Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary

In Yoko Tawada’s dystopian novel The Emissary, the reader enters a world where Japan has cut itself off from the rest of the globe. A “massive irreparable disaster” has happened, and in order to contain the fallout, Japan’s governing body has adopted a policy of total isolation. The reader suspects a nuclear event has occurred, but that assumption is never confirmed. Instead, the reader learns of all of the complications that the disaster has caused: radioactive soil, dangerous water, extinction of several animals species, a privatized police force, and the most unlikely of complications—children are now feeble and can barely move or stand, while the elderly are stronger than ever and have become a “new species of human beings.”

It is dangerous to live near the sea, the only fruit that grows is in Okinawa; there are no telephones, no internet, no appliances except solar-powered refrigerators; the government has implemented “strange new laws against saying the names of foreign cities”; it is here we meet Yoshiro and Mumei. Yoshiro is a 108-year-old great-grandfather and novelist. He is part of a generation that believes a “time after death no longer existed” and is faced with “the terrible burden of watching their great-grandchildren die.” Mumei, Yoshiro’s grandson, is fifteen years old and can barely walk or stand, is losing all his teeth, and has hair as gray as his grandfather. But Mumei, like other post-disaster kids, is also wise beyond his years. 

Tawada uses a point of view that focuses mainly on Yoshiro and Mumei. The reader gets to watch these two protagonists grappling with the day-to-day struggles of life in this strange and terrible world. Yoshiro worries about communicating with his daughter who he fears has been brainwashed. Mumei, on the other hand, has to decide whether to leave Yoshiro behind when he learns he has been chosen to be one of the children snuck out of Japan. 

This point of view also allows Tawada to achieve a slow build-up of narrative tension as the plot balances the daily, apocalyptic routines of Yoshiro and Mumei with flashbacks of pre-disaster life. This seesawing between the past and present fully displays the unique relationship between a grandfather and grandson. The reader gets to feel the hope and comedy from Mumei who wants his grandfather to be less stressed and the dread from Yoshiro who constantly fears whether he knows what he is doing raising a child again. That combination allows this short novel to be both quiet and powerful. 

The depth of characterization is also noteworthy. Tawada skillfully incorporates enough backstory to allow the reader to fully grasp the history of Yoshiro’s marriage and the unusual turn his marriage took, how Yoshiro came to care for Mumei, and what happened to Mumei’s parents. It is through the backstory that we learn about Japan pre-disaster. The pre-disaster world is then contrasted beautifully with the post-disaster Japan, where the characters in The Emissary are grappling with a lot of conditions that affect us today—dying after going into labor, running away from institutions, suffering from addiction, and feeling called to humanitarian efforts. Conditions in this post-disaster society allow the novel to feel both new and familiar. For any reader who is interested in a unique story about a post-disaster society, in a novel that doesn’t immediately reveal all of its secrets and allows space for its mysteries to haunt the reader, The Emissary is a great entry point into dystopian literature.

Kenneth Fleming

Kenneth A. Fleming is a fiction writer and editor living in Maryland. He holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. His short fiction has been a top finalist in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters and Pleiades's Experimental Writing contest. He has work forthcoming in the Delmarva Review. He is also an associate editor for the Potomac Review.