Aggressive Regionalism: Texts

17. David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars

David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars (1994; New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 75-79.

In the back of Judge Lew Fielding’s courtroom sat twenty-four islanders of Japanese ancestry, dressed in the clothes they reserved for formal occasions. No law compelled them to take only those rear seats. They had done so instead because San Piedro required it of them without calling it a law.

Their parents and grandparents had come to San Piedro as far back as 1883. In that year two of them—Japan Joe and Charles Jose—lived in a lean-to near Cattle Point. Thirty-nine Japanese worked at the Port Jefferson mill, but the census taker neglected to list them by name, referring instead to Jap Number 1, Jap Number 2, Jap Number 3, Japan Charlie, Old Jap Sam, Laughing Jap, Dwarf Jap, Chippy, Boots, and Stumpy—names of this sort instead of real names.

By century’s turn over three hundred Japanese had arrived on San Piedro, most of them schooner hands who jumped ship in Port Jefferson Harbor in order to remain in the United States. Many swam ashore with no American currency and wandered

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island trails eating salmonberries and matsutake mushrooms until they found their way to “Jap Town”: three bathhouses, two barbershops, two churches (one Buddhist, the other a Baptist mission), a hotel, a grocery store, a baseball diamond, an ice cream parlor, a tofu shop, and fifty unpainted and slatternly dwellings all fronting onto muddy roads. Within a week the ship jumpers possessed mill jobs—stacking lumber, sweeping sawdust, hauling slab wood, oiling machines—worth eleven cents an hour.

Company books preserved in the Island County historical archives record that in 1907 eighteen Japanese were injured or maimed at the Port Jefferson mill. Jap Number 107, the books indicate, lost his hand to a ripping blade on March 12 and received and injury payment of $7.80. Jap Number 57 dislocated his right hip on May 29 when a stack of lumber toppled over.

In 1921 the mill was dismantled: all of the island’s trees had been fed to the saws, so that San Piedro resembled a bald stump desert. The mill owners sold their holdings and left the island behind. The Japanese cleared strawberry fields, for strawberries grew well in San Piedro’s climate and required little starting capital. All you needed, the saying went, was one horse, one plow, and a lot of children.

Soon some Japanese leased small plots of land and entered into business for themselves. Most, though, were contract farmers or sharecroppers who worked in fields owned by hakujin. The law said they could not own land unless they became citizens; it also said they could not become citizens so long as they were Japanese.

They saved their money in canning jars, then wrote home to their parents in Japan requesting wives be sent. Some lied and said they’d gotten rich, or sent pictures of themselves as younger men; at any rate, wives came across the ocean. They

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lived in cedar slat huts lit by oil lamps and slept on straw-filled ticks. The wind blew in through the cracks in the walls. At five o’clock in the morning bride and groom both could be found in the strawberry fields. In the fall, squatting between the rows, they pulled weeds or poured fertilizer out of buckets. They spread slug and weevil bait in April. They cut back the runners on the yearlings first and then on the two- and three-year-old plants. They weeded and watched for fungus and spit bugs and for the mold that grew when it rained.

In June, when the berries ripened, they took their caddies into the fields and began the task of picking. Canadian Indians came down each year to join them in working for the hakujin. The Indians slept at the verges of fields or in old chicken houses or barns. Some worked in the strawberry cannery. They stayed for two months, through raspberry season, then they were gone again.

But for at least a solid month each summer there were endless strawberries to pick. By an hour after dawn the first flats were mounded over, and the foreman, a white man, stood writing Roman numerals in a black book beside the name of each picker. He sorted the berries in cedar bins while men from the packing company loaded them onto flatbed trucks. The pickers went on filling flats, squatting in the numbered rows.

When the harvest was over in early July they were given a day off for the Strawberry Festival. A young girl was crowned Strawberry Princess; the hakujin put on a salmon bake; the Volunteer Fire Department played a softball game against the Japanese Community Center team. The Garden Club displayed the strawberries and fuchsia baskets, and the chamber of commerce awarded trophies for a float competition. In the dance pavilion at West Port Jensen the night lanterns were kindled; tourists from Seattle poured forth from the excursion steamers to

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perform the Svenska polka, the Rhinelander, the schottische, and the hambone. Everybody came out—hay farmers, clerks, merchants, fishermen, crabbers, carpenters, loggers, net weavers, truck farmers, junk dealers, real estate brigands, hack poets, ministers, lawyers, sailors, squatters, millwrights, cedar rats, teamsters, plumbers, mushroom foragers, and holly pruners. They picnicked at Burchillville and Sylvan Grove, listened while the high school band played sluggish Sousa marches, and sprawled under trees drinking port wine.

One part bacchanal, one part tribal potlatch, one part vestigial New England supper, the entire affair hinged on the coronation of the Strawberry Princess—always a virginal Japanese maiden dressed in satin and dusted carefully across the face with rice powder—in an oddly solemn ceremony before the Island County Courthouse at sundown of the inaugural evening. Surrounded by a crescent of basketed strawberries, she received her crown with a bowed head from Amity Harbor’s mayor, who wore a red sash from shoulder to waist and carried a decorated scepter. In the hush that ensued he would announce gravely that the Department of Agriculture—he had a letter—credited their fine island with producing America’s Finest Strawberry, or that King George and Queen Elizabeth, on a recent visit to the city of Vancouver, had been served San Piedro’s Best for breakfast. A cheer would fly up as he stood with scepter high, his free hand about the young maiden’s shapely shoulder. The girl, it turned out, was an unwitting intermediary between two communities, a human sacrifice who allowed the festivities to go forward with no uttered ill will.

The next day, at noon traditionally, the Japanese began picking raspberries.

Thus life went forward on San Piedro. By Pearl Harbor Day there were eight hundred and forty-three people of Japanese

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descent living there, including twelve seniors at Amity Harbor High School who did not graduate that spring. Early on the morning of March 29, 1942, fifteen transports of the U.S. War Relocation Authority took all of San Piedro’s Japanese Americans to the ferry terminal at Amity Harbor.

They were loaded onto a ship while their white neighbors looked on, people who had risen early to stand in the cold and watch the exorcising of the Japanese from their midst—friends some of them, but the merely curious, mainly, and fishermen who stood on the decks of their boats out in Amity Harbor. The fishermen felt, like most islanders, that this exiling of the Japanese was the right thing to do, and leaned against the cabins of their stern-pickers and bow-pickers with the conviction that the Japanese must go for reasons that made sense: there was a war on and that changed everything.

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