Throughout Yukio Mishima’s The Sound of Waves, the powerful forces of nature define life on the island of Uta-jima. As Mishima tells the story of a young couple battered by gossip, jealousy, and class divisions, he draws parallels between the lessons they have to learn and the lessons nature has to teach. Mishima suggests that nature is all-powerful and beyond human control—and as such should be respected. Ultimately, Mishima argues that humans can show their respect by trying to embody nature’s resilience, strength, purity, and beauty in order to exist in harmony with the natural world rather than resist it.
Throughout the novel, Mishima demonstrates that humans must respect and embody nature’s traits in order to live in harmony. This is first shown through the character arc of Hatsue, Shinji’s love interest. Hatsue is the beautiful young daughter of the most powerful man on Uta-jima, Terukichi Miyata. She has spent several years learning the art of pearl diving on a neighboring island, and Hatsue’s beauty, serenity, and facility with nature make her the object of several islanders’ affections. The work of pearl-diving is difficult and dangerous; one must traverse painfully cold waters, the harsh landscape of the ocean floor, and the threat of fearsome sea creatures in order to reap the rewards of pearls. Hatsue’s work as a pearl diver allows her to learn lessons about strength and bravery, while teaching her that the rarest treasures are often encased within tough, uncompelling exteriors. This knowledge helps her find a partner to share her life with, allowing her to see through Shinji’s working-class exterior to understand the rare and precious strength of character within him.
Mishima also illustrates how nature punishes those who do not learn its values. Yasuo is a self-absorbed youth, the son of one of Uta-jima’s leading families. Though Yasuo is a natural-born leader, he is brash, inflexible, and narcissistic—values that directly challenge the lessons of nature. After Hatsue returns to the village, Yasuo finds himself drawn to her—but he becomes incensed when rumors of Hatsue and Shinji’s clandestine relationship spread quickly across the island. Yasuo decides to take matters into his own hands, and one night, while Hatsue gathers water from a well near her father’s house, Yasuo attempts to rape her. His dastardly deed is foiled, however, when an aggravated cluster of hornets begins stinging him repeatedly all over his body, including his buttocks. Mishima uses this incident to show how nature quite literally takes revenge against those who make a mockery of its teachings. When Yasuo attempts to rape Hatsue, he tries to exert unnatural force over her. Nature immediately punishes him for this, showing that even though people may think they are separate from or even above the natural order of things, they are not.
Lastly, Mishima uses Shinji’s encounter with a tremendous force of nature—a typhoon—to illustrate that when people work with nature rather than against it, they can learn to embody nature’s might. When Shinji is invited to join the crew of the Utajima-maru—a lumber freighter owned by Hatsue’s father—as a deckhand, he takes the job excitedly. As the ship sails into port in Okinawa, however, the crew finds themselves confronted by an enormous typhoon that descends rapidly and unexpectedly. When one of the lines tethering the ship to a nearby buoy snaps and the captain asks for a volunteer to retie it, Shinji bravely offers himself up. He dives into the roiling typhoon waters and successfully reattaches the line, using all of the knowledge he has gained through his years of confronting the roaring sea to complete the task before him. The morning after his act of courage, Shinji wakes to find a “crystal-clear blue sky” shining above him and a calm sea “glitter[ing]” before him. Shinji is the protagonist of the novel, and his positive, flexible relationship to nature is a mark of his moral fortitude and deep inner strength. Shinji has always had a unique relationship to the natural world, and he harbors immense respect for the strength of nature. As Shinji replicates that strength within himself by using the lessons nature has taught him, he is able to save not just his own life but the lives of his fellow crewmembers.
Though Mishima paints nature as a dangerous force that occasionally exhibits violence, he ultimately suggests that humans must learn the lessons nature teaches. If people choose to learn from nature, they can accomplish incredible feats of strength and learn to treat one another with more flexibility, empathy, and care.
Lessons from Nature ThemeTracker
Lessons from Nature 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?”
“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. . . .”
When he could no longer bear the thought of waiting, Shinji flung on a rubber raincoat and went down to meet the sea. It seemed to him that only the sea would be kind enough to answer his wordless conversation.
Raging waves rose high above the breakwater, set up a tremendous roar, and then rushed on down.
“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.
The mother took a very tolerant view of young people’s amorous affairs. And even during the diving season, when everyone stood about the drying-fire gossiping, she held her tongue. But when it came to its being her own son's affair that was the subject of malicious gossip, then there was a motherly duty that she would have to perform.
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…
“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.”
Double suicide then? Even on this island there had been lovers who took that solution. But the boy’s good sense repudiated the thought, and he told himself that those others had been selfish persons who thought only of themselves. Never once had he thought about such a thing as dying; and, above all, there was his family to support.
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.
The boy swam with all his might. And, inch by inch, step by step, the huge mass of the enemy fell back, opening the way for him. It was as though a drill were boring its way through the hardest of solid rock.
The first time his hand touched the buoy he lost his hold and was pulled away. But then by good luck a wave swept him forward again and, just as it seemed on the point of dashing his chest against the iron rim, lifted him up with a single sweep and deposited him on the buoy.
“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.”
Nature too again smiled on them. When they reached the top they turned around and looked out over the Gulf of Ise. The night sky was filled with stars and, as for clouds, there was only a low bank stretching across the horizon in the direction of the Chita Peninsula, through which soundless lightning ran from time to time. Nor was the sound of the waves strong, but coming regularly and peacefully, as though the sea were breathing in healthy slumber.
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.. . .
Hatsue touched the picture lightly with her own hand and then returned it. Her eyes were full of pride. She was thinking it was her picture that had protected Shinji. But at this moment Shinji lifted his eyebrows. He knew it had been his own strength that had tided him through that perilous night.