Winner of the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature
The Last Children of Tokyo by Yōko Tawada (published in the US as The Emissary), translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, is a dystopian novel set in a near-future Japan that has isolated itself from the rest of the world, and gone even further by deliberately erasing foreign-origin, particularly English, words from the Japanese language and replacing them with alternatives. The ability to understand English is actually considered as evidence of old age.
Long ago, this sort of purposeless running had been referred to as jogging, but with foreign words falling out of use, it was now called loping down, an expression that had started out as a joke meaning “if you lope your blood pressure goes down,” but everybody called it that these days.
Moreover, for a reader who is passionate about translated fiction, the most terrifying thing about this near-future world is the fact that books, even picture books, are no longer being translated…
As a result of an unexplained disaster, the elderly in this futuristic Japan seem to be immortal, while the younger generations are weak and disabled, and have very short lifespans which basically means that the aged have to do most of the physical labour and are forced to watch their grandchildren and great-grandchildren die. The first part of the novel mostly focuses on Yoshiro, a centenarian who is taking care of his very fragile great-grandson Mumei. For Mumei, performing even the smallest day-to-day tasks, such as putting on clothes and chewing his food, is very tiring for his weak body, so he heavily relies on his great-grandfather’s help. In the second half of the novel, the author introduces more characters, but their individual storylines were fairly underdeveloped. Also, very late in the novel, the author introduces a potentially interesting plot point, which kind of explains why the US title of this book is The Emissary, however, soon afterwards, the story just ended…
As you can probably tell by now, unfortunately, this book didn’t really work for me. The narrative felt disjointed at times but, more importantly, I thought that this book fell into the same trap that many speculative literary novels have fallen into before, whereby the various science fiction elements are used only as metaphors to make some kind of point and make little sense otherwise. I didn’t expect this to be hard science fiction, but I think that these types of speculative novels, as opposed to those that are labelled as genre fiction, are lacking in coherent world-building. I have a similar problem with the majority of literary fairytale retellings that have come out in recent years, in which the authors can often get away with lazy world-building by relying on the justification that the book is meant to be read from a literary standpoint, even though it includes science fiction or fantasy elements. I won’t really go into that here because that might be an interesting topic for a whole separate post.
Despite my issues with the book, Tawada is a skilful writer, and it’s a beautifully written novel that had a lot of potential. I’m willing to accept that I didn’t really get it, but it seems to me that the interesting futuristic setting only served the purpose of conveying, in a rather blunt manner, a message about the dangers of isolationism, environmental pollution, and exaggerated attempts to please everyone by, for example, renaming public holidays.
‘Labour Day’ became ‘Being Alive is Enough Day’
Clearly, the judging panel of the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature saw something more in this novel so you may want to give this one a try for yourself.