As diving season arrives, the young women who work as pearl divers feel a “heart-strangling” excitement. The pearl-divers of Uta-jima are skillful and competitive—and the dangerous work of pearl diving is no laughing matter. The water is cold and choking, the salt sometimes penetrates the divers’ goggles, and the divers often suffer wounds on their feet when kicking off against the sea floor.
In describing the dangerous and often painful work of pearl diving, Mishima illustrates the raw power of nature—and the profound, valuable lessons it has to teach to those who are brave enough to learn from it.
June and July are the busiest months for pearl diving. One sunny midsummer afternoon at the craggy Garden Beach—the most fruitful spot for diving—the women rest around the drying-fire, laughing as they compare their bare breasts and argue over whose are the most shapely. Shinji’s mother is quietly proud of her own breasts, which are the most youthful-looking among the women of her age—but she must admit that Hatsue’s breasts are the most beautiful. What’s more is that upon seeing Hatsue’s breasts for the first time, she realizes why the rumors about Hatsue and Shinji have begun to die out—Hatsue’s breasts are unmistakably the just-bloomed breasts of a virgin. Shinji’s mother looks on fondly as Hatsue laughs and jests with the other women.
This passage demonstrates how the passage of time affects the women of Uta-jima. They embrace the cycle of life as it changes their bodies and teaches them new lessons. The older, mellower, more seasoned divers, like Shinji’s mother, are wistful about the past—yet admiring of the potential, grace, and beauty that the young women of the island possess.
At lunchtime, the women shriek and squeal with excitement as an old peddler who makes his way to the island to sell his wares each summer arrives on the beach. He opens up his bundle on a rock, revealing swaths of cotton, housedresses, underwear, sashes, coin purses, handbags, ribbons, and jewelry. The women quickly begin buying up the goods, much to the delight of the scrawny old peddler. When he pulls out three beautiful and expensive plastic handbags, he announces that he will give one away free to the woman who brings up the biggest catch within the next hour.
The arrival of the peddler turns the dangerous work of pearl-diving into an exciting and rewarding game. The pearl-divers are competitive to begin with, but the peddler’s challenge to them brings out the fun and exhilaration of the craft, things that all too often fade into the background as the women confront the power of nature.
Shinji’s mother and Hatsue immediately enter the contest along with six other women. They take a boat out to a fertile cove nearby and begin diving. An hour later, when they return, they are exhausted, cold, and disheveled. The peddler counts their catches and announces that Hatsue has come in first place, while Shinji’s mother has taken second. Hatsue walks forward to receive her prize—but then immediately gives the beautiful handbag to Shinji’s mother. She says she wants to apologize for the way her father spoke to Shinji’s mother the day she came to call. Everyone praises Hatsue. Shinji’s mother thinks about what a good choice her son has made.
This passage demonstrates Hatsue’s profound selflessness. As Mishima posits throughout the novel, demonstrations of generosity and selfless acts are the mark of someone’s entrance into adulthood. Shinji’s mother is not just grateful, but also proud as she realizes that Hatsue has at last come into her own as a woman. Hatsue is good, selfless, and generous—she is all the things Shinji has always seen in her.