A Linguistic Dystopia: Language and Metamorphosis in Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary

What happens to a language when generation gaps are allowed to stretch on forever?

For Yoko Tawada, a Japanese author who writes in both German and Japanese, language’s power—and its failings—are a central concern. In today’s essay, Asymptote Editor-at-Large Jacqueline Leung explores how Tawada’s fascination with language informs her novel The Emissary, which takes place in a dystopian Japan that has forbidden the use of foreign languages. 

The very existence of language—the signified and the signifier, the sender and the recipient—denotes distance. For a writer like Yoko Tawada, who practices her craft in both Japanese and German (the latter picked up in her twenties), the space between reality and what is written or said is where poetry resides. Linguistic play is at the heart of Tawada’s creativity; in The Naked Eye, she wrote one chapter in German and another in Japanese, alternating between the two until the end. Then she decided to translate everything the other way so that she had a German manuscript and a Japanese manuscript for her publishers.

This exophonic maneuver—exophony being a term indicating the practice of writing in a language not your mother tongue (the distinction makes you wonder if there ever was a term for writing in your mother tongue)—is an impossibility in the dystopian Japan depicted in Tawada’s latest novel, The Emissary, translated into English by Margaret Mitsutani. Learning a foreign language is forbidden in the fictionalized Japan that has regressed to closing its borders after irreparable environmental disasters, possibly nuclear, contaminated the archipelago and pulled it away from the Eurasian continent, geographically and politically forcing its isolation. The aftermath is an exacerbated impression of Japan’s current dilemma with its aging population—government statistics released just this April reveal that over a third of its people are 60 and above.

Just as more senior employees remain in the workforce, in The Emissary, it is the elderly who are up and about, robbed of death “for the time being,” whereas the younger generation are born so fragile and sickly that adulthood appears far-fetched. The abnormal longevity of the elderly poses a curious question: What happens to a language when generation gaps are allowed to stretch on forever? With the isolationist policy in place, young people categorically do not possess knowledge of Western languages or use katakana, the Japanese writing system for words of foreign origin. As the shelf life of expressions gets shorter and shorter, a chasm forms in a language that was once shared, dredged of its familiarity.

Such is the woe of Yoshiro, a centenarian novelist and caretaker of his great-grandson Mumei, whose name means “no name,” much like the white noise existing between the pair despite the filial love that binds them together. In the portrayal of their everyday life, Tawada presents ruminations on linguistic difference brought about by time and societal change, starting with quizzical musings on the mundane. Words as intrinsic as “jogging” and “walk” have fallen out of use. Because “cleaning” (pronounced ku-‘rī-nin-gu in Japanese) is a foreign word banned by the government, cleaners have almost gone out of business until people begin to reinterpret it in kanji as 栗人具, literally translated as “chestnut-man-tool” (kuri-nin-gu). The old “made in” label on merchandise has been split apart into the kana for ma and de. Made in Japanese means “to” or “until,” so society now uses the phrase “to Iwate Prefecture,” for instance, to express the place of production.

Taking a bleaker turn, language has adapted itself to accommodate the deteriorating bodies of the children. The names of holidays have been updated to better reflect Japan’s imagined plight. Since the younger generation can never dream of working with bodies that always go against them, “Labor Day” has become “Just Being Alive Is Enough Day,” and “Children’s Day” has become “Apologize to the Children Day,” a manifestation of the elderly’s guilt for passing on a world so unfavorable to survival.

Mumei’s many ailments—his curved legs prevent him from walking too much; every swallow takes effort, and even when food travels down his esophagus, his lack of gastric juices makes him unable to digest what he eats—occupy a central place in the novel. Taking care of Mumei is Yoshiro’s greatest endeavor, but their relationship shows that language is a failing code amidst the barriers of disparate time, experiences, and bodies, exposing the yawning gulf between the old and the young, not only in terms of the words they use but also in what they choose to communicate. In Corpus, Jean-Luc Nancy declares, “Bodies are impenetrable to languages”; they are “the end of the signifier.” Despite his unfaltering care, Yoshiro will never fully grasp Mumei’s pain, for our flesh is opaque and pain resides only in individual cognition—it comprises a distance that cannot be crossed through words or sympathetic identification. Moreover, pain itself has experienced a generational shift. While the elderly have lived long enough to remember a time when pain was unusual and therefore deserved treatment and consolation, pain is the constant hum of living for the young. “Why am I the only one who has to suffer like this?” is a question Mumei would never ask, despite the observable contrast between his own sickness and Yoshiro’s health. What Mumei feels is “pure pain” unaccompanied by self-pity that is “sweet, warm, and deliciously sad.”

