TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - One night in the early 1990s, Japanese author Rieko Matsuura dreamed that her big toe had turned into a penis.
Coming just as she was contemplating her next book, the dream provided a vital plotting hint that helped her write "The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P," a Fellini-esque take on sexuality and gender roles in Japan that became a bestseller and won a literary prize after its 1993 publication.
"I'd thought for a long time that I wanted to write about a woman whose views on sexuality change in response to various experiences, but I wasn't sure how. Just having a woman's spirit take root in a man's body was too cheesy," Matsuura told Reuters in an interview on the publication of the book in English.
"I thought there must be another way to do it, and just at that point I had the dream."
"Big Toe P," as the 51-year-old Matsuura refers to it, follows the adventures of Kazumi, a naive 22-year-old who wakes up one morning to find that, as in Matsuura's dream, her big toe has become a penis.
Her boyfriend wants to deal with the toe by cutting it off, and Kazumi flees, falling in love with a blind pianist and joining a performance troupe, all of whose members are sexual misfits. She travels along, her ideas about sex, love and gender changing so much that she even has an affair with another woman.
"This seemed to be the best way to challenge accepted thinking about sex, a woman with something that looked like a male sexual organ. Having her be naive would be more effective too, I thought," the soft-spoken Matsuura said.
"There are a lot of people in the world like her, who just imitate sex and gender roles without questioning them. Having her meet people who are far from the sexual norm themselves helped open her eyes."
Though traditional Japan had no specific taboos against homosexuality and sometimes fluid ideas about gender roles -- men taking women's parts in kabuki theater, for example -- post-World War Two Japan was less open-minded.
In fact, it wasn't until the rise of feminism in the 1970s that much discussion of homosexuality and gender roles arose.
Though Matsuura lamented that change in Japanese attitudes about gender and sexuality has been glacially slow in the 17 years since the book was written, there are still positive trends, which she attributes to greater opportunity for women.
"Women have gained economic strength and self-expression, and society recognizes this. What women say is also given much more attention than in the past," she said.
"There's an increase in the number of men who can interact with women from the heart, who don't put them down."
But Japan still lags the West in acceptance of homosexuality, and while more and more women now work, their salary levels and promotion fall well below men of comparable experience and age.
Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Sugita Katyal