By Jonathan Clements.
The kids are not all right. The kids are sickly and enfeebled, some of them barely able to walk, with brittle bones and dozens of allergies. They have been raised on poisoned milk and contaminated food, in a Japan without Tokyo – Japan’s capital city having been rendered uninhabitable by a disaster. Tohoku, Hokkaido and Okinawa are flourishing, after a fashion, but Japan has shut itself off from the rest of the world.
In Yoko Tawada’s novel The Last Children of Tokyo, Yoshiro is in his spry 120s, the beneficiary of modern developments that have extended human lifespans far into three digits. Echoing the centenarians of the recent Human Lost, he represents on older generation whose lifestyle has come to seem like an unfair tax on its descendants. But Yoshiro is at the front line of such karma, struggling to care for his disabled great-grandson Mumei, a child of the 21st century who has inherited little more than poison, climate change, and misery. Japan’s self-imposed isolation includes a ban on foreign culture and even foreign words, leaving Mumei largely ignorant about the world outside.
Not for the first time in her work, Tawada wades hip-deep into linguistics, asking to what extent Japan’s identity requires foreign influences to even function. She also captures the bafflement and confusion of the baby-boom generation, as previously acceptable behaviours are suddenly reclassified as criminal acts or social faux pas, and its head-shaking disappointment with a younger generation that, in all honesty, has had the whole deck stacked against it. Major Japanese holidays are renamed with provocative bathos – Children’s Day is now Apologise to Children Day, and Sport Day, once a celebration of physical prowess, is now merely Body Day when the population of shut-ins and milksops checks for rashes, allergies and spots. Labour Day is now Being Alive is Enough Day.
In an increasingly common element in Tawada’s work post-2011, she also asks about what hellish new disasters might befall Japan and the world. What happens to Japan if, in some deluded sci-fi Brexit like that described here, it declares itself “free” of its neighbours? Well, fresh oranges go up to £70 each, for starters. You can’t buy baby milk anywhere for love nor money. Tawada’s near-future dystopia echoes the 220-year period when samurai-era Japan shut out the world (previous referenced in Vexille), but also the wet-lipped greed of the 1980s Bubble-era, when so much faith was placed in Tokyo real estate. In the future she imagines in The Last Children of Tokyo, land values in the capital plummet to zero after a disaster renders it uninhabitable. This is not the roll-up-your-sleeves can-do future of Patlabor or Weathering with You; it’s a glum and all too believable assertion that this is the way the world ends.
Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo.