Five women who rejected Japan's doll house

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MODERN GIRLS, SHINING STARS,THE SKIES OF TOKYO: FIVE JAPANESE WOMEN By Phyllis Birnbaum Columbia University Press 255 pp., $24.95

In Puccini's opera "Madame Butterfly," the heroine is beautiful, quiet, and passive - a portrait that has become a prototype for Western images of Japanese women.

In Japan, the traditional vision of the ideal woman is much the same, though she is tempered with a little steel to help her weather difficulty with silent resilience.

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In her uneven book, "Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo," Phyllis Birnbaum profiles five Japanese women who fracture both stereotypes.

Her women - two writers, two actresses, and a painter - are all intelligent, beautiful, talented, and rebellious. Each one, through her art or private life, refused to conform to the "good mother-wife" roles expected of women in the early part of this century. In doing so, they helped introduce a new kind of Japanese woman to Japan and changed the lives of many others along the way.

These women gained renown in the decades after Japan opened to the West in the late 1800s. Through her portraits, Birnbaum looks at how Japan struggled with new Western concepts of individuality, freedom, and equality.

In recounting the lives of these artists, she hopes readers will stop to think about the purpose of their own lives. In this aim, and even in recounting the lives of her subjects, Birnbaum has mixed success. That's a shame, because the women she writes about have lived rich lives that often seem like the stuff of fiction.

Take Byakuren Yanagiwara, a respected poet and member of the imperial family, known for her elegant beauty. The child of a geisha, she was reared by her father and his wife until adopted by another noble couple. Forced to marry their son, who had sexually harassed her for years, she fled after five years to her original family. Scandalized at her behavior, her older brother put her under virtual house arrest for four years, then arranged her second marriage, for a hefty sum, to an old mining baron. Her unhappiness with her new husband and his mistresses fueled much of her poetry, but it was a letter that sealed her literary fame.

"This is the last letter I write to you as your wife," she wrote in a dispatch dated Oct. 22, 1921, that she sent to her husband and a major Japanese newspaper, which printed it in its entirety. In writing about the way men used financial power to abuse women's dignity (a reference to the sum her husband had paid for her), her need to follow her conscience, and the lover she was running away with, Yanagiwara launched a direct attack on the mores of the day.

Her actions raised questions about Western values and whether they could coexist with the traditional family system. They also provoked death threats and right-wing street protests. Her brother had to resign from his government post to take responsibility for her actions.

Despite the outrage, Yanagiwara eventually married her lover and raised a family with him. Later, in an autobiographical novel, she asked some angry and provocative questions: "Do men have such absolute power over women?"

But for all the drama of Yanagiwara's life, Birnbaum fails to bring the woman alive, primarily because she is reconstructing the poet's life entirely from secondary sources. The same is true of two other essays about a painter and the actress who introduced to Japan the character of Nora in Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll House."

While those portraits are wan, the two profiles in which Birnbaum was able to interview her subjects - an actress and a writer - are notably superior in color, organization, and flow. The best profile in the book is of writer Chiyo Uno, whose novel "Confessions of Love" Birnbaum has translated. Uno gained notoriety for chronicling her tempestuous love life in her fiction. Birnbaum shows the audacious young Uno along with the much older Uno, and the balance creates a warm and satisfying portrait.

Many Japanese women writers, Birnbaum tells us, end their tales with heroines staring out into a bleak and unchanging landscape, imagery meant to convey how stilted life can be for women in Japan.

Uno rejected that literary tradition in a story she wrote in her eighth decade. Titled "Happiness," it tells of an old woman who lives alone in a cold house, but still sees beauty in everything around her. In so doing, she "collects fragments of happiness, one after another, and so lives, spreading them throughout her environment."

* Nicole Gaouette is a Monitor correspondent in Tokyo.

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