THE MOTHER OF DREAMS, AND OTHER SHORT STORIES: PORTRAYALS OF WOMEN IN MODERN JAPANESE FICTION, edited by Makoto Ueda (Kodansha: $19.95; 279 pp.). The Japanese have been slow to reveal their true nature to the rest of the world. Often as not, what we "know" about them derives from a smattering of buzzwords--Pearl Harbor, hara-kiri, geishas, robots, sushi, Hondas. These 19 tales are all set in postwar Japan, a sometimes brutal and bewildering landscape where the new only seems to have supplanted the old and where women, though no longer quite so bound by tradition, must still make their peace with it.
In "A Marriage Interview" by Yasushi Inoue, for example, a young couple are brought together involuntarily to discuss an arranged marriage and find themselves adapting to the process. In Ozamu Dazai's "The Lady Who Entertained," a woman whose husband is still missing after the war continues to play the good wife, even at the expense of her health and fortune. Particularly fascinating are Kafu Nagai's "Nude"--which details a young woman's slide into prostitution--and "Wait a Year and a Half"--Seicho Matsumoto's retelling of a battered wife's motives for killing her husband. Prefaced with short bios of the authors and loosely arranged around five female roles (maiden, wife, mistress, mother, working woman), "The Mother of Dreams" is a disturbing mix of insights. What it says about Japanese women is wrapped in an equally painful message about the high price of modernity.