The Emissary, a slim and bitingly smart dystopia from Japanese writer Yoko Tawada, takes its readers in a distressing incursion into the future, but begins by pointing back to a book published more than half a century ago: Kenzaburō Ōe’s A Personal Matter. Ōe’s story of a young man abandoning his severely disabled newborn child is a classic of modern Japanese literature and helped earn Ōe the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994. In Tawada’s novel, the unfortunate infant of Ōe’s story has grown up into a happy, albeit highly diseased child named Mumei, who is the picture of innocence and bearer of his father’s sins. He has a large head on a tiny neck, like a baby bird, and his legs turn inward below the knees. He can digest only a few foods and frequently falls into faints and dissociative trances. When overexcited, he will throw his hands up in the air and shout, “Paradise!”
Mumei lives with his great-grandfather, Yoshiro, who is condemned to grow stronger day by day while his great-grandson grows weaker. Yoshiro takes care of Mumei, wheeling him around in a cart like a spaceship with padded sides, feeding him delicate mush, and telling him stories about the old Japan, when people still wrote out all the characters, and read the news, and planned trips abroad, and so on. Alternating between these two halves of the pair throughout the book, Tawada builds a play of contrasts between their perspectives, bringing out generational and stylistic differences in their voices.
The Emissary takes place in a Japan that has once again closed its borders to the outside world. No specific disaster or timeline is mentioned, but a nuclear fallout seems likely. The outskirts of Japan—Hokkaido, Kyuushuu, and Osaka—have become the most desirable places to live, while Tokyo is increasingly abandoned due to its radioactive soil and unattractive architecture.
As is often the case with dystopias, Tawada’s grim rendering of the future reads as a satire of current tendencies of the society it depicts. For example, nearly all the important positions in Tawada’s Japan are staffed by the elderly, who become all the more spry and capable as they age past ninety, and then 100, and then 110, reflecting the trend in contemporary Japan to an older and older working population. (According to a recent estimate by the Japanese government, people over the age of sixty-five will account for sixty percent of Japan’s population by 2060.) A town in Okinawa prohibits people younger than fifty-five from moving there in order to prevent population growth, so young men and women dye their hair and wrinkle their skin in an effort to look older, only to betray their youth by failing to identify trends we would associate with the youth of modern Japan—knowing English, for example, or understanding technology. A certain amount of political doublespeak is also mocked, with “Labor Day”, for instance, becoming “Being Alive is Enough Day.”
But there is a darker side still to Tawada’s fictional portrait of Japan. Unfortunately, the idea that Japan may once again close its borders is no less reflective of contemporary attitudes than the idea of an octogenarian working class. Although Tawada finished the novel in 2014, before surges of populism were to spread through the United States, France, Britain, and elsewhere, by that time Japan was already experiencing its own quiet form of renewed nationalism in the policies of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. While not exactly isolationist, many items on Abe’s agenda emphasize a more patriotic view of Japan’s role in World War II. When coupled with heightened militarization, as well as a more aggressive approach to disputes in the East China Sea, these had the effect of producing strong objections in favor of a return to pre-war policies of noninvolvement. As Yoshiro explains to Mumei in the novel: “Every country has serious problems, so to keep those problems from spreading all around the world, they decided that each country should solve its own problems by itself.”
Contrasted against the indicting societal critique in The Emissary is the warm relationship between Yoshiro and Mumei, as well as the elegant and often poetic language used to describe Japan’s future. Like the fish-creatures of Vonnegut’s Galápagos, the citizens of Tawada’s Japan are described obliquely, their faintly suggested features blooming wildly in the reader’s mind. Children with “eyes like grapes moist with dew” sit eagerly on a classroom floor, waiting for words from their teacher about the outside world. Yoshiro sees Mumei’s teeth “drop out one after another like pomegranate pulp, leaving his mouth smeared with blood.” Of everything, the character that prompts the most speculation is Mumei: given only hints about his physical appearance, we construct a vision of him according to whatever fragments we may have in our mind of nuclear fallout, apocalyptic disfigurement, or human disabilities. (While the Japanese edition features a lovely watercolor of a birdlike creature on its cover, the New Directions design is slightly more abstract: a child teetering on the edge of a fruit.)
The emphasis on language in this work is not a coincidence. As an expatriate writer living in Berlin, Tawada writes in both German and Japanese, often in ways that reflect a deep awareness of the differing constraints of each language and alphabet. The Japanese title of The Emissary refers to the traditional name used for Japanese emissaries to China, and accordingly the idea that young Mumei may someday become an emissary to the world outside Japan. (If you are a highly optimistic reader, then this is exactly what happens to Mumei; otherwise you may find yourself reflecting on more abstract applications of the term.) However, Tawada uses different characters to spell this word kentoushi, adding the additional meaning of “bearer of light” in a subtle change that mirrors the shared linguistic history between China and Japan.
Characteristics of the Japanese language are toyed with throughout The Emissary, something translator Margaret Mitsutani does an admirable job of uncovering to an English audience. This is important, as many of Tawada’s tricks go deeper than mere linguistic play. For instance, when the young people of Tawada’s Japan, now wholly ignorant of the English language, interpret labels that say “made in Japan” phonetically, transforming “made” into the Japanese word “ma-de” or “to/until,” they are reflecting the much larger theme that all things in a country with closed borders must direct back into that country—even remnants of foreign words left behind.
Japan’s literature has changed quite a bit since A Personal Matter was published in 1964. A postwar era characterized by the themes of intense alienation and psychological strangeness in writers like Mishima, Kawabata, and Ōe has become increasingly identified with the light surrealism of Haruki Murakami, as well as numerous popular manga in translation. Tawada is a superb writer, to be sure, and with more interesting vision than Murakami, but it is clear that The Emissary describes a future with a similarly light tone. While the young father of A Personal Matter agonizes over his decision to keep his child alive, scraping at the heels of a once-strong Japanese moral sensibility to find anything that may have endured, the love between Yoshiro and Mumei is almost taken for granted. Mumei’s classmates are ecstatic, joyfully wriggling over one another’s disfigured bodies, and their happiness is wise, as if they know something that Yoshiro and the reader cannot. And yet to take heart in this seems strange; perhaps it is something that cannot be translated or carried away.