Critical Essays Depersonalization and Hate in Snow Falling on Cedars


The connection between the various interrelated themes of injustice, fairness, responsibility, and racism throughout Snow Falling on Cedars most often stems from the manner in which characters treat one another. More often than not, various individuals and groups of individuals are depersonalized — treated as less than human — because it's easier to hold on to hate if the hate isn't directed toward a specific person. This depersonalization leads to an effective loss of identity and provides a means for the racist to defer responsibility.

First and foremost, all Japanese people of San Piedro — whether they were citizens or not — were viewed as a group by Carl Heine, Jr., his mother, most islanders, and the United States government. Originally viewed as just berry farmer immigrants, these non-Caucasians were beginning to become problematic, especially during the war. At least, that is what most of the other islanders believed. Curiously, the claim that "we are at war with them" applied only to the inhabitants who looked different than the Caucasians. The most outspoken racist, Etta Heine, was German-born, but nobody cared about that, even though the United States was also at war with Germany. The non-Caucasians were neither people nor neighbors — they were Japs.

Yet, Caucasians weren't the only ones to view the Japanese this way. Neither of Hatsue's parents viewed Hatsue as a woman; instead they saw her as a Japanese woman who happened to be living in America. Just as many of the islanders didn't consider Japanese-Americans to be Americans, Hisao and Fujiko didn't consider themselves or their daughters Americans. The Imadas, although they recognized differences among the Japanese-Americans and the Caucasian Americans and felt superior to them, didn't discriminate. That is an essential difference, which must be noted. Potentially racist thoughts do not necessarily lead to racist actions. Guterson doesn't present all Americans as horrible and all Japanese as wonderful; he presents well-rounded characters who have strong points along with their shortcomings.

This discrimination continued, perhaps even more so after the war, because then the islanders no longer had their convenient excuse that "there's a war going on" to rationalize their behavior. The post-war behavior consisted of treating all Japanese-Americans, regardless of their individual efforts, as less than citizens. As Kabuo sits in that courtroom, he knows that he isn't being viewed as a veteran who sacrificed for his fellow islanders; instead, he is viewed as an outsider, as a Japanese man. Kabuo expresses this sentiment to his lawyer, "'We're sly and treacherous. . . . You can't trust a Jap, can you? This island's full of strong feelings, Mr. Gudmundsson, people who don't often speak their minds but hate on the inside all the same.'"

During the trial, the truth is hidden from the jurors and the spectators, just as all truth is hidden from those who discriminate. Nels Gudmundsson addresses this theme in his closing argument, claiming that people hate because "we are the victims of irrational fears." Depersonalization leads to hate and racism and therefore needs to be eliminated. Nels implores the jurors to consider prejudice and reminds them that "you have only yourselves to rely on." In the same manner, Guterson challenges his readers to brush aside any prejudicial tendencies when seeking out justice, for preserving the dignity and integrity of the individual enables people to eliminate the hate.

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