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The conflict is between Kabuo, a Japanese man, and a prejudice society represented by the Caucasian citizens of San Piedro Island.
There is also the internal conflict Ishmael has as to whether to reveal the shipping records that will prove Kabuo’s innocence or keep the knowledge to himself, which may give him the opportunity to get Hatsue back.
It is arguable that there is no single protagonist in Snow Falling on Cedars. Kabuo, Ishmael, and Hatsue all play prominent roles in Guterson’s novel. Kabuo, as the man on trial, is certainly a focal point of the story, and it is his trial that provides the catalyst for discovering the relationships and history that exists among the characters. However, both Hatsue and Ishmael are important characters as the story unfolds. Hatsue, as Kabuo’s wife and Ishmael’s childhood girlfriend, provides the bond between the two men. More importantly, her struggle with her Japanese identity and her love for an Anglo, Ishmael, depict the cultural and social differences between the two communities of island citizens. Ishmael’s struggle to come to terms with losing Hatsue and the loss of his arm at the hands Japanese machine-gun fire portrays the fight against racial prejudice that pervades the community. Taught to condemn racism, Ishmael cannot help but feel hatred toward those that caused him to lose his arm. Coupled with Hatsue’s betrayal, Ishmael at times finds it difficult not to blame the Japanese for his unhappiness and loneliness. Yet, as a newspaper reporter, he must present objective and factual information to his readers.
The antagonists of Snow Falling on Cedars are the racial hatred, prejudice, and bigotry that exist quietly or openly in the hearts of many of the islanders. These traits are particularly manifested in Etta Heine, who openly shows her prejudice. Racial prejudice is also shown by Horace Whaley when he compares Carl’s injury to those inflicted by Japanese soldiers and Alvin Hooks when he calls upon the jury’s prejudices in presenting his case.
The climax of Snow Falling on Cedars comes when Ishmael finds the evidence to prove Kabuo’s innocence and then decides to present it to Hatsue. In the course of research for a newspaper story, Ishmael’s attention is diverted to thoughts of Hatsue. It is this diversion of thought that leads him to search the shipping records on the night Carl Heine died. From these records, Ishmael finds out that a freighter large enough to create a wake that could throw a man overboard passed through the area in which Carl Heine was fishing. Ishmael is torn between his unending love for Hatsue and the possibility of getting her back and his moral duty to present evidence that could free and innocent man. When Ishmael ventures out into the snow ends up showing Hatsue the records leading to the dismissal of charges against Kabuo, the story’s climax takes place.
The charges against Kabuo are dropped. The shipping records Ishmael discovers and subsequent re-inspection of Carl’s boat show that Carl Heine was killed when the wake of a passing freighter knocked him overboard.