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Ishmael is the local newspaper reporter covering the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto. But, his interest in the trial is personal; he was the childhood boyfriend of Hatsue Miyamoto and is still in love with her. He has always believed that he and Hatsue were destined to be together, but World War II and Hatsue’s internment destroy any hope he has of a future with her. Hatsue, aware that the differences between them are too great, ends their relationship, but Ishmael never stops loving her and hopes one day to get her back. But, it is not only Hatsue’s marriage that stands in his way. The cynicism he has developed as a result of losing his arm in the war prevents him from having any meaningful relationships with others. Ishmael came to believe “that most human activity was utter folly, his own included.” He has never been able to come to terms with losing his arm, and as a result, remains an outsider.
Throughout the novel, Ishmael struggles with controlling his feelings for Hatsue. While they were together, he felt as long as they loved each other nothing else mattered. But after she ended their relationship and he goes off to war, he develops a hatred for Hatsue. Now, 9 years after the war, he still thinks that they were meant to be together. When he discovers the evidence to prove Kabuo’s innocence, he contemplates not revealing it with the hope that it will provide an opportunity for him to become a part of Hatsue’s life if Kabuo is found guilty. But in the end, Ishmael practices what his father taught him. Ishmael’s father, Arthur Chambers, is dead at the time of the trial, but his effect on Ishmael is conveyed through Ishmael’s memories. Ishmael remembers his father has being “morally meticulous” and loyal to his profession and principles. Ishmael tries to emulate his father in his daily life, but the war and his missing arm made this difficult. But, it is thinking about his father and the life he lead that leads Ishmael to the Imada’s door to tell them about the evidence that sets Kabuo free.
Carl is a well-liked fisherman and war veteran who dies when the wake of a passing freighter knocks him overboard. His experience serving in the war has made him a silent man. He confessed to his wife, Susan Marie, that after the war he couldn’t speak. However, despite his silence, the community respected and liked him. He was a war veteran and fisherman, two titles held in esteem by the islanders. Carl went about his life deliberately in silence. He did not have any friends, and he was not one to joke with, but he was courteous and polite and admired as a competent fisherman. But the darkness of the war was present in Carl.
Fishing did not suit Carl, so when the opportunity arose to buy back his father’s farm, he did so. And when Kabuo asked to buy the 7 acres his family had arranged to buy from Carl’s father, Carl agreed to think about it. His hesitation was not due to his mother’s hatred for Kabuo but because of Carl’s own prejudice feelings toward the Japanese. But, Carl is able to overcome this prejudice, and on the night he died, he agreed to sell Kabuo the land.
Hatsue (Imada) Miyamoto
At 31, Hatsue is finally comfortable with her identity as a Japanese-American, but in her youth, she struggled with reconciling her Japanese identity and lifestyle while living on American soil and being involved with a Caucasian, Ishmael Chambers. As a child, she was taught Japanese traditions and manners. She had learned to be composed, despite what was happening around her. Outwardly, she projected calm and tranquility, but inwardly, her soul was in turmoil.
At the age of 14, she began a secret relationship with Ishmael Chambers that lasted 4 years. She hated deceiving her family and was ashamed of her actions. She believed that every action had a consequence for her soul’s future and that one day she would suffer the consequences of her deceit. Additionally, she never felt whole with Ishmael. Whenever they were together, she felt as if something was wrong. She also knew that because of differences in their cultures and the social and political climate at this time that they could never have a lasting relationship. On their last day together, she realized this but could not bring herself to say goodbye. Instead, she is forced to do so by letter when her mother, Fujiko, finds out about their relationship while they are at the Manzanar internment camp. It is also here that she begins a relationship with Kabuo and marries him. She and Kabuo want the same things from life and come from the same background. She begs him not to enlist in the army but learns to live with missing him when he does. When Kabuo returns a different man, she is supportive of him and does her best to make their life together happy.
The novel opens with Kabuo, a Japanese-American accused of the premeditated, first-degree murder of Carl Heine. His demeanor and expression in the courtroom and in his contact with others throughout in the community is an important focus of the novel. In the opening chapter, Kabuo sits “proudly upright with a rigid grace.” The onlookers interpret this as disdain for the proceedings or as an attempt to veil his fear. But, his face is expressionless. Kabuo’s unreadable face is a source of uneasiness for others. For instance, Ole Jurgensen distinctly remembers how Kabuo stiffened and the politeness left his face when he told Kabuo that Carl Heine had purchased the land. Ole even makes a point of telling Carl about Kabuo’s expression. Sheriff Art Moran also looks into Kabuo’s face, just before arresting him. Moran looked into Kabuo’s eyes and was unable to discern the truth; he was unable to read them. Moran interprets this expression as one of a man hiding something. And in his closing statement, prosecutor Alvin Hooks, to the objection of defense attorney Nels Gudmundsson, comments on Kabuo’s expression on the stand referring to his “poker face.”
Kabuo’s lack of expression represents the barrier between the white and Japanese societies. The white citizens are unable to read his face, unable to get to know him, or see how he is like them and on a larger scale how the Japanese citizens are like them. In referring to Kabuo’s expression, Ole speaks of Kabuo’s “unreadable Japanese expression,” attributing this facial expression to the entire Japanese population. This attribution is supported by references to Zenhichi’s and Hatsue’s facial expressions. The barrier between the two cultures exists on many levels, but it is most easily recognized by the white citizens by outward appearance. Guterson’s focus on Kabuo’s expressions and the expressions of Zenhichi and Hatsue signifies the manifestation of racial prejudice based on appearance alone.
In contrast to the interpretation of others, Kabuo believes his expression should be self-explanatory. He thought the judge, jury, and citizens would see the face of a “war veteran who had forever sacrificed his tranquility in order that they might have theirs” and the face of a haunted spirit. But in reality, he has little control over his expression, his mask. This mask communicated haughtiness, superiority, and most importantly guilt. Kabuo lives with the guilt of killing 3 men in the war.
His guilt is so intense that “the world was unreal, a nuisance that prevented him from focusing on his memory of that boy” he had killed. As a Buddhist, Kabuo believes in the laws of karma. He believes that he must pay for the murders he has committed in this life and subsequent lifetimes. He believes that his arrest for Carl’s death is the beginning of his payment.