Guterson makes extensive use of dualism or dichotomy in Snow Falling on Cedars. In literature, this device allows the author to explore the main themes of the novel by comparing two things that contrast each other within the story.
Japanese and White. Probably the most obvious dualism in the story is that of San Piedro's Japanese and White populations. The two populations don't make much effort to understand each other's culture, even though children of both races attend the same schools and pick strawberries together in the summer time.
The Japanese hold no positions of power in the San Piedro community, as evidenced by the fact that "the foreman, a white man" oversees their picking. Guterson's decision to add the "white man" qualifier further suggests the separation and balance of power that exists between the two races. In fact, the only time the groups come together in any meaningful way is for the annual Strawberry Festival. The day after the strawberry festival "at noon traditionally, the Japanese began picking raspberries." Note that Guterson makes no mention of Whites working in the berry fields after the Strawberry Festival. Certainly, the White islanders went back to work the next day as well, but by omitting that information, Guterson implies that the Japanese are held to a different set of standards than their White peers.
The Japanese certainly hold themselves to a different standard. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Fujiko gathers her daughters to remind them of their role as Japanese women. She sums up the difference for Hatsue when she says, "'We bend our head, we bow and are silent, because we understand that by ourselves, alone, we are nothing at all, dust in a strong wind, while the hakujin believes his aloneness is everything, his separateness is the foundation of his existence. He seeks and grasps . . . for his separateness, while we seek union with the Greater Life — you must see that these are distinct paths we are traveling . . . the hakujin and the Japanese.'"
One of the primary differences in the two culture's outlook on life stems from their religions. The Whites on the island are Christian, while the Japanese are Buddhists. These religions are very different in their approach to living, but neither side makes any attempt to understand the other's religion. When Etta Heine looks at Zenhichi Miyamoto, she notices that he hasn't aged the same way that she has and thinks that "something he knew about kept him from aging . . . something he knew about yet kept to himself, . . . Maybe it was Jap religion." Etta shows no interest in learning the first thing about the "Jap religion" but instead holds it against Zenhichi and his religion that the man shows little signs of aging.
Throughout the novel, Guterson portrays the extreme difficulty in this division for those children born in the United States to Japanese parents. This problem follows them into adulthood. When Kabuo is helping Carl Jr. on his boat, Carl begins to talk about "fighting you goddamn Jap sons a — ." Kabuo reacts strongly, especially since Carl's mother is German, saying "'I'm an American. . . . Just like you or anybody. Am I calling you a Nazi, you big Nazi bastard? I killed men who looked just like you — pig-fed German bastards. I've got their blood on my soul, Carl, and it doesn't wash off very easily.'"
Justice and Injustice. Justice means different things to different characters in Snow Falling on Cedars, and Guterson never provides a final answer to the question of what is just or what is unjust.
Etta and Susan Marie Heine want to see Kabuo brought to justice, believing that he murdered Carl junior. Hatsue wants to see justice served by proving Kabuo's innocence. She is committed enough to this quest to ask Ishmael to write about the inaccuracies and prejudices being displayed as evidence in the trial. Ishmael admits that the trial is unfair on many levels but only goes so far as to offer to write an opinion piece about "How we all hope the justice system does its job." Hatsue presses, and Ishmael gives insight to the other side of the justice question: "sometimes I wonder if unfairness isn't . . . part of things. I wonder if we should even expect fairness, if we should assume we have some sort of right to it."
Ishmael's statement initially sounds like more cynicism, but given all that he's experienced, he has a point. Was it just that he and Hatsue spent the entire course of their romantic involvement in the hollow of a cedar tree? Was it fair that the society they lived in wouldn't allow them to spend their lives together — wouldn't even acknowledge that their love could be real? What justice was there in losing his arm or in watching helplessly as his friends were brutally killed in battle?
Because Buddhists believe in the karmic laws that say that everything you do — good or bad — comes back to you, Kabuo believes in some way that he deserves to suffer for a crime he didn't commit. The men he killed on the battlefield weigh heavily on him, so much so that "He felt he did not deserve for a moment the happiness his family brought to him, so that . . . he imagined that he would . . . leave them and go to suffer alone, and his unhappiness would overwhelm his anger. . . . Sitting where he sat now . . . it seemed to him he'd found the suffering place he'd fantasized and desired." This sort of sentiment would not make sense to the White islanders, but for Kabuo, it is in perfect keeping with his religious beliefs.
At the end of the novel, Guterson leaves many questions of justice unanswered. True, Kabuo is proven innocent, but will the islanders accept his innocence or will they always be suspicious of him as a murderer? Kabuo's lifelong dream has been to reclaim what he believes to be his family's land. Carl junior was finally going to make that dream a reality. The land is presumably still for sale, but will Ole sell to Kabuo now? Will Kabuo feel that he has paid the price for his war killings, or is he destined to a lifetime of anguish? At the novel's end, Ishmael is still a weary, one-armed, war veteran. This man will never find justice for losing the love of his life (or his arm), but readers are left without any indication of whether Ishmael finds some happiness. By not answering these and other questions, Guterson, some may say, is unjust to the readers. And therein lies the brilliance. By leaving questions unanswered, Guterson, in a subtle way, helps readers experience the feelings of injustice his characters face.
Innocence and Guilt. Piggybacking the questions of justice and injustice are those of innocence and guilt. In Snow Falling on Cedars, innocence and guilt go far beyond whether or not Kabuo Miyamoto murdered Carl Heine, Jr.
