We hear endlessly about Japanese businessmen - but what’s it like to be a Japanese woman? A collection of short stories reviewed this month throws light on an unfamiliar world. And we look at a study showing how tens of millions of people in poor countries could be saved from becoming disabled.
Editor: Anuradha Vittachi
Kimonov Mao suit
Rice Bowl Women
ed by Dorothy Blair Shimer Mentor
New American Library (pbk $2.95)
Books about women in Africa, Central America and the Indian subcontinent seem to be proliferating - usually with nakedly anguished titles: scarcely one seems to escape ‘weep’ or ‘struggle’ or a synonym of these. But women from China and Japan seem to have remained relatively inscrutable. Do they weep and struggle too?
A recent spate of books from China has begun to redress the balance. And Dorothy Blair Shimer’s collection of stories by or about Chinese and Japanese women provides an illuminating way of entering a mysterious world.
Rice Bowl Women, according to the author, is ‘not intended as a work of scholarship’. All non-academics and even weary academics can heave a sigh of relief. The book is refreshingly free of pedantry, the translations read as smoothly as modern English literature and the introductions and notes contain only the information necessary to explain the unfamiliar concepts and historical details that appear in the stories.
The stories range over a considerable time-span. The Chinese section begins with the T’ang Dynasty (618 - 905) and the Japanese with the Heian Period (794 - 1185); they both end in modern times. The early writings concentrate on women from the upper classes. These women were sought after for their faithfulness, tact and wisdom - they might also have a modicum of accomplishment in writing poetry or in music. Heigh-ho - it seems the same the whole world over.
But Chinese post-revolutionary writings start to show a different side of women. There are stories of brave and defiant women - a leader of revolutionary cadres, a teacher, a stalwart village peasant - who successfully escape or defy the pressures put on them. In sticking to their own judgement they earn the respect of the society they live in. One, for instance, refuses point-blank to obey her husband and abandon her flooded village. Later he crawls back to her apologetically.
And there are complementary stories grimiy pointing to the negative force of tradition, cautionary tales which demonstrate the total subjection of women in the inglorious past. For example, a child bride suffers torture because her proud and healthy reactions against cruel treatment are interpreted by her in-laws as possession by devils. She dies as the result of ignorance and superstition.
But the Japanese women even of modern times seem to exist in a very different milieu. Two stories about older women show them trying to preserve their youth and beauty artificially. One finds a hint of security in the realisation that her husband has false teeth. The other is an ageing geisha whose whole life has been built on choosing the right man for herself.
These two stories were written by women. The stories written by men are even more chauvinistic. Otomi 's Virginity, for example, is a story of a young servant girl willing to sacrifice her virginity to save the life of - wait for it - her mistress’s cat. Her devotion (and her virginity) are rewarded by a beggar who turns out to be a gentleman in disguise. In another story, the woman is a beautiful white statue’ to be worshipped and clothed in exquisitely flattering (Western) garments. The third modern story is even more blatantly a male fantasy: the heroine has flower-like hands, a smooth white body, is sexually vigorous and fiercely determined to join her husband in his ritual suicide.
With this brutal tale the book ends. Its author obviously relished ritual suicide as a noble act of patriotism - in fact he committed it himself. In Japan such a tradition can still live. In China it seems,from this collection at least, that tradition is viewed as a monster, enshrining all the basest instincts of mankind.
In the Japanese stories, women may gain education but still see themselves only in relation to men. In the Chinese stories, they can be people in their own right.
A Cry for Health
ed by Oliver Shirley
Third World Group for Disabled People and AHRTAG (pbk)
£2.50 (incl. postage), 16, Bath St, Frome, Somerset BAll lDN, UK
When my daughter reached her first birthday, I finally relaxed. It seemed safe at last to stop holding my breath: the risky first year, when she looked so fragile, was over.
But for a devastating number of Third World mothers, the experience at the end of the first year is not relief but tragedy. Even if a child has escaped the coffin, she may well not have escaped a serious disability. Three hundred million people in the Third World - more than the entire population of Western Europe - is disabled. And most of these disabilities are preventable: the root cause is poverty.
As Jonathan Dimbleby says in his foreword to A Cry for Health, ‘If public opinion can unite across the world against the criminal folly of the arms race, then, suitably informed, it can speak out also against the obscenity we politely call"disability in the Third World".’
A Cry for Health is a collection of articles designed to ‘suitably inform’ the public. The articles are concise and nontechnical, written by health experts whose names will be familiar to New Internationalist readers - people like David Morley, David Werner, and ‘Zef’ Ebrahim, who have for years put their careers at risk to bring injustices in health care to the attention of the public.
The book shows not only why disability has not been prevented in the past but also, cheeringly, how it can be prevented from now on. For example, there are practical ideas on how children can help other children at risk; how oral rehydration therapy can save literally millions of infants each year, and also how people who are already disabled can be helped by low-cost aids, like the wheelchair substitute which is more suitable to the rough, unpaved roads of a Third World village. And these practical ideas are not substitutes for longer term political change; they are part of the shift away from powerlessness to self-reliance at the local level.
The book is too slight to give to an expert, but it provides a sober and authoritative introduction to the issues - and can’t be dismissed by previously unconvinced laymen (or women) as airy, uninformed idealism.