonment for treason.

Japanese Culture and Philosophy

In this novel, many white characters struggle to understand the beliefs and culture of the Japanese American characters. The interracial romance between Ishmael and Hatsue is complicated because Ishmael cannot understand Hatsue's worldview. Kabuo is viewed as a threat, in part, because he stays calm under great stress, the way Japanese soldiers did during World War II.

The Japanese Americans in the book are Buddhist. Buddhism is a religion that does not worship a particular Supreme Being; instead, practitioners strive to attain enlightenment and become better people by following the teachings of the Buddha. One character states the goal is "to seek union with the Greater Life ... to imagine herself as a leaf on a great tree." Kabuo appears to be calm when he is put on trial for murder and when he faces death in war; Hatsue strives to be calm when her family is imprisoned in the internment camps. This is part of what Buddhism teaches, but white, non-Buddhist characters perceive these characters as uncaring, detached, or even threatening. This misunderstanding leads Ishmael to believe that Hatsue doesn't love him, and it makes many jurors inclined to believe that Kabuo did commit murder.

The Japanese American characters face much discrimination, which was common in early 20th-century America. Western states, such as California and Washington, faced a large influx of Japanese immigrants. U.S. citizens feared these immigrants would take their jobs; Japanese immigrants were very successful farmers, which worried some American-born landowners. Anti-Japanese legislation was passed by the U.S. government, limiting Japanese immigration and forbidding Japanese immigrants from owning land. This becomes an issue in the book, as Kabuo's family wants to buy a farm but are legally ineligible to do so.

Some Japanese immigrants to America chose to stay as isolated as possible, forming their own communities that did not welcome non-Japanese people. This was partially a survival mechanism. It also reflected a common belief in Japan that Japanese people were superior to non-Japanese people. Japan is an extremely homogenous society, and as the country became more militarily aggressive, its purported racial superiority became another argument for expansion, just as it did with the Nazis. Some of the book's characters, including Kabuo's parents and Hatsue's parents, were raised in Japan. Hatsue's mother, in particular, espouses a strongly pro-Japanese view that contributes to her reaction toward Ishmael and Hatsue's romance.

The Code of the Warrior

One of the book's main characters, Kabuo, trains in the art of kendo, a Japanese martial art that features swords and wooden sticks. Kendo is based on the techniques and practices of the samurai, the warrior class that ruled Japan for many centuries. Samurai followed bushido, a strict ethical code. Samurai were expected to behave honorably at all times; if they didn't, they should kill themselves through a process called seppuku.

Kabuo, one of the main characters, comes from a family of samurai. His family has their land unfairly taken from them; this is later presented as a possible motive when he is accused of murder.

The Detective Genre

Snow Falling on Cedars is, in some ways, a detective novel. In a detective story, a crime or an unexplained circumstance functions as the central plot element. Famous authors such as American writer Edgar Allan Poe and English novelist Charles Dickens wrote detective stories, but the genre did not become popular until the creation of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes by English writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 1800s.

In a traditional detective story, a character or characters try to solve a crime or explain a mysterious circumstance through the examination of suspects and their motives, as well as clear and hidden clues. Readers often act as co-detectives, trying to solve the mystery along with the characters. Theoretically, the reader should have every clue the characters have. The genre also features suspense and foreshadowing. The legal mystery or legal thriller is a subgenre that often features a trial as a driving force in the story. Snow Falling on Cedars fits this subgenre.

Guterson provides clues, allowing readers to consider Kabuo's guilt or innocence as they read. He also presents Kabuo with means, motive, and opportunity—three key elements in establishing the possibility of guilt. Kabuo has the means (a weapon), the motive (revenge for his family's mistreatment), and the opportunity (he is on the victim's boat on the night the victim died). In spite of that, Guterson does not really ask the reader to solve the mystery. Late in the book, he describes exactly what happened to the victim, Carl.

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