Review: Building Waves

A simple plot reveals complex inquiries of gender roles and modernization in a transitional period of Japan’s modern history.

Building Waves
Taeko Tomioka
Translated by Louise Heal Kawai
Published by Dalkey Archive

Building Waves begins with an anecdote about a TV dating show in which two contestants are divided by a wall, and thus can only imagine the other person through their voice. Eventually the wall is removed, and the contestants get to meet. But the narrator notices how the contestants always ask the same questions episode after episode. Whether the wall is raised or not, the show highlights the superficiality of dating itself. How much can you really learn about someone just from the sound of their voice, or by knowing what they do in their spare time?

We cut then to the narrator asking the same simple question to a man, and getting the same boring answer in return, and she knows instantly that this is someone that she really feels no desire to learn anything about, because as far as she’s concerned, there’s nothing really there. Even so, the two, both in their forties, married but with no children, strike up a purely sexual relationship completely devoid of emotional attachment, or even decent conversation.

The man is traditional, 100% old fashioned. He refers to his wife as the “financial controller,” and thinks it’s difficult for women to even have a career—“Unless you’ve got your husband’s understanding anyway,” he says seriously. The narrator, in return, doesn’t really care about her personal life and how it affects her husband. In her opinion, the sex she pursues with this stranger is completely separate from their marriage, and of course, none of his business.

Building Waves is a study of contrasts, in a transitional period of Japan’s modern history—namely, the 1980s. This is the period of Japan’s great economic expansion, before the bubble pops a decade later. Throughout the novel is talk of the endless construction plans, the latest housing developments, and the excavation and bulldozing of ancient ruins from Japan’s earliest cultures.

After reading Building Waves it seems like an easy parallel, comparing the changing gender roles and sexual norms with the changing physical landscapes of Japan, but it works perfectly. This is a period of time caught between the demands of modernization and the foundations of traditionalism, but it’s never overt, and it works because Tomioka never offers a definitive judgment on the matter. She instead writes little wrinkles into the story, complicating whether one is really better than the other. For instance, the narrator’s friend, who also becomes friends with “the big guy’s” wife, join an organic vegetable growing club, a hobby which the narrator finds annoying at best. Is the “Veggie Club” a representation of traditional values, of “purity,” against the pesticide, genetically altered vegetables of today? Or is it a hollow gesture, a disingenuous marketing ploy of the modern consumer? And from what intepretation does the narrator find such disdain?

Building Waves also succeeds because though the novel starts with an affair, it doesn’t end with it, which I found almost surprising. Instead, the scope extends outwards to the various friends and acquaintances of the narrator, offering many different types of people and points of view in such a culturally turbulent time. The narrator’s husband, however, is never introduced in the text; he remains, to the reader, a mystery.

The sociological and philosophical concerns of Building Waves are richly nuanced and complicated, and offer no easy answers. The narrator’s modern, feminist-leaning attitudes are not preachy, but they’re certainly not presented as ideal, or even unselfish. It’s a personal attitude that’s just as complicated as any other. The narrator wants to see the excavated ruins dug up beneath the housing tracts, and mourns the loss of her childhood woods and hills. But the novel ends with the narrator enjoying an afternoon playing tennis with her friends, a vision of conformist, middle-class suburbia. The game is tinged with violence, the narrator desperately trying to defeat her male adversary, her wave, like the artist Hokusai’s, trying to swallow him up, but capsizing others in the process.

But as the novel finally draws to a close, the sun is shining, and everyone laughs together. So who’s to say who is right?


Originally published June 15, 2015.


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