The sound of waves or Shiosai in Japanese is Yukio Mishima’s 1954 novel. It starts with a brief description of the island called Uta-jima, it then moves to a remote fishing village where a young boy is returning from his fishing for the day. He is wearing his dead father’s trousers and a cheap jumper, and his name is Shinji Kubo. He has just graduated from school and is now working as a fisherman. He takes his caught halibut to the lighthouse for the owner and the owner’s wife. He feels he owes them as the owner of the lighthouse helped him to graduate by passing on a recommendation to the school principal.
On his way to the lighthouse he sees a girl he has never seen before who is working. This surprises him as he knows everyone on this tiny island, or at least he assumes that he did because the population is so small. He is very tanned because he is outside so much, and she looks like all the other local girls (tanned) except for something about her eyes. He stares at her and then moves on. While continuing on his way to the lighthouse he realises how rude it must have been for him to gaze at her in such a curious way, with this thought he blushes with shame and delivers the fish to the husband and wife.
He returns home to eat with his mother and his younger brother Hiroshi, who is a young teenager. It is explained that his father was killed during the war when he was strafed (a term for when an aircraft attacks a ground target with machine gun fire). He listens to their conversation hoping the girl is mentioned, but she isn’t. He and his brother then visit the community baths and he listens to local conversations with the same hope, but is disappointed again.
Shinji then goes off on a fishing trip on a boat with the captain and another fellow worker boy. They barely catch anything, but when they are talking the captain asks if they have heard about Teru Miyata and how he has brought his daughter home. They don’t know what he is talking about so he explains that Teru, who is an extremely rich local man who owns all of the major freights in the area adopted one of his daughters off, but because his son recently died of a lung disease he decided to have her back as now he is lonely. Her name is Hatsue and he is going to try and find a husband for her, the captain then suggests Shinji and his work mate as candidates. They both laugh, being poor fisher boys with nothing to offer.
Over the next few days he thinks about how the girl he seen must be this Hatsue. He visits a shrine and offers it ten yen, and then another ten yen, and makes a prayer for the protection of his mother and brother, for success with his fishing…and then he adds and for success in finding a wife, someone like Hatsue. He thinks about how cheeky this is and maybe it will anger the Gods to punish him.
He is sent on an errand by his mother, and while at an abandoned military outpost he overhears someone crying. He goes to find the noise and it is none other than Hatsue. She has got lost trying to get to the lighthouse. He offers to show her there. She agrees, and jokes about how she is tanned, but Shinji is basically so tanned he is black. When he is going to say goodbye he asks that she doesn’t tell anyone about the chance meeting they have had because the village is very bad at gossiping and chatting about trivial things, and thus make something of nothing. She agrees to tell no one and he leaves with a feeling of satisfaction that he and her now share a secret. He decides to take the long walk home just so he can hover over this event for longer and also so it looks like they didn’t meet by going such divergent ways.
A few days pass, Hatsue continues to take etiquette lessons from the wife of the lighthouse keeper (which is why she was going there), while Shinji continues to fish as work. The death of his father is explained in more detail when Shinji, Hiroshi and their mother go to the father’s grave because it is the day in the month that they celebrate his life at a shrine. They do this every month on a set date. While fishing on the job he overhears that Hatsue is going to be marrying a well known boy soon. This boy is Yasuo Kawamoto, he is the president of the Young Men’s Association, a type of society and club for the young males of the island to find work and relax in. He returns to land and picks up his wage packet, and when he is about to leave the beach he sees a boat coming in and Hatsue is on it. He helps the boat get landed and because he is strong all the people around him are glad he is there to help. He then walks off and forces himself to not turn around to see Hatsue.
He returns home and lays down, but he notices his wage is missing from his pocket, so he runs back to the beach. While he is gone Hatsue comes to his house and explains to his mother that she found an envelope with Shinji written on it which contains money. Shinji’s mother explains that he just ran out, so he must have returned to the beach to search for it. So Hatsue returns and explains to Shinji what had happened and gives him his wage packet back. Shinji blurts out about the marriage with Yasuo and asks her if it is true. She bursts out laughing and keeps complaining that it hurts because she is laughing so hard. She points to her chest and says it hurts. He grabs her and asks if she is okay, then their chapped from sea salt lips meet for a brief kiss. He then states that he needs to visit the lighthouse, and she tells him that she needs to too soon. So they will meet again soon.
