Review: The Last Children of Tokyo

Published by Portobello Books in 2018 and translated by Margaret Mitsutani, The Last Children of Tokyo (also published as The Emissary) by Yoko Tawada is speculative fiction that imagines what can happen in an ageing society that is affected by a major environmental catastrophe.

The story is set in futuristic, dystopian, environmental wasteland Japan that has once again retreated into self-isolation, cutting itself off from the rest of the world. Things are so bad that foreign words are banned and people get into a lot of semantic arguments. There are food shortages in Tokyo even though food is produced abundantly in Okinawa.

In this post-catastrophe world, great grandparents outlive their great grandkids. Tawada focuses on the relationship between Yoshiro and his great grandson, Mumei. The grandfather’s care is palpable, particularly how he fusses over what the boy can and cannot eat. However, things get weird when the author starts shifting from one narrative perspective to the next.

Deeper into the chapter-free story, more characters are added but Tawada does not deal with them in as great depth as how she handles Yoshiro and Mumei. The plot starts well but then meanders into some strange direction and by the end of the story, I was so confused.

Meandering plot aside, Yoko Tawada is a skilled writer who clearly loves to dabble in word play. Also, her writing is distinctive from the spare, minimalist style of her literary peers like Sayaka Murata and Hiromi Kawakami. I think it may have to do with the fact that she writes in both German and Japanese and lives in Berlin rather than Japan. She is also able to satirize Japanese culture and language and use this story as a cautionary tale of what could happen if Japan behaves in an increasingly insular and environmentally destructive manner in the future.

Bonus: the book recently won the US National Book Award for Translated Literature.