The Sound of Waves opens with a third-person narrator discussing Uta-Jima, or "Song Island." It is very small, with about 1400 inhabitants and only three miles of coastline. There are two beautiful spots on the island. The first of these is Yashiro Shrine, which is near the crest of the island and overlooks the Gulf of Ise. It is in the straits connecting the gulf and the Pacific Ocean.
The other beautiful view is from the lighthouse that is located at the summit of Mt. Higashi, which falls into a cliff over the sea. The Irako Channel is at the foot of the cliff and is often filled with treacherous whirlpools when the wind blows heavily. Looking out from the island, the Pacific is visible in the southeast and Mt. Fuji in the northeast.
The lighthouse watchman observes ships coming into the Irako Channel. This particular day he sees the Tokachi-maru, a Japanese freighter, and the Talisman, an English freighter. He marks their information and telegraphs cargo owners of their arrival.
That evening after sunset an eighteen-year-old young man hurries up to the lighthouse. He is tall, well-built, tanned, and has clear eyes whose "clarity was not that of intellectuality -– it was a gift that the sea bestows upon those who make their livelihood upon it..." His grades in school, which he barely graduated, were quite poor.
Passing the shrine, the young man continues to the lighthouse. Even though this climb would be perilous for nearly anyone else, he is marvelously surefooted, even when as deep in thought as he is now. That day he had gone out on the boat, the Taihei-maru, with its owner and another boy as usual. On their way home they transferred their catch to the Co-operative's boat.
As he walks along the sand past busy fishermen with that day's catch, he notices a girl whom he has never seen before. She is leaning against wooden frames in the sand, clearly having just helped bring them to their location and needing to catch her breath. Her brow is moist, her long hair blowing in the wind. Her skin is healthy and her eyebrows serene. She turns her eyes out to the horizon. The boy is surprised at her presence since he knows everyone on the island. Her dress does not indicate that she is an outsider, but he definitely does not know her.
He decides to walk in front of her, and "in the same way that children stare at a strange object, he stopped and looked at her full in the face." She ignores him, and he quickly continues along his way to the lighthouse. As he walks he is struck by how rude his look was, and is filled with shame.
He owes a debt to the lighthouse owner and his wife, so he often brings a small amount of the day’s catch to them, as he does this evening. He had nearly failed his examinations last year and was in danger of not graduating, but his mother, who needed Shinji to graduate and start making money, spoke to the lighthouse keeper's wife, who then spoke with her husband, who then visited his friend the principal. The boy was able to graduate on time and became a fisherman as soon as he completed school. His frequent visits to the lighthouse now make him a favorite of its inhabitants.
He knocks on the door, which is soon answered by the lighthouse keeper's wife. She announces to her husband that Shinji-san has come and brought fish. He is invited in. He notices the halibut that he brought already lying on a platter, "where it lay faintly gasping, blood oozing from its gills, streaking its smooth white skin."
Yukio Mishima published The Sound of Waves in 1956, not long after the Second World War ended with the dropping of the atomic bombs by the Americans and the subsequent surrender, drawing up of a new Westernized constitution, and economic rebuilding of the battered and defeated island. This novel, however, does not engage much with the outside world; as its first chapter indicates, it is pastoral in its theme and tone, with its luminescent and simple prose depicting a nearly idyllic and timeless love story in an isolated natural setting.
Mishima's book was published in a decade that saw several notable publications of Japanese fiction and their translation into English. His literary peers included Osamu Dazai, Yasunari Kawabata, Nobuo Kajima, and Hiroshi Noma. The postwar authors were influenced by Western literature in some capacity but also deviated from it in striking fashions. Many of their works responded to the War, whether explicitly or implicitly. Mishima had studied both Japan's classical past as well as Western fiction. One contemporary review of the Sound of Waves conceded that while "Mishima has dealt with a variety of subjects and forms," he did not show in this novel a "compulsion to write the Great Japanese Novel."
The author of the aforementioned review, Earl Miner, arrived at several conclusions from his reading of the newest works ("new" at the time of his review—1957) of the postwar Japanese authors. First, he wrote, "it is extraordinary that these novels can affirm, even in translation, the importance of style..." Secondly, he believed that the novels he was reviewing declared Japanese taste as a mode of "apprehending and shaping experience." He saw a certain moral passivity within the novels, which may be upsetting to many Western readers who prefer the polarities of good and evil to be markedly obvious. Most Japanese works of fiction avoided this simplistic division and "tends to accept, recreate, and esteem the esthetic particular and to avoid such issues of abstraction as conflicts between Good and Evil or Body and Soul..."
Finally, he observed that the Japanese move from taste to the realm of "metaphysical ultimates" in a different way than Western authors. The relationship between the selective taste and metaphysical ultimates was established by the exercise of artistic judgment over all of man and nature and thought and action, a narrative that was more material rather than omniscient, and a conception of time that was closer to a "merging pattern of motion and stasis relative to each other." Miner's review notes that this might be too rigid of a superstructure to lay over all of these individual works of art, but that these components that he observed are still useful tools with which to encounter these works of fiction.
This first chapter of Mishima's novel introduces readers to the island where the great majority of the action takes place, and to the main protagonist, Shinji. Shinji is eighteen and on the cusp of manhood; his appeal lies not in an overarching intellect or capacity for superhuman courage but in his solidity, his steadfastness, his quiet diligence and humble spirit. His life was simple and orderly until he encounters an unknown young woman on the beach. He is struck by her loveliness and subsequently embarrassed by his bold and searching look at her face. The novel has quite quickly established its essential question –will Shinji and this girl fall in love and, if so, what obstacles will be placed in their path?