The Second World War and the twenty years after it were troubled times, not just for the United States but for the entire world. When the war ended with Japanese signatures on a declaration of surrender, it signaled the end of Imperial Japan. A caste society which had somehow lasted for hundreds of years was suddenly declared obsolete. No longer would there be an Emperor, no longer would there be a samurai warrior class. This influx of western culture and massive post-war change created a lot of problems. People who had been raised into a system generations old were disillusioned, facing a conflict between their traditional upbringing and the modern ideal. Working through these challenges is still in progress today, as is still adapting its economy, government and people to function in these modern times. The author of The Sound of Waves, Yukio Mishima, was bred into the samurai class. Born and raised as the cream of the social crop, he was taught to be a warrior poet and embraced the ways of tradition and history. His books reflect his own view of the answer to Japan's cultural quandary. In Yukio Mishima's The Sound of Waves, the author personifies vice and virtue in his main characters to prove that the old ways are the right ones.
The book really begins when Hatsue, the daughter of the richest man in the village and the most beautiful girl on the island, returns from abroad so that her father may pick her a husband for him to adopt as his son. Hatsue is undoubtedly rich and beautiful, but is also devoted, intelligent, and obedient ... all the most sought-after characteristics of an ideal, traditional Japanese wife. Her honest desire to cling to her values is best illustrated when she and the main character, Shinji, wind up naked together in a small hut during a storm. "The words which Hatsue spoke next were weighted with virtue: 'It's bad. It's bad! . . . It's bad for a girl to do that before she's married.' 'You really think it's so bad?' the crestfallen boy asked, without any conviction . . . 'It's bad for now. Because I've decided it's you I'm going to marry, and until I do, it's really bad.'" Shinji had won Hatsue; at least, that's what the two lovebirds thought. As the novel progresses, jealousy and idle mouths create so many obstacles that the book soon becomes the chronicle of a contest between two young men with the beautiful Hatsue as the prize.
Shinji, as has already been mentioned, is the main character. Shinji is the simple son of a widowed diving woman, and at the start of the story he works on a small fishing boat to support himself, his mother and his younger brother. Shinji is physically strong; in fact, Mishima describes him as being able to "swim around his home island five times without stopping." He is a hard worker, possibly his primary virtue. But the one ideal that Mishima stresses in Shinji above all is the desire to do what is right. Although Shinji isn't perfect, according to Mishima: "Shinji had a sort of haphazard respect for moral things. And even more because he had never yet known a woman, he believed he had now penetrated to the moralistic core of woman's being." That stormy night with Hatsue, when she had told him not to go further than a kiss, he was naïve enough to believe that this was the primary factor in a woman's morality. However, this, combined with his desire for the girl and his desire to do the right thing, persuaded him to wait for marriage with Hatsue. To get there, however, he would have to win the contest which the plot of the book becomes.
Until now the second contender in the book hasn't been mentioned. This other boy's name is Yasuo, and he is the rich, presumptuous eldest son of a higher-up family in the village. Yasuo is portrayed in the novel as a victim of western culture. He was conceited and arrogant to begin with, but he was also "addicted" to American pulp fiction and a would-be greaser. This seems to be the reason, in Mishima's mind, that Yasuo not only thought Shinji had taken Hatsue's virginity, but that if Shinji could do it, then so could he. Yasuo tested this theory out just a short while later in the dark hours of the morning, when Hatsue went out to get her family's water for the day. However, one of his Western affectations -- a glow-in-the-dark watch -- proves his undoing. " watched the girl's strong hands ... as she filled the buckets ... and the sight quickened his imagination with delightfully carnal pictures of her healthy young body. 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 . . . this aroused a swarm of hornets in the nest fastened to this same branch and greatly excited their curiosity." Yasuo went on to attempt three times to pin Hatsue down and have his way, but each time a hornet would sting him and gave the girl the opportunity to flee. Eventually out of kindness Hatsue agrees not to tell her father what he tried to do as long as he hauled the water back to her house. Yasuo's jealousy and ambition, combined with what he had read in pulp-fiction magazines, inspired him to try to rape, or in his words, "seduce" Hatsue. In contrast, Mishima is quick to point out that Shinji is ignorant of sex outside of simple curiosity, innocent, and as such is willing to wait until Hatsue is ready.
These are the contenders. To win Hatsue, they will have to deal with three main obstacles. The first are the villagers. Mishima describes the village as a close-knit, rustic place where excitement is scarce. The villagers, while not necessarily out to stop Shinji at first, spread the gossip of a jealous and lonely girl with her own crush on Shinji. This girl, Chiyoko, originated the story that Shinji had seduced Hatsue. Bored villagers had nothing better to do but spread this calumny. In the end, the villagers come to Hatsue's father to plead Shinji's case; fortunately, at this point their votes are unnecessary for Shinji to win. Hatsue's father, Terukichi Miyama, is the second obstacle. He refuses to allow Shinji to see Hatsue upon hearing the villager's version of events that happened in the small hut, but invites Yasuo to Hatsue's homecoming party. Miyama is not an evil man, in fact he's almost likeable; he is just a concerned father who wants the best for his daughter. Miyama eventually gives Yasuo and Shinji an even chance as workers aboard one of his freighters. The freighter, and its journey on the sea, is the final test. Since before Homer wrote The Odyssey, the sea has been a symbol of man against nature. It is used throughout literature as a springboard for contests of strength, perseverance, and the will to survive, so it is no surprise that Mishima uses a stormy sea to illustrate Shinji's superiority to Yasuo. "The captain stooped over them and shouted to the three youths in a loud voice: 'Which one of you fellows is going to take this lifeline over there and tie it to that buoy? . . . Don't any of you have any guts?' . . . Yasuo's lips quivered. He pulled his neck down into his shoulders. Then Shinji shouted . . . 'I'll do it . . .'" When Miyama heard of Shinji's exploits, his mind was made up. As soon as the freighter returned to harbor, Miyama announced that Shinji would be the one to marry Hatsue. In Miyama's words, "'The only thing that really counts in a man is is get-up-and-go. If he's got get-up-and-go he's a real man . . . family and money are all secondary . . . and that's what he's got -- Shinji -- get-up-and-go.'"
The events Yasuo and Shinji take part in are all contests -- the winner being the more courageous, honest, smart, stronger, or tougher. Shinji does not possess much in the way of intelligence or creativity, but he is filled to the brim with honesty and strength. Yasuo, on the other hand, represents vice and lechery. Naturally, good conquers over evil. The winner gets Hatsue -- also a living example of virtue and beauty. Note that some of these virtues are obedience and submission, the kind of thing that makes modern-day Western feminists combust and has been and will be the subject of many debates. So, while Yukio Mishima's characters in The Sound of Waves explore the value of traditional virtues, the dichotomy between set-in-stone traditional ways and a more fluid morality still stands.