New views of Japanese women

A collection of eight short stories offers a glimpse beyond the stereotypes.

Putting Ruth Ozeki's name on a book's cover is an unconditional guarantee that I will buy that book. And I'm not alone: Ozeki's novels "My Year of Meats" and "All Over Creation" have been international successes.

The cachet associated with Ozeki's name has apparently not gone unnoticed in the publishing world. On the cover of Inside and Other Short Fiction: Japanese Women by Japanese Women, released this month by Kodansha, only Ozeki's name appears - "with a foreword by Ruth Ozeki" - and one must open the book to see that this is a collection of eight stories compiled by Cathy Layne (a transplanted Liverpudlian Tokyo-ite editor who also translated three of the stories), by eight different authors and four additional translators.

In spite of the fact that the eight women represented in this anthology are award-winning writers in Japan, they are virtually unknown to Western audiences, with the possible exception of Amy Yamada, whose "Bedtime Eyes" and "Trash" are available in English. But the very fact that they are not widely read abroad is exactly what makes this collection worth noting. As Ozeki writes in the foreword, these stories "paint a picture of contemporary Japanese women's lives that is fresh, new, and possibly even shocking to readers in the West."

Inaccurate stereotypes of Asian women have long abounded. Growing up half-Japanese in New England, Ozeki remembers a veteran who called her "Suzy" when she was small. Only years later did she recognize the reference to the Hong Kong prostitute in the 1960 film "The World of Suzie Wong." Ozeki lists other pervasive perceptions of Japanese women, from the submissive Madame Butterfly to the alluring geisha girl to the docile office lady and self-sacrificing salaryman's wife.

But, Ozeki notes, "In recent years the popular imagination has begun to depict women with a new kind of agency and autonomy." She remains cautious of the changing images of today's Japanese woman - "still so often derived from the male imagination and drawn by his hand," she astutely observes - and inserts a contemporary sociological context: "The traditional family, whose ballast was the stay-at-home wife and mother, is breaking down. Marriage and birth rates are declining, while the divorce rate is escalating. Career opportunities for women, too, are on the rise, and many women opt to marry later, or not at all. As a result of these and other social factors, Japanese women today have more economic and sexual freedom than ever before."

Each of the protagonists in this collection - from teenagers to single women to middle-age wives - is searching, sometimes fruitlessly, for love, companionship, understanding. These are stories about the universal desires that color all human relationships.

"Milk" by Tamaki Daido introduces a self-absorbed girl who babbles on about her shallow relationships as she casually contemplates her sexuality. In contrast, the teenaged girl in the eponymous "Inside" by Rio Shimamoto is mature beyond her years, caught between a mother struggling with illness, an indifferent father, and the end of her parents' troubled marriage.

There is one particularly disturbing piece in the collection. (It has a one-word title that hints at the story's crudeness.) It's a sexually explicit tale by Yuzuki Muroi about a young Tokyo prostitute on the eve of her 20th birthday, who copes with the degrading circumstances of her life by believing in the promises of the abusive men she meets.

In the ironic "My Son's Lips" by Shungiku Uchida, a hassled working mother reluctantly finds herself at a taxi driver's home, giving his wife some domestic lessons. In Chiya Fujino's "Her Room," a divorced woman finds it impossible to say no to a tenacious acquaintance of her cousin's who is inexplicably determined to establish a friendship.

"Fiesta" by Amy Yamada is an allegory of sorts in which the parts of a desperate woman's splintered psyche - Desire, Obsession, Passion, Pride and so on - bond together in fury to confront the object of her unrequited love. In "The Unfertilized Egg" by Junko Hasegawa, a single woman facing a dead-end affair with her married boss, sinks into bizarre dreams as she nears her 36th birthday, which she sees as her last chance to have a "B-[blood] type girl in the Year of the Horse" and carry on a three-generation family legacy.

The final story, "The Shadow of the Orchid" by Nobuko Takagi, features the collection's oldest woman, who has devotedly served her doctor-husband and their successful doctor-son. She now faces life alone, troubled by the specter of a young woman who died in her husband's care.

The quality of these stories is uneven, varying widely from piece to piece. But what some may lack in literary merit is made up for by what they offer collectively: a still-rare glimpse into the lives of Japanese women.

As contemporary harbingers of a writing tradition that began a thousand years ago with Lady Murasaki Shikibu's "The Tale of Genji," these writers capture small and large moments of the everyday. Thankfully, you'll find no Hollywood geishas here ... just women living - and surviving - the challenges of their daily lives.

Terry Hong is media arts consultant at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.

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