Japan’s Isolation 2.0

The taxi driver who took me from Tokyo train station to my hotel had turned his cell phone sideways, like a television, and propped it up on the dashboard of his car. He was watching a historical ...

The taxi driver who took me from Tokyo train station to my hotel had turned his cell phone sideways, like a television, and propped it up on the dashboard of his car. He was watching a historical drama set in the Edo period (1603–1868); the hero was walking a footpath that had connected Edo (Tokyo) to the city of Nagoya.

It was as though I was in two Japans at the same time. The 18th-century drama played out on the dash; outside, there were cranes and bulldozers. “All that construction,” the driver said, sighing. “All for the 2020 Olympics. Meanwhile, those people up in Tōhoku are still in their temporary houses.” Tōhoku is the region of Japan most affected by the March 11, 2011, earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear catastrophe, which dislocated thousands, many of whom still live in prefab houses and await new homes. On TV, the hero valiantly fought off some bandits with his sword, and the taxi driver chortled: “Look at that. People were so resourceful back then.”

Welcome to Japan in 2018: survivor of war and nuclear catastrophes, home to robots, the bullet train, and the all but extinct samurai. Because I am half Japanese, I have been visiting Japan since I was a child, and there has never been a time when I have not left with some new way of seeing the world, mostly from my relatives.

In fact, the taxi driver reminded me of my Japanese grandfather, who, in his 90s, watched as many hours of historical dramas on television as the programming offered. In Japan today, even in historically preserved towns, modern signposts, ugly concrete edifices, and parking lots intrude on the scenery, and there are few pristine environments. On film, the historic Japan—the one that had little to no contact with the West—can exist untouched. My grandfather loved historical movies with a force that goes beyond even, say, American nostalgia for how the West was won, because those samurai flicks allowed him to be in that vanished Japan.

After 1635, when the shogunate, Japan’s feudal ruling power, forbade the Japanese from traveling abroad, the country remained “closed” to the outside world. Woe betide the Japanese fisherman who was wrecked at sea and rescued by Westerners; he could not return home. Foreigners, unless given special permission, were also treated harshly. In 1640, 13 Portuguese merchants were executed and the rest sent home with a note that read: “While the sun warms the earth let no Christian be so bold as to enter into Japan.”1 For some scholars, Japan aficionados, and Japanese themselves, the Edo period was a time of cultural consistency, when native arts flourished and Japanese were … Japanese. They invented sushi and drank sake; there were no burgers or Starbucks coffee. People wore kimonos and had the jobs most suited to their caste and class.

In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry, an American, showed up in Tokyo Bay and demanded the right to trade with Japan. The Japanese recognized it would not be easy to keep this Western power at bay and decided to modernize rapidly, adopting crucial technologies while retaining control over their borders. Japan was never colonized by a Western power; instead, it colonized other countries, notably Korea (1910–1945) and Taiwan (1895–1945). Japan also paid a heavy price for the pressure of modernization with the violence that followed in the first half of the 20th century. This is partly why people like my grandfather longed for the isolated past.

If you find something at once alluring but uncomfortable about such a notion of “purity,” you are not alone. In our era of immigrants, refugees, and media truths and lies, the notion of national and ethnic “purity” feels both relevant and seductively dangerous.

What if Japan decided, in the 21st century, to isolate itself once again, in order to become “just Japanese”? The Japanese writer Yoko Tawada tackles this idea in her slim, beguiling novel The Emissary. Born in Tokyo, Tawada herself is no isolate; she has lived in Berlin since the early 1980s and writes in both Japanese and German. But for all that she is a true global citizen engaged with big ideas, she favors fanciful, almost deliberately harmless imagery and characters who border on the cartoonish. This charming surrealism imparts an off-kilter quality to her work that would make it feel slight, if it weren’t for the density, precision, and uniqueness of her mind.


