The Emissary by Yoko Tawada
Translated by Margaret Mitsutani

Yoko Tawada takes readers through a dystopian vision of Japan’s not-too-distant future in her slim new novel.

Author info

Yoko Tawada writes in both Japanese and German. Her work has been acclaimed as “strange, exquisite,” “surreal and beguiling.” The Emissary is a 2018 nalist forthe National Book Award.

Margaret Mitsutani has lived in Japan since the 1970s and has translated work by, among others, Kenzaburo Oe, Mitsuyo Kakuta and Kyoko Hayashi.

How does a globalized society recover from the combined forces of nuclear disaster, political corruption and severe population crisis in a world where countries have shut their borders to each other? Yoko Tawada explores these questions in her latest novel,The Emissary. The novel opens after Japan has suffered a massive, irreparable disaster, and the country cuts itself off from the world, as do other countries, deciding to withdraw from the “global rat race.” Life in Japan shrinks in scale, and concepts of health, work and education are all totally transformed. Environmental degradation decimates animal populations and severely restricts food production. The disaster also impacts human biology, as men begin to have menopause and sexes can sometimes change spontaneously. These changes also result in an aging population of people who are unable to die, and are doomed to grow stronger as they watch a new generation of children born so feeble they can barely walk or eat.

Mumei is one of those feeble children, causing much heartache for his great-grandfather, Yoshiro, who is over 100 years old, yet starts each morning with a run along the riverbank with a companion rented from the nearby Rent-A-Dog store. Yoshiro and Mumei are the only members of their family still in Tokyo, as everyone else has either died or migrated to other parts of the country, so these two keep each other company through the mundane acts of everyday life. Yoshiro was once a writer, but the government’s unpredictable censorship rules have effectively killed his career. First his work is rejected for being critical of the government, then Yoshiro begins to self-censor. In the midst of writing a historical novel called Ken-to-Shi, Emissary to China, Yoshiro realizes it includes the names of far too many foreign countries, so, in order to protect himself, he buries it in the Thing-amabob Cemetery, a public graveyard where anyone can pay respects to something they want to part with. These days, he only writes postcards to his daughter, Amana, who’s harvesting fruit down in Okinawa. She writes back with her own cryptic postcards written in invisible ink made from the juice of lemons—a luxury in Tokyo, where fruit is scarce—describing in great detail the latest pineapple, but rarely giving any details about her new life.

While Yoshiro is obsessed with the losses  of the past and future, Mumei approaches the world with a deep sense of contemplative curiosity, and lives a rich and imaginative existence that is sometimes charming and hilarious, sometimes darkly ominous. He doesn’t pity himself or his fellow weaklings; he shouts, “Paradise!” every time he’s emotionally overcome, jumping into the air in a rare show of energy. He is puzzled by his own body, wonders if he’s an octopus when he can’t get his pyjama pants off, and flaps his arms madly like a bird when he is explaining cartography to his classmates.

There seems to be a select group of children with strange gifts like Mumei, and their ability to see the world with calmness and creativity makes them ideal candidates for a secretive mission called the “Emissary Association,” a privately funded group that sends promising young children abroad in order to study Japanese children’s health, and possibly the health of the nation.

Tawada’s novel is a lot like its whimsical cover—the cartoon image of a young boy in patent leather shoes teetering on top of a giant, cheerfully round orange in an otherwise empty space. The story is sharp and bright as a lemon, which Mumei says “is so sour it makes you see blue.” Margaret Mitsutani translates Tawada’s playful language and striking images with tremendous wit and grace.

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