The small island of Uta-jima—or Song Island—is inhabited by only about 1,400 people, and the coastline is only about three miles long—yet it is home to great beauty. Yashiro Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the god of the sea, allows the seafaring residents of Uta-jima to pray to the sea-god and ask for protection from the wild waves as they set off on or return from fishing and diving journeys. The island is also home to a lighthouse that shines beacons into the sea, guiding sailors home through the “unceasing roar” of the Irako Channel. The lighthouse watchman keeps a careful record of all the vessels and shipping freighters that come to the island seeking port or picking up goods, and he communicates with cargo owners in the ports where the freighters are ultimately bound.
The opening lines of the book introduce the island of Uta-jima and explain the significance of nature—specifically the sea—to the people who live on the island. It is clear that the residents of Uta-jima respect nature deeply and seek to learn from it. Their lives are built on the ecosystem of the sea, and they feel both fear and reverence toward the ocean’s mighty power. The people of Uta-jima are accordingly resilient, intuitive, and fluid, just like the ocean itself.
One night, past sunset, Shinji Kubo—a young fisherman of 18—hurries up the path toward the lighthouse carrying a large fish. He has sunburnt skin and chapped lips from spending his days on the sea. As Shinji climbs the treacherous path to the lighthouse, his feet, familiar with the rocky terrain, guide him carefully.
Earlier that evening, after wrapping up a day of fishing on the Taihei-maru, Shinji helped his fellow fisherman transfer their catch to the boat belonging to the island’s fishing Co-operative. He took one halibut for himself and set out for the lighthouse. While walking along the beach, he noticed a girl he’d never seen before resting against a stack of heavy wooden frames used to help guide fishing-boats to shore. From the girl’s sweaty forehead and heavy breath, Shinji realized she must have just finished stacking the frames. Shinji admired the strange girl’s beauty, and as he passed her, he stopped before her and looked her full in the face. The girl refused to look back at Shinji.
As Shinji lays eyes on a beautiful woman, he’s intrigued by her because of her obviously hardworking nature and the air of mystery about her—it’s not just her looks alone. This portends that Shinji is not simply attracted to superficial aspects of a person; instead, he devotes himself to people for deeper, more authentic reasons.
Now, as Shinji approaches the lighthouse, he is full of shame over having stared so rudely at the girl. On many nights, he brings fish to the lighthouse, because he is indebted to the lighthouse-keeper and his wife. They helped pull some strings so that Shinji could graduate from school on time and begin working as a fisherman in order to provide for his brother, Hiroshi, and his widowed mother. As Shinji arrives at the lighthouse, the older couple rejoices at Shinji’s arrival—and the beautiful halibut he has brought—and invites him in for a cup of cocoa.
Though the lighthouse-keeper and his wife did Shinji and his family a favor quite a while ago, Shinji continues to pay them his respects and thanks. This demonstrates Shinji’s selfless character, his work ethic, and his desire to repay those who have helped him. His embarrassment over having stared at the beautiful girl shows that he’s empathetic towards the experiences of others.