BOOK REVIEW: The Emissary, an isolationist Japan in the aftermath of environmental catastrophe

Tawada, Yoko - The EmissaryThe Emissary
Yoko Tawada

Environmental degradation in Japan has damaged the youth of the country: they are weak, have a near constant fever, suffer from digestive issues, and are sensitive to temperature changes and extremes, though they also have indomitable spirits. At the same time, the elderly are near-immortal, blessed with energy and strong constitutions. Still, the government of Japan instituted an isolationist policy terminating all imports and exports with foreign countries, forbidding travel abroad, and prohibiting the use of foreign terms (e.g., “overalls”).

In this milieu, Yoshiro cares for his great-grandson, Mumei. Mumei’s great-grandmother runs Elsewhere Academy, an institution for “independent children” while his grandparents work on an orchard in Okinawa. His mother died in labor, and his addict father’s whereabouts are unknown.

If you are wanting a book with plot or with a clear resolution, The Emissary (also released as The Last Children of Tokyo) will disappoint you. However, the novel does present a chilling though viable view of a future Japan reacting to the devastation wrought by changes in climate, environmental toxins, and shifts in the relationship between older and younger citizens.

My favorite parts of the book related to language and how language changed in response to the culture and environmental changes. In addition to the prohibition on foreign vocabulary, other words fell out of favor or lost their meaning, with no new words replacing them. Characters gave a great deal of thought to words that didn’t sound right like “chum” and “cleaner.” The Japanese voted in a slew of new holidays and changed the names of many others. In my favorite shift, “Labor Day” became “Being Alive Is Enough Day.”

The Emissary also hinted at the tensions between regions of Japan and how an isolationist policy can foster suspicion and resentment among a country; it also was a dirge to the experience lost when travel was no longer possible and when people no longer could see diverse flora and fauna due to extinction. There are also interesting references to fluidity between sexes increasing.

Mumei is presented as a charming, precocious character who stole Yoshimo’s heart as well as those of his great-grandmother and teacher. I found him annoying at best and at worst creepy. This was only heightened for me about three-fourths of the way into the book when there is an unexpected and jarring shift from Yoshima’s point of view, which had been constant until that point, to Mumei’s. After Mumei’s voice intruded, those of his great-grandmother, Marika, and his teacher, Mr. Yonatani, followed. I certainly don’t mind having multiple points of view in a book, but I do think that each novel creates its own grammar, and changing perspectives was a shift in the book’s grammar that I found irritating when it occurred so late in the narrative.

So for me, there were delightful elements in the prose, but the individual parts did not come together to me to elevate the whole, and I can’t say that I enjoyed the book that much, thought it was definitely different and somewhat interesting. However, I do take to heart Mr. Yonati’s reflections on isolationism: “It was clearly necessary to think of the future along the curved lines of our round earth. The isolation policy that looked so invulnerable was actually nothing but a sand castle. You could destroy it, little by little, with those plastic shovels kids use at the beach.”

 

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