In one nightmarish vignette from his 1990 film Dreams the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa imagines how life might look and feel following a nuclear meltdown in Japan. With the breach of six nuclear reactors, Japan’s residents flee to the sea, where most of them eventually drown, leaving a handful of humans amidst a radioactive landscape of blackened earth and sky. The only other living organisms are immense mutant dandelions, whose weighty yellow flower heads tower over the human figures. Twenty-one years later, the imagined world of nuclear disaster became reality when the March 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami resulted in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear incident.
Originally published in Japanese in 2014, The Emissary marks Tawada’s most recent book to appear in English translation on the subject. With the ghosts of Fukushima never far from the novel’s margins, the Japan of The Emissary is hallucinatory, contaminated, and distinctly foreign in a familiar way. The country has suffered an unspecified disaster, or series of disasters, and consequently adopted a closed-door policy, sealing itself off from the outside world. Tokyo’s streets are eerily deserted; studying English is forbidden (along with reading foreign-language novels); cars as well as animals have disappeared; people no longer use electrical appliances since they cause nervous disorders; dandelions wield four-inch petals, salmon have stars all over their skin, and the word “healthy” no longer describes children (who now weaken and die young) while old people suffer under the strains of increasing strength and longevity.
Set within this strange dystopian bricolage of a 21st-century preindustrial Japan are Yoshiro, a writer and centenarian, who cares for Mumei, his fifteen year-old, wheelchair-bound great-grandson. Although in failing health, Mumei evinces a psychological maturity that stands in stark contrast with the elder Yoshiro’s sound body but troubled mind, and their life together is an inverted blend of domestic dependency and duty. And yet despite the rather mundane plot—an aging grandfather nourishing his grandson and himself with familial and Japanese history—Tawada’s incongruous juxtapositions endow the story with a certain incommensurability. Interweaving plot strands, disrupted flashbacks, and non-linear perspectives “zip through the air, then stop, hovering for a second before taking off in a completely unexpected direction” like the long-forgotten dragonfly of Yoshiro’s youth. It is only in the final ten pages that Tawada lifts the veil on the significance of the book’s title, revealing a secretive “Emissary Association” that plans to send “promising young people overseas”, with none deemed more suitable by his teacher than Mumei.
The irony of Yoshiro’s situation is that he lives an inward-looking life and fixes his gaze on the past despite the future possibilities that his good health allows. His wife Marika, daughter Amana, and grandson Tomo, all live “outside the family”, a condition to which Mumei aspires despite his physical handicap, but Yoshiro prefers instead the comforts of recollected experiences rather than new ones. He even isolates himself in order to write, at one point burying one of his historical novels, Ken-to-Shi, Emissary to China. Whereas the younger Mumei displays an inner tranquillity that belies his age, the elder Yoshiro seems unable to discharge a pervasive sense of guilt (“What actually pained him was the way his generation was always hurting young people without realizing it”) and here Tawada-as-writer is at her most self-conscious, sharing Rilke’s anxiety over the artist’s role as a bearer of cultural memory.
Natural, technological, and human-induced disaster is a recurrent theme in much of Yoko Tawada’s recent writing. In works such as the 2012 short story ‘The Island of Eternal Life’ (in the anthology March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown), 2012 German essay collection Fremde Wasser (based on lectures she gave on the subject at the University of Hamburg), and drama Still Fukushima: Wenn die Abendsonne aufgeht (first performed in 2013 at Berlin’s Lasenkan Theatre), she grapples with issues of language and the implications and consequences of translating catastrophic occurrences through and, at times, into art. With The Emissary, Tawada has crafted a phantasmagoric representation of humanity’s fraught relationship with technology and the natural world.
For all of the novel’s surrealism, however, there is a great deal that is familiar. Yoshiro describes reading his newspaper’s daily politics section as “like slogging through a swamp”—a not uncommon experience for many contemporary readers. The isolationist, anti-immigration policies of Tawada’s Japan echo current sentiments in the United States and across parts of Europe. When Tawada’s narrator describes how
all the major banks started failing one after another, causing customers to lose all their savings, leaving them with nothing to cling to but rumors about how they would get their money back someday
one is reminded of 1997’s Asian financial crisis or the 2007-2008 American financial crisis. The privatization of Japan’s government along with its police force reflects the concern felt by many throughout the West over the creeping corporatization of public institutions. Similarly, tuition-hungry schools extol their virtues “despite the fact that their graduates, even if they pass the exams, often can’t find jobs.” And in a particularly droll passage, Tawada takes aim at the proliferation of commemorative days— Ocean Day, Song Day, Pillow Day (to encourage couples to have sex), Off-Line Day (to commemorate the day the internet died), and Being Alive Day (formerly, Labor Day). Rather alarmingly, Tawada’s dystopian Japan is in many ways a reflection of our recent present.
At one point in the novel, we encounter Yoshiro reading a children’s story to Mumei. At the time, he is writing his own children’s story, but he is haunted by the burden of moral responsibility for the traumas caused by his generation, which he struggles to translate:
A raw, honest treatment of the problems they faced every day would only end in frustration at the absence of solutions, making it impossible to arrive at places one could only reach in books. Creating an ideal fictional world for his great-grandson was another possibility, although reading about an ideal world wouldn’t help the boy change the world around him any time soon.
The problem is less an inability to reconcile the ideal with the real and more history’s stubborn incommunicability. How unsurprising, then, that the post-WWII Japanese poet Shuntaro Tanikawa (himself a generation older than Tawada) should write:
Words grown old from overuse
Come alive again with our pain
Grow deep with our sadness
As if backed by silence
They grow toward new meanings
After all, to write is to remember and, as Tawada suggests, the role of the writer is to translate those silences within language into affective literature in which new meanings can take root and even blossom despite history’s contaminated soil.
Brian Haman is the Book Review Editor of The Shanghai Literary Review. A former Fulbright Scholar, he holds a PhD and an MA from the University of Warwick in the UK and splits his time between China and Europe.