The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada
translated by Margaret Mitsutani
Portobello Books, 2018
“Yoshiro thinks he might never die. A hundred years old and counting, he is one of Japan’s many ‘old-elderly’; men and women who remember a time before air and sea were poisoned, before terrible catastrophe prompted Japan to shut itself off from the rest of the world. Yoshiro may live for decades yet, but he knows his beloved great-grandson – born frail and prone to sickness – might not survive to adulthood. Day after day, it takes all of Yoshiro’s ingenuity to keep Mumei alive. As hopes for Japan’s youngest generation fade, a secretive organisation embarks on an audacious plan to find a cure – might Yoshiro’s great-grandson be the key to saving the last children of Tokyo?”
There have been some interesting UK publications of contemporary Japanese literature in translation this decade, from Granta’s Japan issue a few years back (with what remains one of my favourite magazine covers), Pushkin Press’ Japanese novella series, and individual curiosities among the Granta/Portobello Books list. I’ve bought many of them, partially to feed my dream of one day re-visiting Tokyo, and partially for the love of a surreal novella, which these recent publications tend, more often than not, to be. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata was one favourite for its tongue in cheek celebration of life in a grocery aisle. I’ve also enjoyed Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami, The Bear and the Paving Stone by Toshiyuki Horie, and Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima.
The Last Children of Tokyo, in particular, is a book which blows up global fears of the moment, casting a foreboding light on themes of environmentalist horror, closed and shrinking borders, and rapidly declining resources. Older generations fear for their weak grandchildren, foreign words are banned, and everything around is contaminated. Of books which feature citizen resistance against a mistrusted political status quo, the pushback here is perhaps the subtlest. It’s strange enough to take the reader out of everyday life for the duration of reading it, the way the best novellas do. The beautiful cover illustration is by Harriet Lee-Merrion, depicting a boy inoculated from the city he lives in.
Because I already had a copy of The Last Children of Tokyo when one landed on my doorstep from Portobello Books, I’ve got a spare to give away. Fancy it? I’ll post it to a UK address, chosen at random, from among those who retweet my tweet about this post.