Anthologies are often a good way to get a feel for a country’s literature, and my shelves are already groaning under the weight of several collections of Japanese short stories. Nevertheless, when Tony Messenger told me about a work he’d seen in a discount book store and offered to get me a copy, I was only too happy to add to my
little bloated J-Lit library. It’s a collection with a twist, looking at the role of women in a man’s world – or perhaps I should say five roles…
The Mother of Dreams – Portrayals of Women in Modern Japanese Fiction (edited by Makoto Ueda) does pretty much what it says on the cover. After a brief introduction, we get straight into a collection of stories showing how women were seen in Japan in the post-war era, taking us from traditional views of pure maidens and dutiful wives to more modern characters with lives, and problems, of their own. The anthology consists of nineteen stories by sixteen writers (male and female), some better-known than others, and is divided into five sections, each representing one of the traditional categories Japanese women can find themselves boxed into.
The first section, The Maiden, starts with some short pieces from arguably the biggest name included here, Yasunari Kawabata. The three examples of his Palm of the Hand Stories (translated here by Makoto Ueda) are excellent mini-stories, over in a matter of pages, but I was also impressed by Yasushi Inoue’s ‘A Marriage Interview’ (tr. Sara Dillon), in which a young woman reluctantly attends a ‘miai’, a first meeting of potential marriage partners:
This meeting with young Minato was not in itself particularly objectionable; it was just that Keiko felt it impossible to work up any enthusiasm towards a miai. She had given in this time purely because those around her had shown such persistence, but she had also decided in advance that she would later turn down the offer.
‘A Marriage Interview’, p.32 (Kodansha International, 2004)
The woman finds out that the man is also less than convinced, but when the two abandon the meeting and head off on their own, she is surprised to find that they might just have a future together after all.
All too soon, The Maiden must give way to The Wife, and any J-Lit aficionado could tell you that these stories are unlikely to be happy ones. In Osamu Dazai’s typically cruel ‘The Lady Who Entertained’ (tr. Karen Kaya Shimizu), a war widow is taken advantage of by a manipulative friend of her dead husband, while Seichō Matsumoto’s ‘Wait a Year and a Half’ (tr. Wei-ming Chen) sees a woman eventually snap after abuse from her no-good husband (or does she…). However, Sakae Tsuboi’s ‘Umbrella on a Moonlit Night’ (tr. Chris Heftel) is a gentler tale, in which a bored post-war housewife forms a club with her friends, gradually growing to appreciate her husband and his contribution to their family life.
Alas, as marriage palls, the men grow tired of The Wife and are quick to move on to The Mistress, a very common feature of Japanese literature. Takeshi Kaikō’s ‘ A Certain Voice’ (tr. Maryellen Toman Mori) shows the pitfalls of entering into such a relationship when a woman’s life spirals downwards after the disappearance of her American lover, yet the other pieces featured here give the woman far more control. Nagai Kafu’s ‘Nude’ (tr. Mark A. Harbison) follows an office worker’s sudden awareness of her sexuality, as she goes from an affair with her boss to nude dancing and high-class prostitution, with not a shred of regret to darken her days.
However, the stand-out piece here is Fumiko Enchi’s ‘Blind Man’s Buff’ (tr. Beth Cary), a slow-burning story about two half-sisters and the inevitable fate of illicit affairs. The narrator receives a phone call informing her of her sister Ichiko’s disappearance, and this recalls memories of Ichiko’s geisha days and her love affairs. Enchi weaves sensuality throughout the story, without ever becoming explicit:
But Ichiko smiled, revealing the slight dimple on the curve of her cheek. In those days, I felt, whenever I saw Ichiko’s face, that the skin of her cheeks, so soft and supple, was as sensuous to the touch as ripe fruit. Intellectual women, who make their living using their minds, were never blessed with such sensuality.
‘Blind Man’s Buff’, p.168
Eventually, the reader is told all about Ichiko’s life and loves, and the story climaxes in the only way it ever could…
The fourth of the women’s roles outlined here is that of The Mother, and this section contains the title piece, Shōhei Ōka’s ‘The Mother of Dreams’ (tr. Agatha Haun) , a short collection of bizarre dreams about the writer’s mother, owing a great debt to Natsume Sōseki’s Ten Nights Dreaming. However, once more there’s little happiness on display here, with Harumi Setouchi’s ‘Pheasant’ (tr. Robert Huey) introducing a woman who abandoned her daughter long ago and Taiko Hirabayashi’s ‘A Woman to Call Mother’ (tr. Richard Dasher) showing the sad final days of an old woman whose children refuse to visit her in the sanatorium where she has come to die.
Finally, we come to the most recent addition to the roles of Japanese women, that of The Working Woman, with three excellent stories rounding off the collection. Kōbō Abe’s ‘Song of a Dead Girl’ (tr. Stuart A. Harrington), a story with a slightly political twist, begins with the suicide of a young woman who had moved to Tokyo for work, before following her ghost back to her hometown to see the destitution and exploitation she left behind. Sawako Ariyoshi’s ‘The Tomoshibi’ (tr. Keiko Nakamura) is a much cheerier tale, though, with a small bar hidden in the Ginza district of Tokyo providing a safe haven for a young woman who is struggling to adapt to the world of work.
The final story, Yumie Hiraiwa’s ‘Lady of the Evening Faces’ (tr. Patricia Lyons), is perhaps one of the most interesting, and most modern, pieces in the collection. Taking its cue from characters from The Tale of Genji, the story follows a young woman as she struggles to balance work and love, with only the rather flawed example of her mother’s life as a mistress to follow. When she begins to have issues in her marriage, she has little idea how to address them:
And yet Mieko could not go so far as to make demands. Why didn’t she say the words, “We’re having a hard time making ends meet, so please put in a little of your salary”? Her silence could only be ascribed to an uneasiness that, were she to put her discontent into words, her pride in the thought that until then she had sacrificed herself for her husband would be shattered.
‘Lady of the Evening Faces’, p.274
The story ends rather sadly for those invested in the relationship, yet in a way it’s a sign of progress, representing the modern Japanese woman’s greater sense of freedom.
The Mother of Dreams is an excellent collection of stories (the two I didn’t get around to mentioning above are Yasuko Harada’s ‘Evening Bells’ (tr. Chia-ning Chang and Sara Dillon), and Yōko Mori’s ‘Two Bedtime Stories’ (tr. Makoto Ueda)), but I wasn’t really convinced by the concept. The selection is a little arbitrary at times (several of the stories could have been put into any of the categories), and Ueda’s introduction, while interesting, is far from the best I’ve seen, shedding little light on the pieces included in the book. To be honest, as good as they are, I didn’t really see the point in including the stories of the famous male writers (I suspect it was to attract readers…); I would much rather have seen an all-female collection.
Nevertheless, there’s nothing wrong with what Ueda has put together, and while you may struggle to track this down (my copy was an unrevised 2004 paperback edition of the original 1986 hardback – obvious when Abe is described in his blurb as enjoying “…an international fame that prevails both in socialist countries and in the Free World.”), it’s a collection that any J-Lit fan will enjoy, and one that might point you in the direction of some new favourite writers. I’m certainly happy to welcome it into my own collection – now, if I can just find somewhere to put it…