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Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary takes place in a post-apocalyptic society in which Japan has closed itself off from the rest of the world.  In many ways, the people of this society are becoming opposites of what they once were.  The elderly live for well over a century, but maintain their vitality and work the jobs requiring manual labor.  The younger generation, however, is weak and unhealthy.  New research is constantly being published about how to make them grow up to be strong, healthy adults, but none of it seems to be helping.

Yoshiro and all of the people in his generation feel responsible for the state of Mumei’s (Yoshiro’s great-grandson) generation.  Yoshiro never says it outright, but I inferred that whatever disaster caused Japan’s isolation policy happened early in his lifetime, before his daughter was born, as a result of something previous Japanese citizens did wrong.  The back cover says The Emissary could take place in a more extreme post-Fukushima Japan, which I can definitely see.  In the beginning of the book, Yoshiro says something about Mumei’s teeth falling out, then hastily corrects himself in case the dentist thinks he said “fallout” (17).

Yoshiro and the people born around his time do not die – at least, not in the course of the book.  In fact, Japanese society has come up with new ways of classifying the elderly (young elderly, middle elderly, old elderly) to accommodate the increasing number of older people.  This extended life is their punishment for messing up Japan for their descendants.  They are responsible for whatever is making their great-grandchildren be born so weak, so as punishment they must live through the devastating consequences.

Ancestors have been and continue to be respected and treated with reverence in Japanese society.  The irony here is that the ancestors of the dying generation are not as wise as them, and don’t have the answers for how to fix their descendants.

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