Introducing Yoko Tawada’s ‘The Emissary’

A surreal book that shows us a dystopian future unlike any dystopian future you’ve read about before.
Yoko Tawada's The Emissary

This month, we’re reading the book that just won the very first National Book Award for translated literature: Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary! The novel — almost a novella at 138 pages long — is a story about a future dystopia that doesn’t spend much time on the “dystopia” side of things. Instead, it focuses on a small group of characters, illustrating the humanity of the end of the world. The book is a reflection on mortality and hope in an uncertain future, and it manages to be funny and grim at the same time.

We’ll start with an overview of the book and some discussion questions that we’ll come back to as the month progresses. But first, if you’re not already a member of our Babbel Book Club Facebook group, it’s never too late to join!

The Book

The Emissary is set in Japan, but a Japan that exists in a world very different from our own. Some unnamed disaster occurred at some point in the past, which has led the country to cut itself off from the rest of the world. The repercussions are dire. The children being born are all very weak and unable to take care of themselves in this strange new world. This leaves the adults to care for the children indefinitely. One such adult is Yoshiro, whose struggle to take care of his great grandson Mumei is at the center of this story. Yoshiro is getting on in years, but as the sole caretaker of his great grandson, he has no choice but to keep caring for all of Mumei’s ailments. It’s hard to go into more detail about any of this because of how short the book is. Details about Yoshiro’s family and his daily life are all bundled into the intricate storytelling.

The book is described as “surreal,” but The Emissary is grounded in the familiar throughout most of the story. The incredibly strange dystopia starts to feel quite real, especially considering the times we live in. Yoshiro’s worrying about Mumei is as relatable as anyone’s concern about the future we leave our children. It’s hardly exclusive to an end-of-the-world dystopia. The novel is a bit weird, but it’ll certainly keep your attention, and though short, it leaves you pondering big questions.

The Author

Yoko Tawada is a writer who has created novels, poetry, essays and more. She was born in Tokyo in 1960 and moved to Germany at the age of 22. She’s lived bilingually ever since, writing in both Japanese and German. Her last novel, Memoirs of a Polar Bear (which we happened to review in a previous iteration of Babbel Book Club), was written first in Japanese and then translated pre-published into German by Tawada. In addition to the National Book Award, Tawada has received prestigious prizes in both Germany and Japan, including the Akutagawa Prize and the Goethe Medal.

The Translator

Margaret Mitsutani is a translator who was raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but she has lived in Japan since the 1970s. She has translated other essays by Yoko Tawada, as well as work by Mitsuyo Kakuta, Kyoko Hayashi and Kenzaburō Ōe, the last of whom won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1994.

The Language

Japanese is spoken by over 128 million people in the word, with over 99 percent of those speakers living in Japan. It’s one of the Japonic languages, which also includes Ryūkyūan, a smaller language spoken in the Ryūkyū Islands in southern Japan. There’s debate over where exactly the Japonic languages originated, and some consider it a language isolate, having no discernible genealogical history. The earliest clear example of Old Japanese comes from the eighth century CE, and it has certainly evolved plenty since then.

This is, of course, just the bare beginnings of stuff to know about the Japanese language. We wrote a bit about Japan’s writing system in an article about Haiku and translation, and there’s plenty more to learn about it out there. The Emissary also directly plays with the Japanese language, eliminating external influences (especially from English). Thus, when the book is translated into English, it probably posed some word problems for translator Margaret Mitsutani to solve. Fortunately, not too much is lost going from Japanese to English, but the book is inseparable from its source language.

Discussion Questions

  1. A lot of the book, especially at the beginning, is about language and the way it’s used. Japan is trying to get rid of external influence on the Japanese language to create a purer form. What did you make of this anti-loanword stance?
  2. Despite all his health issues, Mumei is incredibly optimistic throughout the book. Did the book seem hopeful, or just grim?
  3. A big theme in the book is isolationism, as this fictional Japan completely isolated itself from the rest of the world (this wouldn’t be the first time Japan isolated itself, it’s worth noting). The reason for doing so is that there were so many problems in the world, governments thought it would be easier for each country to deal with its own issues. Do you think that’s the smarter approach?
  4. How applicable did you find this dystopia to our world? How realistic is it?
  5. The ending of the book is far from clear (we can’t say any more as to prevent spoilers). How did you interpret it?
  6. For a last, more dramatic question: Could you bring a child into a world that seems to be dying? Is it better to hope that things will get better for them, or accept that the end could be near?

Stay tuned for the rest of the month to join discussions about the book and the Japanese language. Want to learn more about Babbel Book Club? Click here.

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