As fisherman Shinji Kubo sets his sights on Hatsue, the beautiful daughter of the wealthiest man on the island, he quickly finds himself caught up in a struggle centered around class, wealth, and power. Shinji, who gives every penny he makes to his mother so that she can support their family, must prove himself to Hatsue’s intimidating father, Terukichi Miyata, who owns two huge freighters. The difficult lives of Uta-jima’s working class—and particularly Shinji’s struggle to ingratiate himself with Hatsue’s family—show how inequality in wealth and power can destabilize and harm communities. With this, Mishima argues that a person’s worth can never be determined by their material possessions, socioeconomic class, or societal power—people can only be judged by their moral character.
Uta-jima’s community is divided along lines of class, wealth, and power. Most of the island’s inhabitants are low-paid fishermen or divers. Men work day in and day out hauling in fish for the good of the fishing cooperative, while many women hurt themselves or risk hypothermia as they dive for abalone (small shellfish that contain valuable pearls). Uta-jima’s working class rarely sees the rewards of their labors. The fisherman must give the majority of their hauls to the island’s cooperative, which sells fish on the mainland—though fishermen like Shinji sometimes keep one or two fish from their daily haul in order to feed their families. The women who work as pearl divers for many months out of the year never get to keep the lustrous pearls buried in the abalone that they bring up from the ocean’s rocky, jagged floor. The struggles of Uta-jima’s working people introduce the idea that class rarely indicates a person’s worth, work ethic, or honor. The island’s divers and fishermen support one another, take care of their neighbors, and dedicate themselves to hard work done with integrity. Though they own little and control even less, they form the moral center of the novel. By contrast, while the wealthy few on the island enjoy solitude, luxury, and power, they are cut off from their neighbors physically, emotionally, and ideologically.
When Shinji Kubo falls in love with Hatsue Miyata, the daughter of Terukichi Miyata—the wealthiest man on the island—he finds himself struggling to prove himself to be a worthy match for Hatsue, since he is not of her social standing. Even though the two are wholly devoted to one another, the class barrier between them threatens to tear them apart. For example, When a terrible (and false) rumor spreads that Shinji took Hatsue’s virginity, Hatsue is forbidden from seeing Shinji at all. Though Shinji is indignant about the rumor—and embarrassed by how quickly it spreads across the island—he knows that he has no chance of explaining himself to Terukichi because of the class-related barriers between them. “It’s all because I’m poor,” Shinji confides in his friend and fellow fisherman Jukichi. Shinji doesn’t normally “let such querulous words pass his lips” or feel himself to be “weak enough to voice such a complaint”—but Shinji knows that if he were a rich man, his Hatsue’s father would not judge him so harshly, and this strikes him as deeply unfair.
This dynamic is also evident in the rivalry between Shinji and Yasuo, a wealthy young man who also wants to marry Hatsue. While Hatsue’s father would likely see Yasuo as the natural choice for his daughter (since Yasuo is of similar social standing), the young man has terrible character—he’s a selfish brute with no work ethic or empathy. Thus, Yasuo’s wealth actually imperils Hatsue by making him a frontrunner to marry her even though he would be a terrible partner. Thankfully, Terukichi surprises everyone on the island—including Shinji—by devising a test to help choose between Shinji and Yasuo; he hires both Shinji and Yasuo as crew members on one of the freighters he owns. When Shinji demonstrates his courage and selflessness by saving the crew from a typhoon, Terukichi realizes that “the only thing that really counts [in a person] is his get-up-and-go” and allows Shinji to marry his daughter. This shows that Terukichi at last understands that, in spite of their class difference, Shinji is a morally honorable person—and this makes him a good match for Hatsue. Though Terukichi spent a long time feeling that wealth and birthright were true indicators of a person’s merit, he now sees that integrity, bravery, and selflessness are the true markers of an individual’s worth.
Ultimately, Shinji proves himself to the fearsome Terukichi not by amassing wealth or power or finding a route to social mobility. Instead, Shinji shows his strong spirit and deep devotion to his work—and he is rewarded with Terukichi’s blessing to marry Hatsue. Through Shinji’s journey, Mishima argues that class, wealth, and power only distract from what truly matters: a person’s inner character.
Class, Wealth, and Power ThemeTracker
Class, Wealth, and Power Quotes in The Sound of Waves
His dark eyes were exceedingly clear, but their clarity was not that of intellectuality—it was a gift that the sea bestows upon those who make their livelihood upon it; as a matter of fact, he had made notably bad grades in school. He was still wearing the same clothes he fished in each day—a pair of trousers inherited from his dead father and a cheap jumper.
