‘I look like a person who cannot think when I wake up, because I'm still between the sleep and the dream and the waking, and that's the best time for business.'
This is the starting point for Yoko Tawada to create her extraordinary novels. We, ourselves, are thrown into that strange labyrinth that lies between sleep and wakefulness. It’s why we become engrossed in her weird worlds without doubting their authenticity.
Her charmingly dystopian works and the way she throws a questionable, satirical light on Japanese society make her a must-read for all interested in reading the finest Japanese literature. They’ve also drawn her comparisons with Franz Kafka.
To gain a taste of her talent, her works have won Japan’s Gunzo Prize for New Writers, the Akutagawa Prize, Tanizaki Prize, Noma Literary Award, Izumi Kyoka Prize for Literature and the National Book Award for Translated Literature. So… just a few.
We walk you through a couple of our favourite prize-winning works of hers.
The Bridegroom Was a Dog
The Bridegroom Was a Dog (part of a book of three novellas by the same name) is a fairy tale-like story which won the Akutagawa Prize in 1993, Japan's most prestigious literary award. It was translated as a single volume in 2012.
After teacher Mitsuko tells her students a surreal tale about a princess who marries a dog as a thank you for licking her bum clean, a dog-like man called Taro suddenly appears in her life and announces that they are to live together.
‘A man of twenty-seven or eight came calling at the Kitamura School… he seemed to know all about her house, for he walked straight into the garden through the gap in the fence, and when he saw Mitsuko repairing her mountain bike, half-naked, her hair dishevelled, he went right up to her and said: "I’m here to stay… Did you get my telegram?"’
After the gossiping school mothers (through whose eyes we often see the story) urge them towards a more respectable relationship – the plot advances as they enter new and daring relationships of their own.
Full of fantastical imagery, sensuality and weirdly humorous moments, The Bridegroom Was a Dog is a soaring roller-coaster of a shock and emotion that takes reading to believing. Full of surreal and sensual twists and turns, Yoko's absurd fantasy short story will set your brain spinning.
Winner of the National Book Award for translated literature in 2018, Yoko Tawada gives us a mind-blowing dystopian view of a future Japan in The Emissary.
Set in the aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake that shifts and separates Japan from the rest of the world, this short novel/novella focuses on Yoshiro (107 years old and brimming with energy) and his grandson Mumei. Animals and telephones no longer exist, food is hard to come by, and the weather and pollution is extreme.
Men now experience menopausal symptoms with age and people’s sex spontaneously changes during their lives. In fact, the elderly like Yoshiro are never able to die – filled with an amazing vitality of life to keep on living (he goes jogging every day!). All are now:
‘burdened with [the] terrible task of watching their great-grandchildren die… Being able to see the end of anything gave him a tremendous sense of relief. As a child he had assumed the goal of medicine was to keep bodies alive forever; he had never considered the pain of not being able to die.’
In mesmerising fashion, Yoko Tawada captures the lingering loneliness of their lives, and describes how Japan’s laws and customs have changed since the disaster: now shunning any outside influence. The deterioration of language is also portrayed: Memei is “a name that means ‘no name.’” And throughout we learn that ‘The shelf life of words was getting shorter all the time’ to the point where Mumei asks:
‘Could clothes still be there, just as they were, even after the words for them had disappeared?’
Using vivid language to depict a chilling future world, Yoko Tawada makes us feel like we’re standing on a crumbling volcano in this novel. As we read, we discover that Mumei possesses a special kind of power and consequently becomes the interest of a secret government who wish to send him abroad as an emissary – leaving us with an emotioanl ending that calls for individual interpretation.
A must-read from one of Japan’s most remarkable contemporary writers.
Other must-reads from Yoko Tawada:
Where Europe Begins (2002 English translation)
Memoirs of a Polar Bear (2016 English translation)
The Last Children of Tokyo (2018 English translation)