The Last Children of Tokyo

Yoko Tawada’s The Last Children of Tokyo (translated by Margaret Mitsutani) is a gentle dystopia. Its opening moment is one of love, demonstrating the bond between Mumei and his great-grandfather Yoshiro, with only subtle hints of a changed world, as when Yoshiro describes his morning routine of renting a dog to walk:

“Long ago, this sort of purposeless running had been referred to as jogging, but with foreign words falling out of use, it was now called loping down…”

Later we are told that some words had “disappeared after being labelled ‘old fashioned’” suggesting an evolutionary change rather than one imposed by law – a reaction, we learn, to an undescribed nuclear event in the past. Again this is accomplished with subtlety: a worry, on a visit to the dentist regarding Mumei losing his milk teeth, that the phrase ‘fall out’ may have been misheard as ‘fallout’, and an oversized dandelion which has mutated:

“Actually the word mutation was rarely used anymore, having been replaced by the more popular environmental adaptation.”

Life has changed and that change is seen in mutated social attitudes which are, in turn, demonstrated through language. The relationship between Yoshiro and Mumei is one example of this. Yoshiro is a remarkable age in our terms – over a hundred years old – but is no longer regarded as old, with terms like ‘young-elderly’ now in use:

“Retirement – what an odd system, but it was important back then as a way of handing jobs over to younger people.”

Despite his age, Yoshiro is not only Mumei’s carer but the stronger of the two: “Like most children of his generation, Mumei was unable to absorb the calcium he needed.” He prepares Mumei’s food for him, from the limited raw materials available, as Mumei has difficulty eating. Most of that food comes from Okinawa, where Yoshiro’s only daughter, Amana, lives. With no telephones, contact between them is limited to postcards.

Very little happens in the novel – there is nothing of the jeopardy we normally associate with dystopias where the protagonist is either struggling to survive in a hostile world or living in contradiction to the oppressive laws of the state, fearful of being caught. Yoshiro does not agree with Japan’s policy of isolation but he is careful not to share this with Mumei, instead adopting a more philosophical approach:

“Unable to see what sort of fate awaited Mumei in the future, Yoshiro kept his eyes open, taking each day as it came, hoping the present wouldn’t crumble under his feet.”

Instead we learn of Yoshiro’s past, his grandson, Tommo, and the events leading up to Mumei’s birth. The narrative is largely concerned with relationships: Yoshiro’s relationships with his family – past and present – and, above all, his relationship with Mumei. As with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the strength of the relationship brings the reader hope when circumstances are bleak – the gentleness of the narrative should not be taken as a sign that Yoko’s vision of the future is more hopeful. Yoko’s novel may not contain the terror of McCarthy’s, or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but we should not assume it is a more optimistic book. There is something of Orwell in the idea that “it wasn’t just hot and cold – the idea between darkness and light was also becoming vague.” Similarly the distinction between male and female seems less distinct. But these are not simply a question of ‘double-think’ but of physical changes which may be irreversible. Both its title and conclusion give us little to be hopeful about.

The Last Children of Tokyo is a fascinating addition to dystopian literature. As with Yoko’s previous novel, Memoirs of a Polar Bear, her creation of new worlds seems effortless, but, similarly, the narrative within that world can, at times, seem to meander. As a warning, however, it is as prescient as any.

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12 Responses to “The Last Children of Tokyo”

  1. lauratfrey Says:

    I loved Memoirs of a Polar Bear, and this sounds so different but so good.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Now that I’ve read your review in full, I can see why you’ve termed this a gentle dystopia. It actually sounds quite unsettling, albeit in an oblique way. In some respects, that can be more powerful than showing the impact more directly.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    What a gorgeous, and from the sound of it distinctly misleading, cover this has. I think gentle has the potential to be more bleak.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Forgot to say, what did you make of Polar Bear? I’ve not read it.

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I just finished this last night. Difficult to discuss without spoilers, but there is a tiny element of hope I think in that there are those wanting to reopen Japan to the world, to reach out. So much of the book is closed off, words abandoned along with the outside world, but there are those seeking to move past that. It’s also noticeable that there’s suggestions that it may just be Japan that’s in this situation. Not much hope though. Yoshiro doesn’t even have the prospect of death as a potential release.

    Although that’s perhaps too literal a reading. I thought there was a lot too about Japan’s ageing society and about isolation. It’s fairly packed, though at the same time I’m not sure how much it’s going to stick with me. We’ll see I guess.

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