Out of sorrow and compassion, Yoshiro inevitably reduces his great-grandson’s suffering to metaphor. At the beginning of the novel, Mumei is portrayed as a young, helpless bird in a nest, waiting for Yoshiro to come back home:

Still in his blue silk pajamas, Mumei sat with his bottom flat on the tatami. Perhaps it was his head, much too large for his slender long neck, that made him look like a baby bird. Hairs fine as silk threads stuck to his scalp, damp with sweat. His eyes nearly shut, he moved his head as if searching the air, trying to catch on his tympanic membrane the scraping of footsteps on gravel . . . The sliding door rattled like a freight train . . . The boy threw back his shoulders, puffed out his chest and stuck out both his arms like a bird spreading his wings.

Metaphor, in essence, is substitution, that which we put in place of something else. It is an interpretative strategy that implies revamp and alteration. In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag stipulates: “the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking,” but understanding illness in its actuality is an insurmountable task for one who has the privilege of health. On another occasion, Yoshiro compares Mumei’s mouth to “pomegranate pulp,” referring to the speed and ease with which Mumei’s baby teeth fall off without sufficient calcium. To Mumei, however, it merely translates into the taste of blood permeating the food that he eats, a comment that saddens his great-grandfather so much that Mumei decides never to mention it again.

And although Yoshiro interprets Mumei as a bird, Mumei thinks of himself as an octopus, wriggling into his school uniform as if he had eight legs and adopting his “special octopus-fighting method” when wrestling with his classmates. On top of gaps in the linguistic code, Tawada hints at fundamental genetic differences between generations born under vastly contrastive environments, particularly with the enduring haunt of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. Now that dandelions have grown to have petals at least four inches long, what is to keep humans from evolving as well? Aware of the difference between their bodies, Mumei wonders if he and his great-grandfather can even be put on the same page in the Illustrated Guide to Animals, a book that instills awe in the child with creatures that have been erased from Japanese soil but might exist elsewhere. This concept of flux, of worlds being uprooted and in transition, whether in the form of language or anthropomorphic connections, features as a theme in Tawada’s works of fiction. In an interview, Tawada comments on our propensity to metamorphosis:

Matter morphs constantly and is immortal, though a human being won’t return as such but will be part of the soil, of plants, and perhaps of animals, so we are a mass of different forms of matter. Atoms don’t sit tightly on one another: there is space between them, and that is true for our body too, it’s not really solid.

In a changing world, Yoshiro, as a writer, confronts nostalgia like no other, working to pin down memories while the very tools of his trade threaten to move on without him. Ever since the Japanese government decided to bar foreign languages and influences, Yoshiro has not been able to publish. He once buried his only historical novel, Ken-to-shi—also the title of The Emissary in Japanese—in a cemetery, because it contains the names of too many foreign countries, which have spread like “blood vessels, dividing into ever smaller branches, then setting down roots, making it impossible to eliminate them from the text.” With the death of the manuscript, and this idea of language as an extension of our physical selves, Tawada exposes the visceral suffering of a writer who has lost the ability and the right to expression. Self-censorship confines Yoshiro to the recesses of his mind, a space where his language retains meaning by planning fantastical escapes:

Yoshiro imagined himself at Shinjuku Station, boarding a deserted Narita Express for the airport . . . Climbing the creaky steps of the frozen escalator, he found all the check-in counters abandoned, a huge spider’s web covering each one like an umbrella . . . There were colorful stripes on one spider’s back; black at the top, red, then yellow. Germany was his destination—that must explain it, he thought. He took a cautious look at the counter next door and saw that its spider had red, white, and blue stripes. There were smaller red spiders here and there in the web too, with white stars on their backs.

Yoshiro didn’t know why he was able to picture the airport so clearly. With no effort on his part, these images just came to him, begging to be written into a novel. But it would be dangerous to write about an airport nobody went to anymore.”

In contrast, although physically restricted to interiors, Mumei remains enchanted by the signifying power of words and images. Looking at the map of the world, Mumei jumps up and yells, “Paradise!” in spite of the contaminated earth that caused his condition, for he remains curious about what lies beyond his everyday experience. The very names of herons and sea turtles from the Illustrated Guide to Animals have a spellbinding effect on him, as though animals would emerge from the page if he stared long enough.

Perhaps it is language’s ability to instill hope—despite censorship and limitations—even when the future has fallen into dystopia, that countries have decided to make it a product to be exported, an industry Tawada introduces but never explores in detail in the novel. South Africa and India have sustained their economies by exporting their languages, forming “The Gandhi Alliance,” which gains worldwide popularity. One can only surmise whether the influence has to do with enlightenment, as the name suggests, or if language has become capable of things that we cannot for the moment imagine. Communication is also a sort of trade; the emissary emerges as a pivotal character who is bestowed the task of bridging the integral disconnection between countries, languages, and people. By portraying a nation that has been broken off by disaster, Tawada describes the difficulty of initiating or reestablishing contact linguistically and emotionally, and the amount of distance language has to travel between places and individuals just to get across.

Jacqueline Leung works in the arts and is an independent writer, translator, and editor. She is the Editor-at-Large, Hong Kong of Asymptote and a graduate of University College London and the University of Hong Kong in literary studies.


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