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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #49 (December 5, 2006), page 15.

A long way from geesha-girls and Madame Butterfly

Inside and Other Short Fiction:

Japanese Women by Japanese Women

Compiled by Cathy Layne

Kodansha International, 2006

Hardcover, 237 pages, $22.95

By Josephine Bridges

In what ways are women adapting to the radically different Japan of the new millennium?" asks Ruth Ozeki in her foreword to this collection. These authors, most of whom have never before been published in English, "paint a picture of contemporary Japanese women’s lives that is fresh, new, and possibly even shocking to readers in the West."

The narrator of "Milk," by Tamaki Daido, is a high school girl considering the pros and cons of losing her virginity. She describes her first kiss as "warm and damp and gross" and wouldn’t mind if her suitor "hates something about my personality, but my pride would be hurt if he hated me after seeing part of my body." Although she talks about feelings, she doesn’t seem to experience them. Her almost reptilian outlook is indeed a shock.

A teenager at a similar juncture narrates the title story by Rio Shimamoto, but she’s openly struggling. When she calls her father to tell him that her mother is being hospitalized with a bacterial infection, he responds only by asking her to pick up some batteries on the way home. "It felt like April Fools’ Day — the kind of day when you’re supposed to act calm no matter what happens."

Yuzuki Muroi’s story, the third in Inside, is both shocking and heartbreaking. The title, while perfectly appropriate to the story, is a word we don’t print in this newspaper. The opening sentence is both appalling and alarming, and leads us into a story where treachery and tenderness both appear in unexpected places. "I’m a dirty rag of a twenty-year-old woman, but I still have feelings, I still cry," the narrator reflects. "Miyuke Inoue, who was clean to the bone, still exists inside me."

"My Son’s Lips," by Shungiku Uchida, describes a young mother’s surreal introduction to a taxi driver’s domestic life. He complains to his fare about the fuzz on his pajamas, then wants her — and her two small children — to come home with him and set his wife straight about laundry.

Chiya Fujino’s "Her Room" is the story of a very different, but equally surreal, visit. "The more the two of them spoke on the phone, the better they were getting to know each other, although Kyoko had no desire for any such intimacy." Kitahara-san’s condo seems to Kyoko to be burgeoning with mysteries: "Why did she have such an enormous dining table? And why had she placed it at the furthest end of the room from the adjoining kitchen?" Even stranger, what is behind the door Kyoko is told she mustn’t open?

"When the attention a woman pays to the object of her affections goes unreciprocated, Obsession is born, regardless of whether the woman is beautiful or ugly," the clearly unreliable narrator of Amy Yamada’s "Fiesta" pronounces. "The difference lies in the way beautiful women and ugly women deal with their Obsession." It’s an unsettling, wonderfully crafted story that may make readers feel as if they’ve stumbled on to something they really shouldn’t be reading.

Junko Hasegawa’s "The Unfertilized Egg" is a countdown to the narrator’s last opportunity to conceive a child who will be born in the Year of the Horse, as she herself, her mother, and her grandmother all were. Moriko not only dreams of eggs, she finds a great deal in her waking life also reminiscent of them, from tapioca to the way a "silver train reflects the glare of the morning sun." Too graphic for comfort, it’s nevertheless a riveting tale.

Michiko, the narrator of Nobuko Takagi’s "The Shadow of the Orchid," finds herself frequently and uncomfortably alone with a dendrobium given to her physician husband by a patient who has recently died, a young woman with whom he had an ambiguous relationship. Graceful, subtle, and refined, this story, like its companions in Inside, is nonetheless, as Ruth Ozeki writes, "a long way from the world of geesha-girls and Madame Butterfly."


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