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Many Westerners have heard of the high price of fruit in Japan; Tawada writes of her characters in their postapocalyptic environment: “Searching with bloodshot eyes for fruit for their great-grandchildren, old people wandered like ghosts from market to market.” Or she slyly comments on the nature of language; English, currently a compulsory subject, is not allowed in the world of Tawada’s novel: “As studying English was now prohibited, young people didn’t know even simple words like on and off. It was okay to study other languages such as Tagalog, German, Swahili, or Czechoslovakian, though it was so hard to find teachers, textbooks, or even people who had studied these languages that not many people even wanted to try.” The writer Rivka Galchen has referred to this sensibility as Tawada’s “magnificent strangeness.”2

In The Emissary, the elderly and robust Yoshiro, a novelist, lives with his great-grandson Mumei, a boy whose precise physical ailments are never made quite clear, but who gets around with the aid of a wheelchair. Yoshiro’s wife, Marika, appears only intermittently; she is busy running an institution that houses 50 “independent children,” previously referred to as “orphans” before isolationist Japan came up with this more politically correct term.

Mumei’s parents are absent. An unnamed catastrophe has befallen Japan, one that Tawada refers to only obliquely, making us feel all of its weird unfolding.

Recently all dandelions had petals at least four inches long. Someone had even submitted one of these jumbo dandelions to the annual Chrysanthemum Show at the Civic Center, giving rise to a debate on whether it should be recognized as a chrysanthemum. “Oversized dandelions are not chrysanthemums—merely mutations,” asserted one faction, while another charged that “mutation” was a pejorative term, further enflaming the war of words.

Another weird event: after dying, Mumei’s mother’s body transforms into something resembling a bird: “The center of the face grew sharper, changing into a bird’s beak. The shoulders became more muscular, sprouting feathers like a white swan’s. In time, the toes sharpened into chicken’s feet.” Was it radiation that killed her? We never find out.

It is as though Tawada has pieced together a Hieronymus Bosch–like painting in novel form. While much of The Emissary lingers on bizarrely beautiful images like the oversized dandelions, Tawada’s story concerns itself most with the results of the event that produces its beautiful and bizarre surface imagery: Japan has, in this fiction, become a closed nation once again, with no one permitted to either leave or enter.

A teacher tells Mumei: “If natural disasters were the only problem, we certainly would have recovered long before now. So it’s not just natural disasters. Got that?” He means that it’s not the radiation that is most worrisome, but the humans, and human nature, and our reaction to a crisis.

In many ways, the novel’s story is Yoshiro’s. He has lived long enough to have seen the grand changes Japan has undergone, and to lament them—just like my grandfather and the Tokyo taxi driver lamented what was lost with modernization. Yoshiro’s children are made of less stern stuff; his grandson Tomo—Mumei’s father—has disappeared, and his daughter, Amana, remains distant from the family, living out life on Okinawa. All of Yoshiro’s hopes and dreams are focused on his great-grandchild.

In our era of immigrants, refugees, and media truths and lies, the notion of national and ethnic “purity” feels both relevant and seductively dangerous.

Mumei, though ill and frail, is not a depressed and cynical Holden Caulfield. Rather, he “seemed to possess a mysterious kind of wisdom.” He is relentlessly cheerful, and while many fictional children have the gift of helping their elders see the world anew with wonder—think of Tiny Tim, or Anne Shirley—Mumei’s imagination is so capacious that he brings our mind into a new relationship with all our senses. At one point Yoshiro manages to procure a lemon. Mumei says: “Lemon is so sour it makes you see blue.” And then, “Ever since, whenever Yoshiro saw a lemon, it seemed to him that blue was mixed in with the yellow—and that made him feel that for just a moment he had touched the raw, spinning earth.”

Despite the novel’s surreal sensibilities, there is something disconcertingly real about the predicament of a young child paired with a much older caregiver. In the real world, Japan’s birth rate has steadily dropped since the post–World War II baby boom; in 2016, for the first time, fewer than one million new babies were born.3 According to a 2016 study by a Japanese research firm, “nearly 70% of unmarried Japanese men and 60% of unmarried Japanese women weren’t in relationships. … By 2060, when estimates say the country will have just 88 million people, roughly 40% of those people will be older than 65.”4

While figures such as these sometimes lead Tawada to joke about Japan’s bad sex life, she also seems to be subtly highlighting a problem that plagues many modern nations, including her adopted homeland of Germany. The same problem would befall the United States were it not for immigration, which has kept the fertility rate high. And while Tawada never expressly criticizes the real-world anti-immigration policy of Japan—not to mention the flagrantly anti-immigration rhetoric in some European countries and some American constituencies—one can’t help but wonder if it isn’t in the back of her mind, given that her fictional Japan is isolated.

