The story starts in the winter of 1954, more than ten years ago after the attack on the Pearl Harbour during the World War II. The events take place on the imaginary island of San Piedro in Puget Sound in Washington. The main character of the story, Kabuo Miyamoto, half-Japanese half-American born and raised in the United States, is accused of intended murder. We see him for the first time in the court and the trial has already started. Kabuo, a fisherman, is accused of death of his best childhood friend and also a fisherman named Carl Heine. We don’t know the whole story and don’t know anything about Carl Heine, but during the trial the story of the island, its community and complicated relationships between the locals start to unravel.
The initial situation is described by the court: Carl Heine’s boat was found abandoned and floating on its side, clearly after some incident. The witnesses immediately called the sheriff and, when he came and examined the boat, the body of the owner was found there, tangled in his own fishing net. He was drowned, but something else drew the attention of the sheriff: a strange wound on the left side of his head. Carl could hit something with his head while falling, but it also could be the blow that killed him. This wound was the main reason the investigation started at all. The coroner examines the body and says that the wound reminds him the ones that he saw during the World War II by the Japanese soldiers who had kendo training. But also the examination showed that the real cause of death was drowning, not the wound itself. There is water and bloody red foam in the lungs of the corpse, so one can conclude that Carl was still breathing when he fell into the water. Despite Kabuo is American by nurture, him being Japanese by blood is enough to become suspicious. Moreover, some evidences state that Kabuo and Carl met at that night. The close examination of their boat shows that these evidences are true: the mixture of engines and the traces of paint on Carl’s boat that resembles the one Kabuo’s is painted with. The main evidence is drops of Carl’s blood on the rope with a fishing gaff that possibly was the weapon that made the wound on Carl’s head. The prosecution is almost sure that Kabuo is guilty of murder (though superstitions against Japanese people don’t help poor Kabuo), but the defence attorney, a skilled lawyer named Nels, parries and challenges every single evidence.
The judge announces the recess. During it the narrative switches to Ishmael Chambers, the head of the San Piedro Review. This position is inherited: his father Arthur also was the head of the review. Ishmael attentively watches Kabuo, who quietly talks to his wife Hatsue, who also came to the court to support him. Ishmael has a flashback about his childhood and from it we learn that he knows Hatsue very well. Before the World War II he and Hatsue grew together. When they both were ten, Ishmael was teaching her to swim in the sea and they kissed for the first time in their life while in the water. They got closer to each other when they grew up and start a secret relationship, sweet and innocent, naive as every first love. But when the war started, the prejudices against Japanese people started to grow and finally all the Japanese were relocated. Hatsue with her family moved to the Manzanar camp in California: the girl tearfully promises to wait for Ishmael and write him. But not only American people were prejudiced against Japanese now: Hatsue’s mother realised that her daughter was in love with Ishmael seeing her reading one of his letters. She demanded this romance to end and forbade Hatsue to write him. After a while Hatsue came to terms with the forced breakup and later met Kabuo in that very camp. After a long period of just friendship, Hatsue and Kabuo finally got close enough to start a relationship. When Kabuo enlisted to the army to go to the Europe and fight, he made a proposal to Hatsue and she agreed to marry him, knowing that it was possibly the last time she saw him.
Then we learn about the complicated relationship between the Kabuo’s family, the Miyamotos and Carl’s family, the Heines. Carl’s mother, Etta Heine is one of the witnesses. She tells the jury the story of the relationships between the two families and indirectly presents the possible reason of murder. She says that her deceased husband, Carl Heine Senior was a close friend to Zenhichi Miyamoto, Kabuo’s father, and they made an agreement for seven acres of land Carl Sr should sell to Zenhichi. The agreement was barely legal, but the friends trusted each other enough to make it. The men decided that the Miyamotos will pay the equal parts yearly until Kabuo turns twenty and then the land will go to Kabuo officially. Zenhichi paid honestly, but then they were relocated and the Miyamotos lost the source of income, missing the last two transactions. At that time Carl Sr. passed away and Etta says that she then counted the current price for the land, understood that it is significantly bigger now, and used the missed payments as the reason to sell all the land she had to another man, Ole Jergensen, returning to the Miyamotos all the money they paid to her husband.
