Going deep

Janice P. Nimura's reviews have appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

START with the jacket, covered front and back with photo-booth images of women of all ages. They stare stolidly into the camera, their faces opaque and vaguely disturbing. The book sat on my desk for a month before I realized that every face belonged to the same woman, the young photo artist Tomoko Sawada, from whose “ID-400" series the jacket art is an excerpt. What I had seen as an art director’s cute take on the diversity of Japanese women was subtler, trickier, disorienting.

Ditto for the women inside “Inside.” Each protagonist may represent a type -- schoolgirl, prostitute, office lady, mother -- but the internal lives they reveal are unexpected, and in some cases unexpectedly familiar. Novelist Ruth Ozeki’s comment in the introduction that “the image of women in modern Japan now seems poised to evolve into something altogether new” may be trite -- we aren’t really still imagining that all Japanese women are geishas at heart, are we? -- but what is new is these young writers, prolific and prizewinning in Japan, and with one exception never before translated in the United States.

Students of Japanese literature talk about the “I-novel,” the thinly veiled autobiography that has been a dominant form among fiction writers since the early 20th century. These eight intensely personal stories are part of that tradition but share a casual candor that creates an even deeper bond of intimacy -- albeit an ambiguous one -- between reader and author.

The first three, by three of the youngest writers, are narrated by teenagers. Tamaki Daido’s “Milk” follows a girl across the divide from middle school into high school, listening in as she ponders fashion, popularity, friendship and sex with a kind of spacey insight that rings true: “To yearn for the love of the same person for your whole life, it’s like a woman from the olden days. It’s classic. It has a kind of snap to it, like when you bite into a hot dog sausage.” The title story, written at age 21 by wunderkind Rio Shimamoto, features another high-schooler, this one holding her boyfriend at arm’s length while hugging her parents’ marital troubles close to her chest. It nicely captures the sunshine-and-clouds variability of adolescent moods. Yuzuki Muroi’s “Piss,” the most graphic entry in the collection, gives us a Tokyo prostitute on the eve of her 20th birthday. Betrayed, exploited and routinely humiliated in the “gaudy city,” she becomes attached to an elderly john who reminds her of an old tree in her parents’ garden and a “little stone god” from a folk tale her grandmother told her -- a disturbing version of the classic Japanese nostalgia for furusato, or hometown.


The collection’s title nods to the fundamental disconnect between public persona and interior identity common to all these stories, and to Japanese society as well, for that matter. The contrast between the writers’ frankness and their characters’ inability to say what they mean is striking. “Her Room,” by transsexual Chiya Fujino, winner of Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa literary prize, centers on a woman who can’t extricate herself from an unwanted friendship and can’t put her finger on why it disturbs her. Amy Yamada, the only contributor whose novels are available in English, weighs in with “Fiesta,” a wry allegory peopled by a repressed office lady’s emotions. Says one, Desire: “I’ve tried so hard to love my mistress over the years, but now I’m starting to become vexed. I need to take a nap.”

The final pair of stories treats women out of sync with the roles society has assigned them. The narrator of Junko Hasegawa’s “The Unfertilized Egg,” single and 36, realizes it is her last chance to bear a daughter with B-type blood in the Year of the Horse (two Japanese preoccupations), a three-generation tradition in her family. Feeling like “a piece of dried-up gum,” she dreams incessantly of eggs that slip from her fingers. And Nobuko Takagi’s “The Shadow of the Orchid” has Michiko, an empty-nester a year shy of 50, “feeling that she had been pushed from behind, from a land of green grass to a rough place littered with rocks.”

“Inside” is a mixed bag: by turns acute, shocking, fresh, hackneyed, limpid and baffling (I’m still puzzling over the odd working mother of Shungiku Uchida’s “My Son’s Lips”). But as a sampler of what Japanese women are writing right now -- half of these stories were originally published in the last two years -- it’s exciting and invaluable.