On San Piedro Island, located off the coast of mainland Washington in the Pacific Northwest, a Japanese-American fisherman named Kabuo Miyamoto goes on trial for the murder of Carl Heine, a well-liked local fisherman and respected war veteran. The date is December 6, 1954, one day before the thirteenth anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Kabuo faces the courtroom silently and with a stiff, upright posture, which the white residents of San Piedro in the courtroom interpret as a sign of Kabuo’s cold-blooded remorselessness.
Because San Piedro is a small, isolated island, its residents are extremely careful not to make enemies within their community. Over the years, this caution has cultivated a brooding quiet throughout the island. Carl Heine is an archetypal San Piedro native, silently hoarding his feelings and words as if they were precious nuggets of gold. Carl has returned from World War II with the stony silence of a veteran.
In contrast to Carl, Ishmael Chambers, another war veteran who is about the same age as Carl, makes his living through words. He is the editor of the town newspaper, the San Piedro Review, a position he inherited from his father, Arthur. Yet Ishmael remains silent about one aspect of his personal history, the romantic relationship he once had with a young Japanese-American girl named Hatsue, who is now Kabuo’s wife. Ishmael struggles with his memories of this relationship, unable to understand why the beautiful Hatsue, who had been so close to him, abruptly called off the relationship and has treated him with coldness ever since.
Kabuo and his wife believe that it will be impossible for him to receive a fair trial in the postwar anti-Japanese climate. Nonetheless, Kabuo already regards himself as a murderer in a sense. A veteran of World War II himself—having fought for the American side, not the Japanese—he broods over his memories of the enemy soldiers he killed during the war. Kabuo has settled into a quiet acceptance of that guilt, but he has also nurtured an appreciation of his wife and children as marvelous, undeserved gifts.
During the trial, there is little overt expression of racism against Kabuo as a Japanese-American, but it is clear that racism pervades the proceedings. Beneath San Piedro’s seeming tranquility and stillness smolders a tension between the island’s white residents and its Japanese-American community. During the war, the white residents of San Piedro stood by silently while their Japanese-American neighbors were loaded onto ferries and sent to internment camps. The passive hatred and prejudice common on San Piedro did not originate with the war hysteria, however. Rather, the war merely unleashed and legitimized decades-old prejudices that had previously been suppressed under San Piedro’s ethos of silence and avoidance of confrontation.
While Kabuo’s trial takes place, the novel repeatedly flashes back in time to episodes that took place years before, interspersing these past events between testimonies and statements given during the trial. During the war, Etta Heine, Carl’s rabidly anti-Japanese mother, took advantage of the Miyamoto family’s absence to break an agreement her husband made years earlier. Under this agreement, Etta’s husband, Carl Heine Sr., had agreed to sell seven acres of his land to Kabuo’s father, Zenhichi. The agreement had been informal, since laws at the time forbade Japanese-born residents from purchasing or owning land. Zenhichi made his biannual payments for the land religiously and was just two payments away from full ownership when his family was sent to an internment camp.
The elder Carl died soon after the Miyamotos were sent away. Etta, disgusted with the idea that anyone of Japanese descent would ever own her husband’s land, promptly sold the land to a white farmer, Ole Jurgensen, at a higher price than the Miyamotos had paid. When Kabuo returned from the war, he sought to recover the land he felt his family deserved. However, since Ole Jurgensen now owned the land, Kabuo had no choice but to wait patiently until Ole was ready to sell. When Ole finally advertised his farm for sale after suffering a stroke, Kabuo thought that the moment had arrived and rushed to make an offer for the land as soon as he heard that it was available.
Kabuo found that Carl Heine had beaten him to it; Carl had already made arrangements to purchase Ole’s land. Hearing Kabuo’s pleas, however, Carl agreed to consider selling Kabuo a portion of the land, the small plot that Zenhichi had originally attempted to purchase. Kabuo held out hope that Carl would in fact decide to offer him the land, since he and Carl had been childhood friends. However, Kabuo knew that Carl, though at heart a good man, had struggled with anti-Japanese prejudices ever since the war.
Still undecided about the land sale, Carl went out in his fishing boat on the foggy night of September 15, 1954. His boat ran out of power during the night, leaving him stranded in dense fog in the middle of a shipping channel, a perilous place to be because of the huge freighters that frequently passed through the channel. Fortuitously, Kabuo came upon Carl’s boat and helped him. Grateful for Kabuo’s kindness, Carl overcame his prejudices and agreed to sell the land to Kabuo.
Unfortunately, Carl died later that night in a freak accident. A large freighter passing through the shipping channel created an enormous wake, a wall of waves high enough to jar Carl’s boat violently. Carl, who had been cutting a lantern loose from his mast, was knocked down from the mast and hit his head on the edge of his boat. Knocked unconscious, he fell into the water and drowned.
The authorities began to investigate the case the next day, when Carl’s boat was found adrift off the island. The investigation was under the jurisdiction of Art Moran, the local sheriff. The coroner, Horace Whaley, a World War II veteran himself, remarked to the sheriff that Carl’s head wound resembled wounds he had seen inflicted by Japanese soldiers skilled in the martial art of kendo. Though Art had at first thought that Carl’s death was purely an accident, Horace’s comment led him to investigate more closely. The evidence, though circumstantial, seemed to point directly to Kabuo. Not only was Kabuo an expert in kendo, but upon searching Kabuo’s boat, Art found a fishing gaff with blood on the handle—blood that, when tested, proved to be of the same relatively rare blood type as Carl’s.
There remains no incontrovertible proof of Kabuo’s innocence until Ishmael Chambers stumbles across a logbook from a local lighthouse on the evening of the second day of the trial. The logbook, kept by a radioman’s assistant who is no longer stationed on San Piedro, records that a large freighter got lost in dense fog off the island on the night of September 15, 1954—the same night Carl died. The radioman, attempting to guide the freighter back on course, advised its crew to steer the huge ship directly through the channel where Carl was fishing that night. According to the logbook, the freighter passed through Carl’s area at 1:42 A.M., just five minutes before Carl’s waterlogged watch stopped at 1:47 A.M.—the moment Carl plunged, unconscious, into the water. It is clear to Ishmael that the freighter’s wake, not Kabuo, is responsible for Carl’s death.
The discovery of the report leaves Ishmael tortured with indecision. He knows that as an honest man and especially as a reporter, he is obligated to come forward with any information that bears relevance to the trial. However, Ishmael still struggles with intense bitterness as Hatsue’s jilted lover. Ishmael recognizes his intense desire for revenge against Hatsue for breaking his heart.
Ishmael sits on the report through the trial’s closing statements. The prosecutor, Alvin Hooks, subtly appeals to the jurors’ prejudice in his closing statement, exhorting them to look at Kabuo’s stone-faced expression when deciding his guilt. Kabuo’s attorney, Nels Gudmundsson, directly addresses the matter of prejudice and urges the jury to decide objectively.
The trial ends, and the jury goes into deliberations. All the jurors adamantly insist on Kabuo’s guilt except for one, whose stubbornness prolongs the deliberations and forces them to adjourn for the day. At the last minute, Ishmael reveals the contents of the lighthouse report to Hatsue. The charges against Kabuo are dropped and he is freed from jail, finally reunited with his wife and children.