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Jacqueline Leung on Yoko Tawada

Jacqueline Leung takes a close look at Yoko Tawada’s dystopian novel The Emissary, translated by Margaret Mitsutani, and focuses on the ways in which a narrative about prolonged lifespans for elderly people allows Tawada to twist the Japanese language:

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 deMade in Japanese means “to” or “until,” so society now uses the phrase “to Iwate Prefecture,” for instance, to express the place of production.