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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Emissary

(The Last Children of Tokyo)

Tawada Yoko

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Emissary

Title: The Emissary
Author: Tawada Yoko
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 127 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Emissary - US
The Last Children of Tokyo - UK
The Emissary - Canada
Sendbo-o-te - Deutschland
  • Japanese title: 献灯使
  • US title: The Emissary
  • UK title: The Last Children of Tokyo
  • Translated by Margaret Mitsutani

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Our Assessment:

B : intriguing world-building, but doesn't go far enough beyond that

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times A+ 1/6/2018 Rivkah Brown
The Guardian . 28/6/2018 John Self
The Japan Times . 4/8/2018 L.G. Kittaka
The NY Times . 18/4/2018 Parul Sehgal
TLS . 10/8/2018 Bryan Karetnyk
World Lit. Today . 3-4/2018 Jacky Tideman

  From the Reviews:
  • "The book achieves a technically impossible balance of open-hearted fable and cold-blooded satire. Had I but words enough and time to eulogise it." - Rivkah Brown, Financial Times

  • "In 144 pages we get a mini-epic of eco-terror, family drama and speculative fiction. (...) Tawada’s interest is satirical as much as tragic" - John Self, The Guardian

  • "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." - Louise George Kittaka, The Japan Times

  • "(A) contentedly minor work. It has a recessive, lunar beauty compared to the sunny ambition and inventiveness of its predecessors (.....) The Emissary is as bleak a portrait of contemporary Japan as you could imagine (.....) It’s quite a premise, but remains just that. The book feints at a narrative and at wrestling with the issues it raises" - Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

  • "Tawada’s world-building is undoubtedly impressive. However, for all the novella’s ecological and political stage-dressing, the essential premiss -- that of a guilt-ridden older generation visiting its wrongdoing on innocent youth -- is naive. Its treatment ultimately remains under-explored and unchallenged, and the lack of narrative momentum compounds this frustration: instead of action we experience atmosphere; instead of dynamism the stasis of allegory." - Bryan Karetnyk, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The overall result is a dream world, not nightmarish but somewhat frightening and yet still familiar and comforting: health advice is still constantly contradictory; younger people are still the subject of their seniors’ complaints. The blend feels like a mess of the subconscious and conscious, each having important things to say to complement and strengthen the other. A master of convincing contradiction and amusing wit, Yoko Tawada has produced a novel with bits of humor quietly dominating like weeds in a barren posturban world." - Jacky Tideman, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Emissary is set in a near future after some sort of catastrophe that has left the world: "irreversibly contaminated". Among the consequences is that those who were alive in earlier, better days, have achieved a physical near-immortality, living to a great age, in great shape -- the main character in the novel, the author Yoshiro, is now well over a hundred -- while the next generations, and now especially the youngest, become increasingly physically frail as they age, and seem unlikely to make it out of their teens. So also the fifteen year-old great-grandson whom Yoshiro is raising by himself, Mumei.
       Under these conditions, Japan has once again isolated itself. As Yoshiro explains:

Each 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.
       There's no real contact with the outside world, so it's unclear whether everything is the same elsewhere, but Japan has certainly withdrawn completely into itself. In this poisoned world, there is practically no more wild animal life of any sort, Tokyo has largely been abandoned, and there are internal immigration controls in the more desirable parts of the country - Okinawa and Hokkaido. Much modern technology has also been lost (there aren't even telephones) but in many ways life continues similarly to before -- or even relatively modernly: there is a Rent-a-Dog place where Yoshiro hires a dog to run along with him on his daily jogs, and Mumei goes to school. This future-world isn't a violent, ugly dystopia, but more of a resigned, civil one -- though one in which citizens seem to have have little say over politics or government.
       The enforced isolation and turning back completely inwards extends to all spheres -- most notably, in the story, to language. If not exactly outlawed, the use of foreign words -- many of which had become part of everyday language -- is no longer acceptable. Usage has also changed in other ways, because of the new situation society finds itself in:
     "We don't talk about 'putting people to a lot of trouble' anymore -- that expression is dead. A long time ago, when civilization hadn't progressed to where it is now, there used to be a distinction between useful and useless people. You children mustn't carry on that way f thinking."
     "Didn't people say arigato ?"
     "Arigato -- sounds crunchy, but kind of sweet, too."
     "That word is also dead."
       A considerable amount of The Emissary focuses on linguistic change and usage -- of how people express themselves in this new world, and the consequences of no longer being able to use certain (many) words and expressions. Impressively, neither Tawada nor then translator Mitsutani make this too obtrusive. The challenge for Mitsutani is particularly great, but her solutions -- leaving arigato ('thank you') in the above example untranslated, because of the presumed familiarity readers will have with the meaning, while elsewhere, as necessary, spelling out in greater detail the original characters and meanings -- work quite well. Such word-talk is, no doubt, much more easily conveyed in the original, but it doesn't get too awkward here, which is quite remarkable.
       The extent to which The Emissary is a novel about language, and the extent to which much here is symbolic, is most obvious in Mumei's name. What the Japanese -- 無名 -- means is obviously clear from the beginning to Japanese readers, but only really spelled out halfway through the novel, when Yoshiro explains:
I've named him Mumei, a name that means 'no name.'
       Clearly, the choice of name has a much greater impact on readers of the Japanese original -- reminded of the meaning every time they see the name, from the very beginning -- and it's interesting to consider how different the story reads in English, without that being hammered home so obviously (as it would have been if the boy had been referred to as 'No-Name' or something along those lines all along).
       Much of the novel focuses on Yoshiro's perspective, before eventually focusing more on Mumei. Early on already we learn that he is special in some ways:
It spooked Yoshiro sometimes, the way he didn't just sense a person's general mood, but actually seemed to read their minds, as if he were reading a book.
       Though frail and weak, Mumei also seems quite contented and untroubled, at ease in the moment. Eventually, he has the opportunity to become the emissary of the title, to venture beyond the nation's borders and re-connect with the outside world. But this isn't so much a novel about that, or even leading to that. The Emissary is a society- (rather than simply character-)study, of a world turned upside down (the old more like the young, and vice versa), of a society and culture withdrawing into itself in the only path to self-preservation most can imagine. And, of course, much of this is a commentary on and reflection of contemporary Japanese society, a predominantly aging one which remains xenophobic and, in many ways, closed to the foreign (beyond, of course, also being one that has repeatedly faced localized environmental disasters (for which humans are significantly or entirely responsible, as opposed to natural disasters), from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Minamata to Fukushima).
       Much of the novel feels like world-building -- showing how this world, and the people in it, now function --, with Yoshiro as the prime (but not sole) example/guide. The small domestic scenes, and some explanations of the lives of the other family members, do make more of the novel, but it barely stretches to a plot. Apparently an expansion of a short story Tawada wrote, one can almost see how much that has been added is a kind of padding, almost drowning out the crux of any plot. Not that it necessarily needs much of a 'plot', but as is The Emissary feels oddly in-between -- a padded story, or (only) the foundation of a sturdier, more expansive novel.
       The Emissary is still appealing, as is, too -- including, in particular, the presentation of the situation and role of language -- but the focus is too much on how things are, rather than how the characters are affected by and deal with that.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 March 2018

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The Emissary: Reviews: Tawada Yoko: Other books by Tawada Yoko under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Tawada Yoko (多和田葉子) was born in Tokyo in 1960 and moved to Germany when she was 22. She writes in both Japanese and German.

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© 2018-2022 the complete review

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