Hatsue is at the lighthouse getting etiquette lessons again. Shinji arrives by shouting into the house, the husband and wife greet him as they always do: by thanking him for the fresh fish, and also inviting him in. While he is making his entrance he smiles at Hatsue, and she smiles in return. The wife is pleased that they already know each other, and doesn’t bother to introduce them because of this sharing of a smile. She then quickly moves on by stating that her daughter had mentioned Shinji in a recent letter. This daughter is Chiyoko, and is currently away in Tokyo studying as a student. The wife states that because she is mentioning Shinji in the letter, it is clear she likes him. From this Shinji instantly becomes embarrassed, stops himself from fully entering the house and disappears.
He waits for Hatsue to walk passed on her return home. He is going to scare her but becomes shy from the sound of her footsteps, so soft and sweet is she even her footsteps have an affection to them. So he whistles so she knows he is there, but she walks straight passed him. He runs after her and she falls over, he helps her up and asks why she is running. She explains she was annoyed at the letter and the daughter liking him. He dismisses it and says it is nothing, from this she is pleased to know that her and Shinji have something, and that Chiyoko won’t get in the way of that. While walking back together he doesn’t know what to say and is usually silent, so he begins to explains how he loves the island, his people and wants to buy a freighter with his savings and go into business with his younger brother. He wants to earn enough so his mother can live comfortably, and then when he gets old he will do the same thing: retire and live comfortably. He leaves out the wish to have a wife because he gets embarrassed. Hatsue doesn’t reply, but nods to each statement of his with a smile, agreeing to everything he is saying. As they return to the village they notice it is lit-up differently. The generator which had been broken for so long has just been repaired. The village is lit up and all the street lamps work again.
Hiroshi is sent off on a school trip which requires him to leave on a boat with all the other school children. Shinji has paid for this trip. But little does he know that a returning boat will bring Chiyoko home for a visit in between her studies. Yasuo is on this return trip too. He sees Chiyoko and begins flirting with her, she thinks about how she is sick of looking into men’s eyes and seeing the idea ‘She loves me’, rather than the more meaningful and romantic ‘I love you’. He grabs her hand and leads her to an area on the boat where they can sit alone. She thinks to herself how she wishes this hand was Shinji’s, who she has never even shook his hand, never mind held it. Yasuo brings up Hatsue and how everyone expects it to be him who will marry her, Chiyoko couldn’t care less and is busy waiting for a sign that something good will happen upon her return. It is not stated, but it is clear, that a good happening would be something between her and Shinji.
A huge storm hits the island so no boats can go out fishing. Shinji decides to brave the storm and go to the watchtower by the lighthouse, assuming that Hatsue will meet him there as they always plan to meet the next time the boats can’t go out – as they both work on boats. He gets there and is so wet and ruined by the storm that he takes most of his clothes off and makes a fire. The heat is comforting and he falls asleep. He is woken up by Hatsue standing naked in front of the fire drying herself. He accidentally makes her aware of his looking, and she gets embarrassed. He takes his clothes off too in order to make her less embarrassed, they end up hugging and she explains that to have sex now would be bad, Shinji asks why and she explains she has decided to marry him, so it would be bad until after they are married. He then gives her a pretty pink shell that he had found on the way here.
Chiyoko is in the lighthouse and looks outside and can see them leaving together. Hatsue and Shinji leave the watchtower, but instead of leaving by different routes, they leave together and walk the same way holding hands. Chiyoko visits Yasuo and tells him about what she has seen. Yasue is jealous but also considers that Shinji is an honest boy, so must have won Hatsue in an honest way, rather than seduction. This annoys him even more, so he decides to do the same back to Hatsue. He waits for her at 2am which is when she is due to collect water. He essentially attempts to rape her but calls it seduction, but she manages to escape because he is being attacked by a hornet. He begs her not to tell her father and promises he will do anything, so she makes him carry the water home for her.
