All She Was Worth
By Miyuki Miyabe
Trans. by Alfred Birnbaum
296 pp., $22
Miyuki Miyabe's characters inhabit a very modern Japan. Her detective-hero, Shunsuke Honma, is part tough guy, part sensitive widower who thinks about what his 10-year-old son is experiencing without his mother. And the villain is hardly a typical Japanese "office lady." She is ready to kill - more than once - to escape her past .
Ms. Miyabe's novel "All She Was Worth" was published in Japan in 1992 and appeared in English in February this year. The book examines the consequences of mixing consumerism with too much easy credit.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, that combination resulted in bankruptcy for many Japanese. In "All She Was Worth," it leads to desperation and a need for a new identity, with a murder or two along the way.
But Miyabe's mystery is less a whodunit than a suspenseful guided tour through some of the challenges facing modern Japan: the downside of the consumer economy, changing roles for men and women, and evolving ideas about identity.
Detective Honma agrees to look for his nephew's missing fianc and discovers she is not the woman she claimed to be. Instead, she is a mysterious figure who has had to flee her family's ruthless creditors.
"She's like a wall covered with paper with a bright floral pattern: underneath it, reinforced concrete," muses Honma. "Impenetrable, as solid as they come." He adds later: "A woman who 10 years ago scarcely existed in Japan."
Some of the supporting cast reinforce the sense of a new Japan. The best example is a couple in Honma's apartment building who help take care of his son. The man is a house-husband and his wife is a successful business owner. The workaholic Japanese salaryman and his stay-at-home wife, the stuff of stereotype, are nowhere to be seen.
"I always try to create characters I like," Miyabe explains in an interview. "They are idealistic types of people." The author herself seems more traditional - she maintains the soft-voiced effervescence seemingly bred into many Japanese women.
A stenographer turned fiction-writer, Miyabe found success at a relatively early age after a short story won a literary contest. Ten of her stories have since been made into television dramas and she is now producing a serialized novel for a major national newspaper. "All She Was Worth," translated by Alfred Birnbaum, is the first of her work to appear in English.
She worries that American readers will think the Japanese are unable to handle charge cards when they read what she has to say about debt problems and bankruptcy. "This society is still immature when it comes to credit," she explains. "I think I was a little too sympathetic with 'debt victims' who have to declare bankruptcy. ... These individuals have to take responsibility for their situations."
The problem is that the idea of individual responsibility - a post-World War II import - remains unfamiliar territory in this group-oriented society. While Japan has long embraced certain foreign ideas and practices, in some ways the family remains the core social unit.
The book also probes the concept of privacy in an increasingly computerized and business-dominated culture. Miyabe's villain finds her victims by working for a mail-order company, where a friend gives her access to customers' personal records. Honma tracks the villain by making use of the various ways in which the Japanese state keeps track of its citizens.
The reader is left with the impression that personal privacy is a rickety antique. "Once you use a mail-order service," says Miyabe, "it means you've publicly released your private information."
While some of Miyabe's women characters exhibit unusual degrees of independence and self-reliance, the author herself is not so confident that most Japanese women want to leave the old roles behind.
As a young, issues-oriented writer, Miyabe gets a lot of mail from women in their teens and 20s. She says many of them want a "traditional happiness" in which the central feature is a strong husband. "But the reality is they aren't realizing this dream," she adds, "so they feel isolated and turn inward."
"I see two types of young people," the author says. "Some try to be more individualistic, and others have become more conservative and more inclined to follow traditional values. They think men should be tough and women should be tender and kind."