The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada
Translated by Margaret Misutani
I’m killing two birds with one stone with this book – always a good thing when you’re embarked on multiple reading challenges, and don’t you just love that cover?
This is the first book by Tawada that I’ve read; she won the inaugural Warwick WIT Prize in 2017 for her previous novel Memoirs of a Polar Bear which was based on a real family of bears in a German zoo in the 1980s. Tawada, who now lives in Germany writes in both German and Japanese – The Last Children of Tokyo was naturally written in Japanese.
Yoshiro is a centenarian, one of Japan’s ‘old-elderly’. He lives on in Tokyo looking after his great-grandson Mumei. Japan has been devastated by an environmental disaster – we never discover exactly what happened – and it has resulted in the old living on and remaining relatively spritely with age, but the young die young – they don’t survive – the poisons in the air, the earth, the food, waste them away. Mumei will be in the last generation of children and Yoshiro takes infinite care with his young charge, although Mumei often needs persuading to go to school, being already in decline.
That is essentially this novella in a nutshell, although there is a late development which I won’t spoil. Yoshiro muses about life, the universe and everything, moans about the difficulties of life today even though he seems relatively happy. He thinks back to the relationship he had with his wife, Marika who now runs an orphanage in the hills, their daughter Amana who works at an orange farm in Okinawa, and her wayward son Tomo, Mumei’s father.
Getting enough good food without toxins to eat is often a problem – Yoshiro couldn’t give Mumei fish. But he does go to the baker’s – the loaves are German in style, but are renamed in Japanese, a necessity under the new regime.
The baker was “young elderly,” a phrase that had once cracked people up but was now standard usage. People weren’t even called “middle-aged elderly” nowadays until they were well into their nineties, and the baker was barely into his late seventies.
As the novella progresses, we get little hints about what has happened in this new dystopia. Japan has closed its borders, and those remaining are no longer permitted to talk about the rest of the world, they’re encouraged to forget that it ever existed. The remaining population are engaged in a’ collective forgetting’ that is certainly echoed in Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (reviewed here) and a is a key theme of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (reviewed here) -a topic that Ishiguro has long been writing about. The question of old age perplexes Yoshiro:
While it wasn’t clear whether or not Yoshiro’s generation would really have to live forever, for the time being they had definitely been robbed of death. Perhaps when their bodies had reached the end, even their fingers and toes worn down to nothing, their minds would hang on, refusing to shut down, writhing still inside immobile flesh.
Yoshiro couldn’t see why his generation should celebrate long life. It was good to be alive, but that was normal for the elderly, so why make a fuss about it? With children dying off this way, wouldn’t it make more sense to celebrate a child’s having got through another day? He wanted to celebrate Mumei’s birthday not once a year, but every season. A party for each winter he got through without getting frostbite. Or for every autumn after he’d gone a whole summer without collapsing from the heat.
Tawada’s world-building seen through Yoshiro’s eyes is heart-breaking in its simplicity and complexity simultaneously. Occasionally, we swap to Mumei’s point of view, and that tugs on the heartstrings yet further. Yet the text is written with that economy of style associated with many Japanese authors, Ogawa included. When Tawada allows herself to digress a little, for instance, to explain how foreign terms are split into whatever words can be expressed in Japanese characters, so ‘Bremen’ bread becomes ‘wobbly noodles’, we get a little breather from the concerns of ageing in this strange new world. I was hoping that the cause of the environmental catastophe that has struck would be mentioned, but irritatingly it wasn’t, we’re left looking towards Mt Fuji and wondering. You may be perfectly happy with that, but my shallow need for explanation and plot, left me slightly unfulfilled by the story – it certainly isn’t ‘a surprising and exciting romp’ as Daisy Johnson describes the book on the cover flaps. The fact that Yoshiro was perfectly happy being over a hundred also precluded any discussion of euthanasia or assisted suicide which I had been expecting.
The Last Children of Tokyo is a very subtle dystopia and while being a mere 138 pages long, it is an intense read indeed. I appreciated it a lot despite not entirely gelling with the holes I perceived in the story. (7.5/10)