Surrounded though he was by the vast ocean, Shinji did not especially burn with impossible dreams of great adventure across the seas. His fisherman's conception of the sea was close to that of the farmer for his land. The sea was the place where he earned his living, a rippling field where, instead of waving heads of rice or wheat, the white and formless harvest of waves was forever swaying above the unrelieved blueness of a sensitive and yielding soil.
“God, let the seas be calm, the fish plentiful, and our village […] prosperous. […] Let me have much knowledge in the ways of the sea, in the ways of fish, in the ways of boats, in the ways of the weather . . . […] Please protect my gentle mother and my brother, who is still a child. […] Then there's a different sort of request I'd like to make. . . . Some day let even such a person as me be granted a good-natured, beautiful bride . . . say someone like Terukichi Miyata's returned daughter. . . .” […]
Shinji looked up at the star-filled sky and breathed deeply. Then he thought:
“But mightn't the gods punish me for such a selfish prayer?”
As they walked along, the girl asked him his name and now, for the first time, he introduced himself. But he went on hurriedly to ask that she not mention his name to anyone or say anything about having met him here: 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.
“I’ll do my best to help make life on our island the most peaceful there is anywhere . . . the happiest there is anywhere. . . . Because if we don’t do that, everybody will start forgetting the island and quit wanting to come back. No matter how much times change, very bad things—very bad ways—will always disappear before they get to our island. . . . The sea—it only brings the good and right things that the island needs . . . and keeps the good and right things we already have here. . . .”
“What would make you quit being ashamed?”
To this the girl gave a truly naive answer, though a startling one: “If you took your clothes off too, then I wouldn't be ashamed.”
All the time the luminous watch of which Yasuo was so proud, strapped above the hand with which he was holding onto the branch of the beech tree, was giving off its phosphorescent glow, faintly but distinctly ticking away the seconds. This aroused a swarm of hornets in the nest fastened to this same branch and greatly excited their curiosity.
After a moment Yasuo glanced back and saw that Hatsue had come down from the grove without his knowing it and was following along about two yards behind him. She did not so much as smile. When she saw him stop walking, she stopped too, and when he started on down the steps again, she started too.
It might be better to say that Terukichi was the personification of all Uta-jima’s toil and determination and ambition and strength. […] The uncanny accuracy of his weather predictions, his matchless experience in the matters of fishing and navigation, and the great pride he took in knowing all the history and traditions of the island were often offset by his uncompromising stubbornness, his ludicrous pretensions, and his pugnacity…
“It’s all because I'm poor,” Shinji said.
He was usually not one to let such querulous words pass his lips. And he felt tears of shame springing in his eyes, not because he was poor, but because he had been weak enough to give voice to such a complaint.
“I know exactly what you two are thinking. You’re planning to give Yasuo a beating. But you listen to me—that won't do a bit of good. A fool’s a fool, so just leave him alone. Guess it’s hard for Shinji, but patience is the main thing. That’s what it takes to catch a fish.”
Shinji’s mother hesitated a moment as she was about to enter the house. Just the fact that she had come calling at the Miyata house, where she was not on intimate terms, would be enough to set the villagers’ tongues to wagging.
Hatsue got to her feet in silence and went around the rock to receive her prize. And the prize she returned with was the brown, middle-aged handbag, which she pressed into the hands of Shinji’s mother.
The mother's cheeks flushed red with delight.
“Because I’ve always wanted to apologize ever since my father spoke so rudely to Auntie that day.” […]
The mother's simple, straightforward heart had immediately understood the modesty and respect behind the girl’s gesture. Hatsue smiled, and Shinji's mother told herself how wise her son had been in his choice of a bride.
“Which one of you fellows is going to take this lifeline over there and tie it to that buoy?”
The roaring of the wind covered the youths’ silence.
“Don't any of you have any guts?” the captain shouted again.
Yasuo’s lips quivered. He pulled his neck down into his shoulders.
Then Shinji shouted out in a cheerful voice, and as he did so the white flash of his teeth shone through the blackness to prove that he was smiling.
“I’ll do it,” he shouted clearly.
“When Shinji did that great thing at Okinawa—well, I changed my mind too and decided he was the one for my girl. The only thing that really counts . . .”
Here Terukichi raised his voice emphatically.
“The only thing that really counts in a man is his get-up-and-go. If he’s got get-up-and-go he’s a real man, and those are the kind of men we need here on Uta-jima.”
Out in front of them stretched the unfathomable darkness, where the beam from the lighthouse was making its vast, regular sweeps. […] Shinji […] was lost in thought. He was thinking that in spite of all they’d been through, here they were in the end, free within the moral code to which they had been born, never once having been estranged from the providence of the gods . . . that, in short, it was this little island, enfolded in darkness, that had protected their happiness and brought their love to this fulfillment.. . .