The Emissary – Yoko Tawada

March 13, 2019 § 4 Comments

First published in Japanese in 2014
Translated into English by Margaret Mitsutani in 2018


Mumei is a young child who lives with his great-grandfather, Yoshiro, in a Japan that none of us today would recognise. Yoshiro goes to the Rent-A-Dog place every day to get a dog to run with, while his great-grandson, unable to walk or do much without him, waits patiently for him to return home, so that they can prepare for school.

In this world, it’s the young that are weak, sickly, and dying. The elderly appear to have somehow found the secrets to longevity and immortality. They even have different phrases to differentiate them: “young elderly” for those who are in their seventies and eighties, and “middle-aged elderly” for those who are well into their nineties. It reminded me of how we have different phrases for the young today: infant, toddler, tween, teenager, young adult.

Early on in the book (page 10), we are shown just what the world has become. Mumei asks Yoshiro if they can get some paint for the walls.

“We can paint them blue, like the sky. With pictures of clouds, and birds, too”

“You want to have a picnic indoors?”

“Well, we can’t have one outside, can we?”

So matter-of-fact, as if a passing remark by the young child, but it stabs right into Yoshiro’s chest, the fact that his great-grandson will never know the joys of spending time in and getting to know Mother Nature.

I am, to be entirely honest, a little at a loss for words in terms of talking, or writing, about this book. The nearest word I can come up with that rather sums up my feelings, is “strange”. I found it difficult to immerse myself into the story, right from the start, because there was a layer of “strangeness” to it that threw me off balance. It got slightly better as I got to know the world a little better, though.

However, and I am rather regretful of this, perhaps I did the book a disservice when I stopped halfway through it, to only finish it the next day. The novella is short enough (at only 138 pages) that I’m sure I could have finished in one sitting, if only I had started the book a little earlier in the day.

I believe that all books have and emit some sort of a frequency, and there is an internal antennae of sorts within each of us that we use to receive and internalise these frequency transmissions when we read. It had taken me some time and effort to tune, and fine-tune, my internal antennae to the frequency level that The Emissary was giving off, and when I stopped for the night, the tuning just went straight out the window.

Otherwise, I believe the book would have resonated a little more. It’s a gentle sort of buzzing, very unlike many of the books that I’ve read. In fact, it almost feels like there’s TWO layers of buzzing, one decidedly lower than the other, almost out of range, but ever so present, all throughout the novella.


Read as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 12.

§ 4 Responses to The Emissary – Yoko Tawada

  • Wow, I’m intrigued by this one! I love your point about books emitting a certain frequency that we tune into, sometimes more easily than others. I might even say that the idea resonated with me. I think I might like the strangeness of this book. I love the power of that simple line, “Well, we can’t have one outside, can we?” Says so much about the world the novel is creating.

    • Michelle says:

      Glad my thoughts managed to get you interested in the book. And I do believe the strangeness is something that can be very attractive to some readers.

      Interestingly, also, the story is still lingering in my head. I think it goes to show how powerful it really is.

  • Bellezza says:

    I found it strange, too, and because it was a little odd, I put it down halfway through as you did. I plan to pick it up again when the reading I do for the Man Booker International Prize is done, because I really do like it. A sense of strangeness is so common (for me) when it comes to Japanese literature, that I am not put off; I just need time to absorb it. One of the scary things about this book (although I loved the relationship between the grandfather and the boy) is that I can almost see this happening in real life. Or, something like it, in the future.

    • Michelle says:

      Oh, would be good to read your thoughts on it once you’ve got the chance to pick it up again. I’m also rarely put off by strangeness (if anything, it mostly gets me more interested than anything else), so I wonder if it was simply the frame of mind I was in.

      And I agree with you about the scary part. It’s also what draws me to dystopian stories: the possibility of what we think impossible.

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