What is the meaning behind the term “emissary,” which gives the novel its title? In part, Tawada seems to be noting how lonely people can be when surrounded by intellectual dishonesty. Because Yoshiro knows a time before the disaster, he chafes against the changes and controls imposed on society. As the narrator comments, quoting newspaper articles,

‘There were many good things about the Edo period. Isolation is not necessarily a bad policy.” And many of the public intellectuals who wrote these articles—though actually opposed to isolation—found the humiliation of having the policy so suddenly sprung on them unbearable, as if they were being made to eat dirt; besides, if they admitted they’d been duped like everybody else their careers would be ruined, so now, in an about-face so obvious it would have amazed even Aesop’s grape-loving fox, they all insisted that they had supported isolation all along and in fact had been just about to recommend it to the government.

In The Emissary, Japanese are prohibited from traveling, as they had been during the Edo period. Yoshiro, however, knows that even then, there were exceptions. He has written an essay entitled “Japan Was Not Isolated” in order “to show how strong Japan’s connections to the outside world had been during the Edo period, through the channels of Holland and China.” The essay is rejected for publication, an indication of how overprotection has turned into censorship in Yoshiro’s world.

While many of the characters in Tawada’s novel remain trapped in a dystopian Japan, unable to even author the truth, there are always some who actively seek the outside world. Unbeknownst to Yoshiro or Mumei, Marika—Mumei’s great-grandmother—works for a special committee with a top-secret project: recruiting children to “send abroad as emissaries.” Will Mumei be asked? And if asked, will he even want to go? And can Yoshiro let him go?

In the 19th century, a real figure, a teenager named Manjirō, set out from the island of Shikoku. Along with four other young men, he went off on what should have been a routine fishing trip, but they were shipwrecked. Fortunately, Manjirō and his friends ended up on an island some 375 miles south of Edo, where they were picked up by an American whaling ship under the command of one William H. Whitfield. Because of Japan’s isolation policy, Manjirō could not return home, so he went off to continental America while his friends stayed in Hawaii. Over the course of his adolescence and young adulthood, he learned English and saw a great deal of the United States.

In 1851, Manjirō returned to Japan, and though imprisoned for a time and questioned by the shogunate, he was eventually pardoned and allowed to return to Shikoku. Among the things he brought back with him was an 1846 English map of the world. For a time, it would be the most complete map that the Japanese possessed.5

Tawada may be quoting this moment in history when Mumei, in school, studies a map of the world. But it is old, made before the time of Japan’s disaster and isolation: “The map was covered with brown stains. Straining to see which were islands and which were brown spots, Mumei edged his way closer, moving first his left knee, then his right.”

Back in the real world: less than two years after Manjirō returned, Commodore Perry would arrive in Japan, and Manjirō would be called upon to advise his government on the ways of the white man. Today, many generations later, Manjirō’s descendants, the Nakahamas, maintain a friendship with the Whitfields across the ocean.

Perhaps Tawada has all this in mind; her novel suggests that just as an overzealous parent can overcorrect and overprotect a child, so can a country overprotect its inhabitants. “Purity” may be lost when we travel or live abroad, but something is gained by this kind of exchange. Someone must always be the emissary if new maps are to be made and unexpected friendships are to be forged. In this respect, The Emissary, reaching out to readers around the world via Margaret Mitsutani’s enchanting and flawless translation, fulfills its mission.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

  1. “Japan,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 8, edited by Justin Balette and François Ligneul (Appleton, 1910); Antonio Francisco Cardim, Mors felicissima quatuor legatorum Lusitanorum quo Japponiae Imperator occidit in odium Christianae religionis (in Latin) (Corbelletti, 1646).
  2. Rivka Galchen, “Yoko Tawada’s Magnificent Strangeness,” New Yorker, October 19, 2012.
  3. Alana Semuels, “The Mystery of Why Japanese People Are Having So Few Babies,” The Atlantic, July 20, 2017.
  4. Chris Weller, “Japan’s Sex Problem Could Cause the Population to Fall by 40 Million by 2065,” Business Insider, April 10, 2017.
  5. Tai Kawabata, “One of a Kind,” Japan Times, March 21, 2004.
Featured image: Man walking past a restaurant (Tokyo, Japan, 2017). Photograph by Benjamin Hung / Unsplash