Hiroshi returns from his trip away. He then goes out to play with two of his friends. They climb into a cave and act out doing a ritual. The sea becomes wild and they continue the ritual to calm the sea, it doesn’t work so they ask each other why the God of the sea is angry, and one of the children says something that he didn’t mean as anything but an answer: it is because of immorality, like what Shinji did with Hatsue, and then he uses a Japanese word that he knows is naughty but doesn’t know what it means. Hiroshi gets into a fight with the boy thinking he is insulting his brother. They stop because of the sea and escape the cave, they both then act as if this fight didn’t happen. When Hiroshi gets home he asks his mother what the naughty word means, the mother tells him not to say it ever again and leave the subject alone.
When Shinji and Hiroshi are asleep, their mother sneaks over to Shinji and asks him if he has slept with Hatsue. He explains what actually happened, and she is satisfied. She tells him to be careful, but trusts him with his conduct and trusts that he isn’t lying. Yasuo and Chiyoko have spread a rumour around the entire village about Shinji and Hatsue. The rumour is that they have had sex without being married. Hatsue’s father visits the public bath house and overhears two people talking about this rumour. He roughs them up and then leaves. Hatsue is then forbidden from seeing Shinji.
Hatsue gives a letter to the captain of the ship that Shinji fishes on, he gives it to him and reads it. It explains how the father knows and how he won’t let her explain, or go out unless it is job related or with another person – preferably himself to accompany her. She asks that he hides a letter for her to find in a specific place, Shinji’s work fellow Ryuji agrees to deliver it for him and pick up Hatsue’s letters for him too, because he walks passed her home on the way back to his own home after every fishing trip. Both Ryuji and the captain (called Jukichi) know the whole story and feel sorry for Shinji, they also want to beat up Yasuo for spreading this lie and attacking her while she was gathering water. Little do they know that Chiyoko had a role in this. She begins to feel guilty when she sees Shinji looking upset. She goes to the beach to see him off in the morning for his fishing trip. She collars him just as he is about to jump on board and doesn’t know what to say. She blurts out the question ‘Am I ugly?’, he doesn’t understand so she says it again, he replies ‘No, you are pretty’, and then he says it again as he jumps on board. This reply gives her a joy inside which makes her feel acknowledged, she returns to Tokyo in high spirits, but also believing that she is a wicked person for doing this to Shinji. The one man who has called her pretty and didn’t want anything in return is the one man she has harmed with a gossip.
Shinji visits the shrine of an old legend about a prince who came to the island and married a local girl. He receives a letter the next day saying that Hatsue had a dream that Shinji was the reincarnation of this prince. From this he guesses that the future will be good, as she couldn’t have known he went to the shrine, but they are thinking about the same thing and are deeply connected it seems.
Shinji’s mother decides to visit Hatsue’s father, but he won’t see her, so she storms off. She tells Shinji about this and he learns about it through Hatsue’s letter, but both Hatsue and his mother leave out the detail about her storming out. Hatsue informs him that her father is having a party and will be drunk, and when he is drunk he gets sleepy so they should be able to meet. Shinji leaves early to wait for her, he eventually sees a shadow and recognises the sound of the footsteps. It is her! But just as quickly as he sees her face, she is grabbed by her father and is dragged off. Out of shock Shinji has no idea what to do, so just watches.
The women go out diving as the always do, but on the beach where they are naked by a fire to dry themselves off, a seller of wares puts forward the idea that the woman who can dive and get the most abalone shells will win a handbag worth over eight-hundred yen. The women agree to this idea, and Hatsue wins the competition while Shinji’s mother comes second. They had agreed that young women will win a blue handbag, middle-aged would win a brown one, and old women would win a black one. Hatsue takes a brown handbag and gives it to Shinji’s mother. The mother is shocked and asks why, Hatsue replies that she has wanted to apologise for the way her father spoke to her for a while now, and this is her apology. The rest of the woman make a comment about how good a girl Hatsue is, and Shinji’s mother thanks her. After this she tells herself how wise her son has been to choose this girl as his bride.
Shinji is then visited by a captain who works for Hatsue’s father, he offers Shinji a job on one of the huge freighters that Hatsue’s father owns. He takes the job and it seems Yasuo has also been given this chance too. They both see this as a chance to prove they are husband material for Hatsue. Yasuo soon shows everyone he is lazy, while Shinji shows everyone he is hard working. A huge storm happens and Shinji volunteers to dive into the sea and reattach a rope to a lost buoy. He manages it using all of his experience and the raw power which years of being a fisherman have given him. The captain is proud of him and things seem to be going well. He has a picture of Hatsue which she gave to him through a letter passed on to Shinji’s mother. He looks at it before he goes to sleep while on this trip.
