Written by Yoko Tawada | Translated by Margaret Mitsutani
It can take decades for us to begin to see where dystopian novelists were coming from when they wrote their stories. When their ideas start to pop up in real life, we feel a shaken sense of awe at their powers of foresight, overshadowed by the dread that they were right. They were never meant to be right.
Orwell, Huxley, Atwood, and the rest were showing us the worst of our possible futures. But look to China and you can see more than a few elements of the world Wilson Smith lived through in 1984. South Korea is now introducing ‘mandatory dating’ at its universities to counter declining birth rates; this is one of several frightening real-world concepts that has popped up in the news this year, seemingly lifted straight from The Handmaid’s Tale.
Dystopian fiction is arguably the most impactful, clever, and chilling kind of storytelling we have, but it has dipped in quality in recent years. That is until now, as we get a glimpse into the very near future with Yoko Tawada’s The Last Children of Tokyo. or The Emissary in the US.
‘What is Today but Yesterday’s Tomorrow?’
In recent years Japan has become known globally for its aging population, a generation living longer than that of any other nation (due to astonishingly healthy foods and lifestyle trends) and also for its rapidly declining birth rates (thanks to, well, a lot of things – long and stressful working weeks and a disinterest in sex among young people are often cited as two popular reasons). These rising and falling figures make for scary reading in the papers, and even scarier stories.
As The Last Children of Tokyo begins, Yoshiro, a retired author, has passed his hundredth birthday and still spends every morning out jogging with his rent-a-dog (there are few animals left in Japan, and certainly no wild ones). His great-grandson Mumei, however, was born, like every member of his generation, with grey hair and failing health. His life expectancy is poor, and his bones will likely fail him before he exits his teens.
The Last Children of Tokyo is very much a novel of concept over story. Yoshiro and Mumei exist in the book as fascinating examples of their society: a Japan in which the cities have mostly been abandoned, ties with the outside world have been cut, all other languages are no longer taught or spoken, and many of the middle-aged people have moved to Okinawa, where they work on fruit farms which are almost completely the sole providers of food for the other islands of Japan. Yoshiro’s daughter is one such farmer.
“It had been years since he had been to Shinjuku – what was it like now? Billboards, far too gaudy to be overlooking ruins; traffic lights changing regularly from red to green on streets without a single car; automatic doors opening and closing for non-existent employees.”
A Wise and Witty Writer
Tawada has, as all great dystopian writers must do, been true to her country. She has taken a real look at the trends, habits, and laws which define Japan, and she has bent and twisted them; not so far as to distort them, but far enough to see where they might lead if left unchecked. While pollution and contamination play a major role in the state of Tawada’s Japan, she has shown genius in the people’s response to it.
The author takes the time to hold a mirror up to not only pollution but also the average person’s fear of GM crops, pharmaceutical corporations, and so on. She wonders where contamination of our food and water may lead us, but also the crippling power of irrational fear. And she does this with gall, discomfort, and more than a little humour:
“Electrical appliances had met with disapproval ever since electric current was discovered to cause nervous disorders, numbness in the extremities, and insomnia – a condition generally known as bzzt-bzzt syndrome.”
Where Tawada best echoes the great writers of dystopian fiction is in her presentation of government and law. While this eerie depiction of a more grounded kind of Big Brother could have been fleshed-out further, what’s there certainly manages to unsettle the reader about as much as the darkest and strangest of today’s conspiracy theories.
“Although no one had heard anything about an evacuation of the Diet or the Supreme Court, the buildings that had housed them were definitely not in use. They were empty shells […] But where did the newly elected Diet members work? Did they really exist, or were they simply photographs with names?”
Two years ago, famed Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari released his book Homo Deus, a prediction of our future based on the state of our present. In it he examines the issue of people living longer and refusing to retire, leading to bosses who are out of touch with their employees’ needs being unable to move with society at a steady click, as well as younger employees unable to make steady progress up the corporate ladder. This very real concern, among many others, has been mirrored here in The Last Children of Tokyo.
As I’ve said, this is a book of concepts rather than story. The plot often feels secondary to the ideas Tawada wished to explore and play with. She has done what so many have not: showed us a future which feels real enough and close enough that we begin to shiver and tug at our collars as we read.
And though its characters are thinner than they could have been, and the plot makes little effort to move forward with any great sense of pace, it’s the future Tawada presents which will leave the greatest impression on us. Orwell’s gift to us was Big Brother; Wilson Smith was no great revelation in literature. And in turn Tawada has gifted us with next year’s Japan, a very real and very frightening place.
If you like the sound of this book, you may also enjoy The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.