Although Etta Heine was within her legal rights when she sold her farm to Ole Jurgensen, she is still guilty of a wrongdoing. Characteristic of someone who is guilty of a moral crime, Etta becomes very defensive, stating on the witness stand that "'Them Japanese couldn't own land. . . . So I don't see how them Miyamotos could think they owned ours.'" Etta's guilty conscience becomes more clear when the judge has to remind her that this trial does not involve real estate. Etta makes a feeble attempt to ease her guilt by sending the Miyamotos their equity in the land after she resells it to Ole Jurgensen.
The relationship between Hatsue and Ishmael can be held up to the magnifying glass of guilt versus innocent as well. During one of many meetings in the cedar tree, Hatsue "confessed to experiencing a moral anguish over meeting him so secretly and deceiving her mother and father. It seemed to her certain that she would suffer from the consequences of it, that no one could maintain such deceit for so long without paying for it somehow." But Ishmael insists that "God could not possibly view their love as something wrong or evil." In this case, guilt or innocence is an internal feeling. Ishmael is deceiving his parents about his relationship with a Japanese girl, just as Hatsue is deceiving hers. Yet, Ishmael feels no remorse, and so deems himself innocent. Hatsue feels perpetual remorse and so condemns her own actions.
Similarly, the war raises the same sorts of questions for Kabuo. He is a consummate soldier, but "It was only after he'd killed four Germans that Kabuo saw . . . He was a warrior, and this dark ferocity had been passed down in the blood of the Miyamoto family and he himself was fated to carry it into the next generation." Because of his religious beliefs, Kabuo believes that now "his suffering inevitably would multiply." Yet, men go to war to kill other men. Kabuo enlisted because he felt honor bound to defend the United States of America. Killing is a sad fact of war, but Kabuo punishes himself for his actions.
Kabuo is guilty of lying to his lawyer: "For when Nels Gudmundsson had asked for his side of the story . . . two and a half months ago he'd stuck with the lie he'd told Sheriff Moran: he didn't know anything about it, he'd insisted, and this had deepened his problems." Kabuo lies because he believes that doing so is in his best interest. After all, who's going to believe a Japanese man who's had a fairly public feud with the murdered man's family? But in trying to protect his innocence, Kabuo only appears more guilty. When the prosecuting attorney questions Kabuo, all he can say is "'For the life of me I can't understand why you didn't tell this story from the start.'" Later in Kabuo's testimony, Alvin Hooks brings up his lies again saying, " 'Mr. Miyamoto . . . You are under oath here to tell the truth. You're under oath to be honest with the court, to be forthcoming with the truth about your role in the death of Carl Heine. And now it seems to me that once again you wish to change your story." Kabuo Miyamoto becomes his own worst enemy.
The real questions of guilt and innocence, though, Guterson leaves for the readers to decide. Does Etta owe anything to the Miyamoto family beyond the equity she paid them? Does Ole Jurgensen owe any consideration to Kabuo? Was Jurgensen wrong to buy the seven acres that he knew the Miyamotos were leasing? Does Carl junior owe anything to Kabuo? Is he morally charged with carrying out his father's wishes? Does the jury have a responsibility beyond the evidence? Is Hatsue guilty for loving Ishmael? Is Fujiko correct in forcing an end to Hatsue's relationship with Ishmael? As a reporter, is Ishmael responsible for commenting on his opinions of the trial? If he can sway public opinion, does he have a responsibility to try to do so?
Fishing and Farming. The two main occupations on San Piedro are salmon fishing and strawberry farming. The differences and similarities between these two professions help readers better understand the motivation of certain characters in Snow Falling on Cedars. Farming depends on daylight, but fishing is a nighttime endeavor. Both Carl Jr. and Kabuo want to be farmers but are forced to be fishermen. Yet these former friends are tied together by a bamboo fishing rod. The night Carl needs help on the Susan Marie, he says, "'you know what else Kabuo? I still got your bamboo fishing rod. I kept it all these years. I hid it in the barn after my mother tried to make me go and return it over to your house.'" Ironically, fishing is the first evidence readers see of Carl's friendship with Kabuo, and it is what ultimately what brings them back together; but, just as each man is about to realize his dream, the fishing waters steal it from both of them.
The heat and light in the strawberry fields during the summer are intense. During the summers in the fields, Hatsue "wore a straw hat low on her head, a thing she had not done consistently in her youth, so that now around her eyes there were squint lines." But fisherman work in the dark. The night Carl dies, Kabuo hears one fisherman complain to another that the fog is so thick "'I near can't see my own hands. . . . I near can't see the nose on my own face.'" Metaphorically, Carl and Kabuo are moving toward the light — a life of farming, a fulfillment of their dreams. Ironically, Kabuo finds Carl on the water holding a lantern: "And this was how he had found Carl Heine, his batteries dead, adrift at midnight, in need of another man's assistance. There Carl stood in the Islander's spotlight a big man in bib overalls poised in his boat's bow, a kerosene lantern clutched in one hand and an air horn dangling from the other."
Carl and Kabuo are now mutually dependent on each other. The White man needs help from Kabuo getting his boat to run in a soupy fog; the Japanese man needs help from Carl to get his farm back. Moreover, Carl fought the Japanese in World War II — Kabuo fought the Germans. In these dark waters, alone, the men have an opportunity to bury some of the harsh feelings that exist between the Japanese and the White islanders. Ultimately, Kabuo recognizes that "What Carl felt he kept inside, showing nothing to anyone — as Kabuo himself did, for other reasons. They were more similar in their deepest places than Kabuo cared to admit." Perhaps more than any other moment in Snow Falling on Cedars, this exchange proves Ishmael's assertion that "'The main thing is, water is water. Names on a map don't mean anything. Do you think if you were out there in a boat and you came to another ocean you'd see a sign or something?'" Not coincidentally then, it is on the water that Kabuo and Carl realize they are more alike than different — right down to their beautiful wives and three young children.