BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : A Woman ‘Trapped’ in a Comfortable Place Called Home : THE SECRETS OF MARIKO: A Year in the Life of a Japanese Woman and Her Family <i> by Elisabeth Bumiller</i> ; Times Books; $25, 338 pages


My wife is Japanese. Before we married, I lived in Japan for a year and a half. We vacationed there as recently as August. None of which, of course, makes me any kind of authority.

But it does give me an idea of how successfully Elisabeth Bumiller has portrayed a whole society by focusing on a 44-year-old Tokyo housewife and her family--without losing sight of the uniqueness of Mariko Tanaka herself.

Bumiller came to Tokyo as a Washington Post reporter after having completed a stint in New Delhi, the basis for her book “May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons: A Journey Among the Women of India” (Random House, 1990). At first Japan seemed bland to her, but its layers of complexity soon drew her in.

With an interpreter, Bumiller spent from February, 1991, through April, 1992, interviewing and observing Mariko, who juggled two part-time jobs with a crowded schedule of home and community activities; her husband, Takeshi, an electrical engineer; her sons Shunsuke, 16, and Ken-chan, 9; her daughter, Chiaki, 15, and her ailing parents, who lived with the family.


“It made particular sense to me to explore Japanese society through the experience of one family,” Bumiller theorizes, because “more than most countries, Japan likes to think of itself as one large family,” to which individual desires often must be sacrificed in the interests of harmony.

She concludes that although Japanese families are more stable than American ones, their individual members are not necessarily happier. On the other hand, aspects of Mariko’s life that make a feminist such as Bumiller wince--such as her marriage to a hard-drinking, largely absentee husband--have more positive meanings in a Japanese context.

“Mariko was a member of the middle class,” Bumiller says, “but she lived in a small house with antiquated plumbing and no central heating, could not afford to go to restaurants with her family, was compelled to enroll her children in an education system that put them on a forced march through childhood, and had no real way, if she ever wanted it, to combine motherhood and a full-time career. By middle-class American standards, she was trapped.

“By her standards . . . she was trapped in a cozy, comfortable place that had other rewards--order, for example, and cleanliness and predictability and civility and safety.”

Bumiller goes to football games, karaoke parties, hospitals, cram schools and meetings of the PTA and the local ward council. She cites historians and social scientists, interviews teachers, activists, priests, political leaders and a yakuza gangster chief.

She follows Mariko to decorous concerts for the samisen , a traditional stringed instrument, and to rowdy festivals where portable shrines lurch through the streets on the shoulders of chanting drunks--all in an attempt to show the larger implications of an ordinary life.

Is this possible? In one sense, yes. An ethnically homogeneous, culturally distinct culture such as Japan is relatively easy to sum up--or stereotype. (Imagine how much harder Bumiller’s task would have been if she tried to find a “typical” American woman.) She touches on most of the issues that have occupied our business and editorial pages in recent years.

Are the Japanese largely Westernized or intractably different? Is its economy a burst bubble or a juggernaut? Is the “effort society” fraying around the edges as workers are idled by recession and students who can’t cope with “examination hell” bully their classmates? Should the United States gird for an all-out trade war, or should it lighten up?

But having raised these issues, Bumiller has the good sense to leave most of them unresolved. Friendship wins out over detachment, as it should in such a case.

She finds a “thread of poetry” in Mariko’s life, some genuine, personal secrets, and shares with us her admiration for this “good soul who day after day pushed forward against the wind, finding purpose and pleasures and a sense that she belonged where she was, at home in Japan.”