A number of Japanese writers have won acclaim for using the dystopian society genre as a commentary on real-world issues, including Haruki Murakami and Koushun Takami. Joining their ranks is Yoko Tawada, whose latest novel, “The Emissary,” depicts life in Japan after an environmental catastrophe.

The Emissary, by Yoko Tawada, Translated by Margaret Mitsutani.
128 pages

Certain elements of the novel have roots in “The Island of Eternal Life,” a short story Tawada penned for a collection entitled “March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Meltdown” (Penguin Random House, 2012).

“I visited Fukushima in 2013 and talked to many people who live there,” says Tawada. “Shortly thereafter, I wrote this novel. But it contains many thoughts about Japan that I had even before 2011.”

“The Emissary” depicts a world in which the earth has been poisoned and human DNA altered, with men going through menopause and gender seemingly switching at a whim. The most disturbing change is a role reversal among the oldest and youngest members of society: The aged continue to work and stay strong, while the rising generation of children are born so physically weak that they can barely tolerate solid food and are confined to wheelchairs by their teens.

Following the ecological disaster, Japan has adopted an isolationist policy to protect itself, and the use of foreign words has been banned. It is never quite clear who is running things in the novel, and Tawada alludes to stiff consequences for those who don’t follow the rules of the new order. In this sense, the situation is reminiscent of George Orwell’s “1984.”

While they may be confused, citizens seem to remain optimistic, and as translator Margaret Mitsutani points out, there is also humor to be found in the situation.

“Readers in Japan will be able to see certain parallels with contemporary Japanese society — for instance, the new (national) holidays that pop up from time to time,” she says. “Tawada does an interesting riff on this, with people voting for new holidays (a semblance of ‘democracy’ in a controlled society), and changing the names of certain holidays so that, for example, ‘Labor Day’ becomes ‘It’s Enough to be Alive Day.'”

The main protagonists in this topsy-turvy world are Yoshiro and his great-grandson Mumei. Yoshiro is concerned about Mumei’s health and future, yet the child has an innate wisdom that belies his tender years, and caring for him is a constant source of joy for the old man.

Both author and translator comment on parallels between the concept of “family” in the novel and in present-day Japan. “In reality, in Japan the family is as confusing as the outside world,” Tawada says. “Most parents are dissatisfied with themselves and want their children to succeed. But Yoshiro just wants to help Mumei.”

Mitsutani notes that the idea of “traditional family” is not portrayed in a positive light in the novel, illustrated by a passage in which Yoshiro’s wife Marika remembers taking their daughter back to her family home. “She discovers all the terrible things that have happened there through the generations: oppression, sexual exploitation, even murder,” says Mitsutani. “You get the sense that generational bonds are every bit as frightening as a government you can’t see, making laws you may break without realizing it. The alternative is the new kind of family that has formed, with the very old taking care of their great-grandchildren, which is unspeakably sad — as the elderly know the kids will die first — but sweet at the same time.”

In many ways, “The Emissary” is Tawada’s attempt to offer commentary on real-world issues that Japan faces, including that of a declining population. “I think many Japanese want to get out of the international competition for power, money and beauty, but they do not know how,” muses Tawada. “Isolation would not be a solution. Maybe I’m looking for an answer in this novel.

“I think every country has to accept as many immigrants as it can. I love the mixed culture in big cities. But at the same time, it is important to take certain traditions seriously, for example our writing system. The problem is that you have to force all immigrants to Japan to learn 3,000 (kanji) characters,” Tawada points out.

Language and word play are important elements in Tawada’s work. Having lived in Germany since 1982, she writes in German and Japanese and has won literary awards from both countries.

Mitsutani has been translating Tawada’s work since the late 1990s and was a natural choice to tackle the challenge of rendering “The Emissary” into English. “Not all wordplay is translatable, but you have to take each case and try to come up with the best possible solution,” she explains.

The isolationist policy in “The Emissary” gives rise to new terms for words formerly written in katakana script. “(The imported word) ‘jogging’ has been replaced with the Japanese word ‘kakeochi,’ which means ‘elope,’ so I had to find a way to convey that in the translation,” says Mitsutani.

“‘Kakeochi’ in its new sense is supposed to mean ‘if you kakeru (run) your blood pressure will ochiru (go down).’ In English, that became ‘eloping down,’ which sounds odd. In the Japanese, it simply says that Mumei’s generation don’t know about the connection between kakeochi and romantic love, but I had to add a somewhat longer explanation that would suggest ‘elope’— a young woman climbing down a ladder in the middle of the night to meet her lover. Not a perfect solution, but I’m hoping readers will get the idea.”

According to Mitsutani, readers of Tawada’s work are likely to be those who are interested in language, and at some point, “you have to trust them.”

Perhaps it is fair to say this concept can be extended to the novel as a whole. Tawada offers no tidy endings, and ultimately “The Emissary” delivers more questions than answers, leaving it to readers to interpret the novel on their own terms.

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