The judge asks Ole Jergensen and he adds some more details to Kabuo’s biography. It appears that Kabuo came to him after the war, demanding his land back. But Ole didn’t know anything about the affairs with the piece of land he bought: he just paid, signed the papers and started using his new land after the successful deal. He never heard about the Miyamotos before. He says that Kabuo arrived in the evening of the day of the deal, being late for just a couple of hours to pay the last share and take his land. Susan Marie Heine, the widow of Carl Jr. adds that at the night of the possible murder Kabuo asked Carl to meet with him and talk about this issue. She testifies that Kabuo’s only purpose was to talk to Carl and they did it peacefully. Susan Marie didn’t hear exactly what they talked about, but when Carl returned home, he said that it was an old business about the seven acres of the land Kabuo tried to get back several times. She remembers that Carl didn’t say anything exact, remembering that his mother told him some bad things about Kabuo and also despised him for being a Japanese. Carl seemed to be torn apart between his old friendship and the position of his family.
The narrative returns to Ishmael. It appears that he went to the lighthouse to see what happened with his own eyes. During his amateur investigation he searches through the records of the lighthouse and sees that precisely at the moment Carl’s watch stopped in the water, a large ship sailed through the channel, starting the huge waves that could turn over the fishing boat. Ishmael is almost sure that Kabuo is not guilty, but still haven’t decided whether to present his evidence or to hide it. He still thinks of Hatsue with bitter tenderness, looking at her when it is her turn to testify. Hatsue says that Kabuo returned home almost happy and very hopeful after the talk with Carl. It didn’t look like they were arguing. They lived their average life until at September 16 Kabuo returned home from his fishing saying that he helped distressed Carl with the broken battery amidst of the channel and they finally settled down the business with seven acres. Kabuo went to sleep, tired after work, and later Hatsue heard the news about Carl’s death in the sea.
The sea honor code is presented to the jury and discussed: every fisherman must help another one seeing the distress sign, disregarding any personal issues and feelings. This is an axiom, because everyone can find himself in situation of emergency himself. The prosecution uses this to blame Kabuo of faking the danger for himself to make Carl come to him and bind his boat to Kabuo’s. Kabuo caught him off guard and killed with the fishing gaff, then hiding the traces to make it all look like an accident. Even when Kabuo stands to testify for himself and his version looks completely plausible and similar to Hatsue’s, the prosecution turns to personal matter, drawing attention to Kabuo’s emotionless expression and hints at his Japanese origins, sneakily claiming that Kabuo can’t be trusted and hides the truth behind his calm face as all the Japanese do. Even the judge puts him on place for such hidden racism, but it seems that at least some of the jury agree with the prosecution.
All the witnesses have testified and all the arguments between the prosecution and the defence are closed. The Judge says the final speech, reminding the jury of their duty and the jury deliberates. It seems that only one of them thinks that Kabuo isn’t guilty, but the rest are ready to convict him. The final decision is postponed. At night Ishmael finally decides to bring his evidences to Hatsue. He goes to her and shows her the notes from the lighthouse. They have a talk and in the morning Ishmael and Hatsue ask the sheriff to go again to Carl’s boat and have another look, searching for the proofs of what Ishmael has found in the lighthouse. The sheriff finds the traces of a lantern that should have been tied to the mast of the boat but then washed away with the tide. This lantern should have been a marker of the distress - so it wasn’t Kabuo who pretended to be in danger, as the persecution stated, it was Carl. The sheriff also finds the traces of blood and hair on the mast - proving that Carl hit it when the wave turned the boat. They return to the court all together and by ten o’clock jury is dismissed because no crime was committed. Carl’s death was an accident and Kabuo isn’t guilty. Ishmael waits for Kabuo and Hatsue leaving the court and makes a photo of them for himself. He returns home and starts writing, seemingly, about his investigation of Carl’s death.