Shinji returns and goes back to his normal work. Chiyoko doesn’t return from Tokyo even though it is a holiday so she should be back. After not getting any reply, Chiyoko’s mother writes a ten page letter which expresses how upset she is that her daughter hasn’t returned. Chiyoko replies with a letter explaining that she won’t be coming back because she feels so guilty about causing a rift between Hatsue and Shinji, and she will not return until that rift no longer exists. Reading this the mother decides she will visit Hatsue’s father and persuade him. She dresses smartly and on her way there she runs into all of the diving women who are doing laundry together out in the open. She explains where she is going and why and Shinji’s mother thanks her. The other woman all love Hatsue and decide to go with her as a show of force and support. Shinji’s mother does not go, not wanting to return and make a scene like last time.
When the lighthouse keeper’s wife gets to the house, Hatsue’s father invites her in and ignores the other women. They all follow him. Chiyoko’s mother mentions Shinji and Hatsue but is interrupted by Hatsue’s father. He explains that it doesn’t matter, he has already made up his mind that Shinji will marry Hatsue, and he will help Shinji’s younger brother and their mother with some money on a monthly basis. But Shinji needs to grow up and get a bit older first before the marriage can happen, so they will be engaged instead for the time being. Hatsue’s father explains that the boat trip was a test to find out whether Yasuo or Shinji would make a good husband. Shinji proved himself and the captain ended up adoring him and stating: you will find no better man to marry your daughter. Hatsue’s father then explains that what makes a real man is the ability to get up and go, and Shinji really does have this.
Shinji is then openly allowed to visit Hatsue’s house. Him and Hatsue visit the local shrine and pray to the Gods for thanks, for all that they have been through and for allowing it to all resolve itself. Shinji introduces himself to the priest and gives him two red snappers as an offering, and the priest congratulates them on their engagement. Shinji explains to Hatsue that now he is old enough he will take the exam for first ship mate, and that he is sure that it will show Hatsue’s father that he is ready to take a wife and is a grown man. Hatsue agrees and shyly smiles.
They both visit the lighthouse keeper and his wife, Shinji bringing a fish as always for them. The wife explains that she is happy for them and that Chiyoko will be returning soon. Shinji still doesn’t know about Chiyoko’s part in the rift between him and Hatsue, so doesn’t think anything of it. The lighthouse keeper shows them around the lighthouse, and while they are looking out at the sea and the boats upon it with a telescope, Hatsue pulls out a pink shell and asks Shinji if he remembers it. He does and pulls the picture of Hatsue out of his pocket, and she becomes shy. She assumes that the picture was the thing that protected him on the boat where he had to swim out during a storm. He raises his eyebrows at her and thinks to himself that he knows it wasn’t the picture that got him through that storm, but his own body and power, and this is where the story ends.
The ending implies that there is such a thing as fate, but Shinji did also take part in making it so with his well built and experienced body, and sheer act of willpower through the desire to prove himself so he could marry Hatsue. Because he has the body of a man who was a hard worker, he was able to be a can do type of man and prove himself the right man for Hatsue. It is romantic that Hatsue believes the picture kept him safe, and in a way it did because she had prayed every day for his safety, but at the same time the only reason he was willing to traverse such danger was to prove himself a man and a worthy future husband. This is both romantic and realistic, and combines the feminine and masculine variation of romance, thus suggesting that Hatsue and Shinji will be fine and happy together.
The language of this novel was what struck me most. Mishima has a poetic way of writing that regularly made me want to go for a walk, be around nature, visit the sea and look upon those crashing white stricken waves. Mishima really does have a romanticism to his expression and language in this book, and it, like the sea, carried me on until the end. A brilliant story and fantastically written. I cannot recommend this book enough. I think anyone who doesn’t know of Mishima’s writing will do well to start with this book. It is easy to read, a simple but compelling story and has the writing style of someone carried away by the pull of the narrative he was creating.