THE SHOWA ANTHOLOGY: Modern Japanese Short Stories, Volume 1, 1929-1961, Volume 2, 1961-1984. Edited by Van C. Gessel and Tomone Matsumoto. Kodansha International. 428 pp. $17.95 each.

LITERATURE'S ability to function as a barometer of social change has been tested fiercely during the past six decades of Japan's history. The current Showa Period, which began when Emperor Hirohito took the throne in 1926, has been lashed by a series of political and cultural storms violent enough to rupture the existing boundaries of any expressive medium. But what is most striking about the 25 representative stories Van C. Gessel and Tomone Matsumoto have collected in the two volumes of their fine new anthology is not the diversity of literary responses one would expect from a country which over a period of half a century was inundated by a tsunami of alien cultural influences, devastated by the world's first nuclear attack, and then regenerated to the point where it could conquer the world with futuristic consumer goods. It is, instead, the similarities of method and sensibility which unite even the most dissimilar of the stories and which give the entire anthology, despite flagrant experimentation with Western literary innovations, a subtle flavor different from any found in occidental literatures.

If the Showa Anthology can be seen as a single collage-like work created by its editors, one of its major themes is the resilience and adaptability of traditional Japanese social and literary attitudes under invasion by technologies, styles and moralities imported from the West. An especially visible example recorded in the anthology is the rapid evolution of the traditional first-person narrative called the watakushi shosetsu or "I novel."

In Dawn to the West, Donald Keene's huge study of Japanese literature in the modern era, Keene describes this elusive form, which had its origins in the works of naturalist writers in the early years of this century, as "perhaps the most striking feature of modern Japanese literature" and then attempts a definition. He finds two basic strains, one almost morbidly confessional, with the author seeming "to have derived a masochistic pleasure from disclosing not only (his) most contemptible actions but also shameful thoughts that never manifested themselves overtly." A second type was produced by writers who, "instead of baring their secret sins . . . usually concentrated on probing the inner significance of their most trivial gestures or utterances." Of the 25 stories in the two volumes of The Showa Anthology, 18 are first-person narratives, and although elements of the "I novel" as described by Keene surface in almost all of these, no two are at all alike.

Masuji Ibuse's "Kuchisuke's Valley," first published in 1929 and the story which begins the collection, deals movingly with a subject which makes it an ideal prelude: the destruction of traditional styles of living by encroaching technology. The young first-person narrator tells of 77-year-old Kuchisuke, a former caretaker of family property who has continued to revere old ways despite the disruption of his life by developments symptomatic of the modernization which is transforming the country: the arrival of a half- American granddaughter from Hawaii and, more crushing, the submersion of his rustic house and property following the construction of a dam. The old man inspires affection and respect in the narrator with his adherence to the manners of an older Japan, but it is also obvious to the young man that the way of life Kuchisuke represents is finished. Thirty-nine years later Ibuse returned to the theme of technological deculturization on a much grander scale in his famous novel Black Rain, an "I novel" which takes the form of a journal kept by a doctor who has survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and is nursing his niece, who is dying of radiation sickness.

The three stories which follow Ibuse's would probably be less puzzling to the authors of the original "I novels" than much of what follows. All are narrated by acutely sensitive, dangerously vulnerable personalities, and it is difficult to resist accepting the narrating voices as the author's own, especially since, of their three authors, one (Osamu Dazai) was a suicide and the remaining two (Motojiro Kajii and Tatsuo Hori) led sickly, neurasthenic existences and died young. In Dazai's "Magic Lantern," the young woman who tells the story has become an outcast after being caught stealing a pair of swimming trunks for her boyfriend, whom she feels to be humiliated by his inability to buy his own. He rejects her in her disgrace, and she is left with feelings of confusion and worthlessness which must have been familiar to Dazai, who killed himself at the age of 39, after surviving four previous suicide attempts.

Kajii's "Mating" and Hori's "Les Joues en Feu," are so subjective and delicate that they feel like prose poems. The first, in which the narrator meditates on evanescence as he stands on his porch in the dark, watching animals perform their mating rituals, and Hori's rarefied account of awakening homosexual love in a boys' school are so suggestive, they imply so much more than they state outright, that, like certain types of music, they will be inaccessible to readers incapable of surrendering to their very special moods.

Although, as the editors point out, there are glints of Cocteau and Gide in Hori's work, the Western influence is still kept on a short leash. As the Showa Anthology continues however, the effects of European modernism become more pronounced. The "I novel" proves to be amazingly resourceful in generating new forms but, almost invariably, the cultural preference for suggestion over reportage makes the borders of the narratives indistinct, and they feel very different from the works of the Western authors who influence them.

This reader often put down the volumes feeling strongly moved by individual stories without being able to define clearly what created this state of mind. More often than not the works are plotless but describe situations from which meanings radiate and plots can be inferred. In Toshio Shimao's "With Maya," for example, the narrator has brought his 10-year-old daughter Maya from their island home to a large city hospital so that they can have medical examinations. He is having digestive problems, and Maya suffers from a serious emotional disorder which is growing progressively worse. As Shimao develops the narrator's thoughts and recounts the sad little semi-conversations he has with Maya as they move from waiting room to waiting room, there emerges, almost pointillistically, an elaborate tapestry of guilt and anxiety underlying the love and concern he so obviously feels, and the simple, 20-page story becomes ineffably moving.

Anti-realistic experiments abound in the anthology. Yumiko Kurahashi's "The Monastery" suggests a not completely successful approach to Kafka via Anna Kavan, with its female narrator floating through a dream allegory on the destructive interaction of different forms of love. More striking is Minako Oba's 1973 erotic fantasy, "The Pale Fox." The prose Oba uses to project this surreal reflection on the resemblance between her female narrator's mad, abalone fisherman father and her evasive lover, whom she calls "the Pale Fox," amalgamates the grotesque and the sensual in a way that suggests Bruno Schulz:

"(Her father's) eyes were as sharp as an animal's when he probed for abalone trembling beneath the surface of the sea, or the thin, white stalks of fungidden in the forest under the fallen leaves. He would find each mollusc among the seaweed and pull its living flesh from the rocks where it clung fast. The woman imagined the old man's twisted jaw and superimposed the image on the sharp jaw of the Pale Fox."

IN A REVIEW it is possible to give only the vaguest notion of the diversity and virtuosity Gessel and Matsumoto find among the writers of the Showa Period; each story could sustain a lengthy review in itself. Readers sensitive to other literary styles will be struck by the eloquence of their Japanese counterparts as they make their way through The Showa Anthology.

Some of these translations are the work of esteemed craftsmen like Edward Seidensticker, but many others were done by graduate students whose track records are less well documented. Occasionally, blatant Americanisms like "straighten up and fly right" leap off the pages, but in general the translated styles establish a tone and stick to it, so that the stories seem to make their effect unhindered by the change in language. Kodansha's volumes are, as always, beautifully and durably produced, as befits their extraordinary contents.