The novel’s protagonist. Ishmael is the thirty-one-year-old editor of the local paper, the San Piedro Review. He is a World War II veteran, and a gunshot in the war has left him with an amputated left arm. As a young boy, Ishmael had a deep friendship with a local Japanese-American girl, Hatsue Imada. But Hatsue eventually called an abrupt end to the relationship and married Kabuo Miyamoto, leaving Ishmael bitter and resentful.
Kabuo’s wife, whose maiden name is Hatsue Imada. Hatsue and Ishmael became friends as small children, and by the time they entered their adolescence, Ishmael had fallen in love with her. Hatsue, however, always experienced doubt regarding the nature of her feelings for Ishmael. Throughout her life, Hatsue is torn between her Japanese culture and family background and her desire for a world without societal pressures and prejudices.
The Japanese-American fisherman who stands trial for the alleged murder of Carl Heine. When Kabuo was a boy, his family worked as sharecroppers on the strawberry farm owned by Carl Heine, Sr. Like his father, Zenhichi, Kabuo is a master at kendo, the Japanese art of stick fighting. Kabuo considers himself a murderer because he killed enemy soldiers in World War II, in which he fought for the United States Army. Since the war, Kabuo has been consumed with his dream to repurchase his family’s land.
The local fisherman who dies mysteriously on the night of September 15, 1954. The son of Etta and Carl Heine Sr., Carl was a high school classmate of Kabuo, Ishmael, and Hatsue’s and was particularly good friends with Kabuo. After fighting in World War II, however, Carl struggled with his prejudices toward people of Japanese descent. A physically robust, quiet man, he was greatly respected and admired by residents of San Piedro.
Ishmael’s father. Arthur founded and edited the San Piedro Review, the most prominent newspaper on the island. Arthur frequently—and courageously—used the editorial column in his newspaper as a forum to condemn the racism directed at San Piedro’s Japanese-American residents during World War II. Though his editorials often provoked hostility from much of the community, Arthur maintained a strong heart and firmly believed that his perspective was the correct one.
Ishmael’s mother. Now a widow, Helen remains committed to the principles of tolerance and honesty her husband demonstrated. She doubts that Kabuo’s trial is fair. Concerned about Ishmael’s solitary and seemingly joyless life, Helen urges her son to get over his emotional issues and fall in love again.
The local sheriff. Art initially believes that Carl’s death is an accident, but he begins to suspect Kabuo of murder after hearing the coroner’s offhand comment that Carl’s head wound resembles wounds inflicted by Japanese soldiers skilled in the martial art of kendo. His willingness to make such a leap of logic epitomizes the anti-Japanese sentiment prevalent on San Piedro.
Art Moran’s young and relatively inexperienced deputy.
The Island County coroner and a World War II veteran. Horace is shattered by his experience as a wartime doctor and feels like a shell of his former self. He envies Carl Heine’s strength and vitality even as he examines Carl’s corpse.
The judge presiding over Kabuo’s murder trial. Although he lets on to be sleepy and distracted, Judge Fielding is keenly aware of everything that takes place in his courtroom. He understands the racially charged nature of Kabuo’s trial and does all he can to diminish the role that racism plays in the proceedings.
Kabuo’s morally upright defense attorney. Nels is in his late seventies, and his health is failing. Though he is blind in one eye, his good eye exudes a sharp, penetrating intelligence.
The prosecuting attorney in Kabuo’s trial. Hooks charges Kabuo with first-degree murder and is rabidly seeking the death penalty. He subtly appeals to the jury’s racism during the trial.
Carl Heine’s beautiful, blond widow. When she was seventeen, Susan Marie began to enjoy and relish her sexuality and physical attractiveness, using them to pursue Carl when she was twenty. Though Susan Marie feels that Carl was a hardworking, steady husband and a good lover, she began to worry when she realized that their sex life constituted the core of their marriage.
Carl Heine’s father, who owned the strawberry farm on which the young Kabuo’s family lived and worked as sharecroppers.
Carl Heine Sr.’s rabidly racist wife. Etta was furious when her husband agreed to sell seven acres of his strawberry farm to Zenhichi Miyamoto, Kabuo’s father. Immediately after her husband’s death, Etta sold his land to a white farmer, Ole Jurgensen.
A farmer and landowner in San Piedro. After Carl Heine Sr. died, Etta sold his strawberry farm to Ole, including the seven acres that Zenhichi Miyamoto had contracted to buy from her husband. When Ole suffers a stroke in June 1954, he puts his farm up for sale, and Carl Heine Jr. quickly snatches it up.
Hatsue’s mother. While her daughters were growing up, Fujiko was wary of hakujin, the word she used to refer to white Americans. She urged her young daughters to follow their Japanese cultural traditions and roles, and did not want to see them act like white Americans.
Hatsue’s teacher. When Hatsue was thirteen, her parents sent her to Mrs. Shigemura for training in social graces. Mrs. Shigemura told Hatsue to avoid white men and their bizarre fetishes for Japanese girls and advised Hatsue to marry a good Japanese man. She thus represents the old school of Japanese values.
Kabuo’s father. When Kabuo was eight years old, Zenhichi began training him in the Japanese martial art of kendo, or stick fighting, and emphasized the discipline and self-restraint of the art. Like Mrs. Shigemura, Zenhichi embodies traditional Japanese values.
A local boat builder and member of the jury in Kabuo’s trial. Van Ness does not believe the evidence proves Kabuo’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and he refuses to convict the fisherman of murder until the other jurors effectively convince him of Kabuo’s guilt.