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The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima: Setting & Themes

Instructor: Kelly Mallari

I have taught Language Arts for 4 years and served as a Professor for ENG 101 and GLS for more than 3 years. I am a licensed teacher with a B.A. in English Literature, International and Global Studies, and Religious Studies. I have a M.A. in Global Studies.

Yukio Mishima's tale about young love has it all: lies, betrayal, a small town, and an angry stepfather. We'll explore how the setting and themes contribute to the progression of young love in this coming-of-age story.

Not Just a Love Story

Different elements of an emotionally charged narrative can allow authors the chance to provide readers with a dose of reality within a fictional world. Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) was a Japanese author who had a knack for writing novels that do just that. In this whimsical Japanese narrative about island culture, published in 1954 and translated into English as The Sound of Waves, we see how a story can both touch our hearts and teach us how to reconcile with our past and future selves.

Setting

Set on a small island off the coast of mainland Japan called Uta-Jima, The Sound of Waves is a tale about the life of eighteen-year-old Shinji Kubo. Shinji lives with his mother and younger brother Hiroshi, and the family is attempting to stay afloat after the death of Shinji's fisherman father during the WWII bombings. Shinji is now tasked with filling his father's role at an early age, but is complacent with his task as he enjoys the company of his master and his fellow apprentice.

An aerial view of Uta-Jima, off the coast of mainland Japan
uta-jima

The story's tone is uneventful and steady until the arrival of a strangely attractive girl, who becomes a catalyst in Shinji's life. Uta-Jima is a small island that brings to mind the phrase ''small town living.'' Anything new, including this girl, is treated as something of a spectacle. The girl, Hatsue, is the adopted daughter of Uta-Jima's wealthiest man, Terukichi Miyata. Hatsue had been living abroad, sent to be a pearl diver by her adopted father, but she has been called back to Uta-Jima following the death of Miyata's only son. With his son gone, Miyata decides it is time for Hatsue to marry, and whomever she marries will become his new son and heir.

Though she catches the eye of many men on the island, it is ultimately Shinji whom Hatsue falls for. Shinji is equally madly in love with her. Their romance becomes the talk of the town, and it seems Shinji is on the path to love and happiness. Sadly, the return of another girl, Chiyoko, signals the beginning of a series of sordid events. Chiyoko has long loved Shinji and finds herself overcome with jealousy. She decides to tear the two lovebirds apart with the help of the equally envious Yasuo, who is in love with Hatsue. Chiyoko uses Yasuo's terrible demeanor and loud mouth to her advantage, instructing him to spread rumors that Shinji has stolen Hatsue's virginity throughout Uta-Jima.

Themes

If you've ever lived in a small town, you know just how easy it is to fall out of the community's good graces. The Sound of Waves in many ways exemplifies traditional Japanese culture, which is rooted in ideas of respect, tradition, and the expectations of social classes. Japanese culture is often regarded as isolated, and the island of Uta-Jima conjures even more feelings of solitude within the novel. As the novel notes, the island is only three miles long, with about 1,400 inhabitants. The nature of the island's small circuit of social relationships becomes an almost insurmountable obstacle for the two lovers:

''Shinji well knew how sharp the villagers' tongues could be. Hatsue promised not to tell. Thus their well-founded fear of the village's love of gossip changed what was but an innocent meeting into a thing of secrecy between the two of them.''

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