Yoko Tawada’s recent novel The Emissary, translated by Margaret Mitsutani, tells the story of Yoshiro and his great-grandson, Mumei, as they go about their simple lives sometime in the not-so-distant future. Like most children of his generation, Mumei is physically weak; he is challenged by tasks as mundane as dressing himself in the morning and walking to school. Citrus disrupts his digestive system. Consuming dairy is nearly impossible. Unable to absorb vital nutrients, his hair is as white as that of his great-grandfather and guardian Yoshiro.
As the pair goes about their quotidian lives, Yoshiro find himself consumed with worry for his young progeny. A centenarian, Yoshiro has lived through great upheavals in his way of life. His generation alone can remember a time when cars abounded and businesses flourished in the former metropolis of Tokyo, a city that is to Mumei and his peers an abandoned wasteland. While Tokyo has become uninhabitable due to radioactive contamination, areas of Japan with robust agricultural industries – Okinawa, Kyushu, Hokkaido – thrive and take measures to isolate themselves, much as Japan and other nations of the world have also chosen to do. Rather than working together, these countries have determined that they should solve their own problems by themselves and have closed their borders. In this newly isolationist world order, international travel is a dream of the past as even movement within Japan via its outmoded and decaying transit system becomes daunting. As foreign words are banned from colloquial usage, terms that call to mind innovations and exoticisms of the past fall out of favor, decay in the minds of the elderly, and vanish.
As society reckons with the consequences of its decisions, it is Mumei and the young who must pay the price while Yoshiro and the other elderly gain strength, cursed to observe as the young waste away. Yet, while Yoshiro is consumed with anxiety, Mumei is buoyant. In contrast to the elderly, Mumei is unfailingly kind, often being the one to reassure his great-grandfather. Unlike Yoshiro, Mumei “didn’t seem to know what ‘suffering’ meant…Of course he felt pain, but it was pure pain, unaccompanied by any ‘Why am I the only one who has to suffer like this?’ sort of lamentations that Yoshiro knew so well’”. Mumei is not one to think of himself or to wallow in his circumstances. Yoshiro is baffled in recognizing that Mumei simply doesn’t seem to know what it is to feel sorry for himself, despite the inequity in his situation and prospects.
In exploring the consequences of isolationism, disregard for our natural environment, and an aging population – all timely issues in Japan and around the world – Tawada presents a future that is far from implausible. By illustrating a contrast between the present and this post-Fukushima future and between the elderly and young, she presents a poignant contemplation of the responsibilities that we have to each other and to our planet. While it is the young – Mumei and his generation – who suffer because of the actions and arrogance of the old, it is also they who hold the potential for innovation. To Yoshiro, it is his gentle great-grandson in whom he sees the potential for change in a society that has long since retreated from such concepts. It is the young who have the capacity, if not the duty, to serve as emissaries in this new world.