It is no secret that Japan has one of the largest elderly populations in the world. According to demographics published this year, it is estimated that almost 30 percent of Japan’s population are aged 65 or over. In addition to this, Japan has also seen an unprecedented decline in its youthful population (ages 0-14) over the past forty years. In 2018, it was recorded that only 12.8 percent of the country’s population is inhabited by people aged 14 or younger. The result is a staggering, demographic, inverted pyramid where the elderly population reign supreme and the youths are seemingly diminishing. Some economists have even gone so far to suggest that Japan will only have one existing child by the year 4025; a bleak, dystopian prognosis in which Japan tinkers, irrevocably, on the edge of national extinction.
In The Last Children of Tokyo, Yoko Tawada takes this startling reality and creates an eerie, environmental dystopia in which a tacit ecological disaster has caused a debilitating, pathological disease that lays claim to the children of Japan. In response to this implicit environmental collapse, Japan and the rest of world have adopted a disconcertingly prophetic policy of isolation that separates the countries of world and facilitates widespread nationalisation.
Though the premise above indicates a goliath, dystopian epic that burrows from the traditions of Orwell, Huxley and Atwood, Tawada takes a different route, entirely; instead, focussing on the intricate, emotional dynamics that play out between a young child and his great-grand father in the foreground of an unnervingly realistic future. Unlike the aforementioned dystopian forefathers (and mothers), Tawada does not create a sweeping and detailed image of the monolithic structures at work that have caused this depression in human civilization. On the contrary, such information remains anecdotal; a circumstantial but very much significant aspect that does not overwhelm the reader. Collapsed governments, glass pavements overlooking excavated soil and burning oceans saturated with oil are just a few of the subtle hints that situate us in this austere, albeit convincing, future world.
In addition to his palpable visuality, Tawada also creates a stunning dichotomy between a receding natural landscape and the equally diminishing dynamics between a child and his guardian. As the dandelions and chrysanthemums bleed, and the distinction between night and day fades, so too does the normal interplay between a youth and his forbearer. In this calamitous future, the traditional structure of the family is dramatically decentralised; prompting a reorganisation of gender roles and parental responsibility that diametrically opposes the rigidity of the Japanese Kazuko.
Notwithstanding Tawada’s beautiful style of writing, I found the structure of the book to be somewhat relentless. As well as alternating between an omniscient third person and first person perspective, the book also negates any paragraphing or breaks. Perhaps Tawada utilises this course to create a jarring and somewhat Faulknerian flow that structurally mimics the strangeness of his environment. Nevertheless, the result is a chiefly exhausting read that requires the reader to stop every so often to compartmentalise the information that is be described.
With that in mind, I give this striking, but difficult novel four stars out of five. If the writer (or perhaps the translator, in this case) made a clearer decision about what they intended to arouse through the structure, then this certainly would have received a five-star review. That said, this is a stunning novel brought to life by an equally talented translator, that explores the raw and indispensable function of love in the face of societal collapse.
Words by James Glover