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Tawada Yōko

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1960-    ) Japanese author, in Germany since 1982, whose output occupies a liminal space between her native and adopted languages. Graduating from Waseda University in Russian literature, she pursued two further degrees in German-speaking Europe, receiving a doctorate in German literature from the University of Zurich in 2000. Her work has luxuriated and exulted in bilingualism ever since her first published work, the poetry collection Nur da wo du bist da ist nichts – Anata no iru tokoro dake nani mo nai ["Nothing Only Where You Are"] (coll 1987). Yasimin Yildiz terms Tawada's work a performance of "bilingualism addressed to monolinguals", perpetually rediscovering a Sense of Wonder at linguistic relativities, described at length in Tawada's nonfiction work Exophony: Bogo no Soto e Deru Tabi ["Exophony: A Journey Outside My Native Language"] (2002).

At times, this can reach an Oulipo level of experimentation, notably in her novella Futakuchi Otoko (1998; trans Margaret Mitsutani July 2013 Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies as "The Man with Two Mouths") which features a pair of Japanese tourists shepherded by a long-suffering German guide, and falling under the spell of the trickster spirit Till Eulenspiegel [for Trickster see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Tawada adapted her own story into the stage play Till (1998), performed in both German and Japanese with no attempt at translating for the audience. It has been staged in Germany and Japan, with the full expectation each audience will only understand half of it, save those rare moments when the guide stoops to interpret.

Like Haruki Murakami, to whom she is often compared, and Franz Kafka, with whom she more readily and accurately self-identifies, her work exhibits what Chantal Wright has called "fictitious ethnology" – human society as seen through the conspicuous misprision of an Alien viewpoint. Wright notes Tawada's love of "epic naivety", a term originally coined by Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) for Homer's narrative digression on Achilles' shield in The Iliad, but here used to describe Tawada's habit of fixating on the smallest and most telling details of everyday life. Her most representative work in this mode is surely "Talisman" (original place of publication unknown; trans from the German by Susan Bernofsky 1993 Fiction International 24; in Where Europe Begins coll 2002), in which an outsider in a European City muses on the reason, presumed religious or magical, why so many women have mutilated their earlobes in order to wear earrings. "Canned Foreign" (original place of publication unknown; trans from the German by Susan Bernofsky 1993 Fiction International 24; in Where Europe Begins coll 2002) poses similar questions in which the narrator wonders why a can of tuna has a picture of a Japanese woman on it. Such speculations contain within them a philosophical interrogation of Linguistics, particularly those of an author whose work is often in her second language, in which despite decades of experience, she must inevitably and occasionally stumble, but which creates new and poetic juxtapositions in her mind: "Often it sickened me to hear people speak their native tongues fluently. It was as if they were unable to think and feel anything but what their language so readily served up to them." Taking foreignizing vocabularies to extremes, in the Near Future Chikyū ni Chiribamemarete ["Spread Upon the Earth"] (2018; trans Margaret Mitsutani as Scattered All Over the Earth 2022) her protagonist's home country disappears as a consequence of Climate Change and geological upheaval, causing her to invent an entirely new language called Panska in order to survive the state of diaspora she has now entered.

Several of Tawada's stories pursue this allegory into anthropomorphism. Inu muko iri (1993; trans Margaret Mitsutani as The Bridegroom Was a Dog 2003), introduces the speculations of a newly married woman that her husband is some kind of Shapeshifter. Inspired by the true story of Knut (2006-2011) an orphaned polar bear raised by humans in a German Zoo, Yuki no Renshūsei ["Studies in Snow"] (2010 Shinchō; German version also by Tawada as Etüden im Schnee 2014; trans from the German by Susan Bernofsky as Memoirs of a Polar Bear 2016), moves beyond Tawada's usual exophonic focus to narrate a wry account of humanity from the point of view of a truly different species. She would return to ethological themes in "Dōbutsu no Babel" ["The Animal Babel"] (August 2013 Subaru), in which humanity is wiped out by a great flood, leaving a melting-pot of animal species bickering over the aftermath.

The Tōhoku earthquake, tidal wave and nuclear Disaster of 2011 became a wide-ranging and provocative inspiration to Tawada in the 2010s, suffusing many of her later works with the pathos of Ruins and Futurity, and subject matters more identifiable as sf. "Higan" ["Equinox"] (Autumn 2014 Waseda Bungaku) echoes Sakyō Komatsu's Nippon Chinbotsu (1973; cut trans Michael Gallagher as Japan Sinks 1976; vt Death of the Dragon 1978), with a nuclear accident forcing the Japanese to relocate to China, cutting themselves off from the environment that formed their national identity. Originally appearing in an anthology of Tōhoku-inspired writings, "Fushi no Shima" (in Soredemo Sangatsu wa mata 2011; trans Margaret Mitsutani as "The Island of Eternal Life" in March Was Made of Yarn, anth 2012, ed Elmer Luke and David Karashima) imagines Immortality as an unexpected side-effect of radiation, with characters in a post-electric world turning to a game based on Nō theatre as a diversion.

Redolent of Brian W Aldiss's Greybeard (1964; text restored 1964), at least in its premise, Kentōshi (August 2014 Gunzō; fixup 2014; trans Margaret Mitsutani as The Emissary 2018; vt The Last Children of Tokyo 2018) unites Tawada's linguistic speculations and accounts of the slow End of the World with a contemporary sense of the broken promises of the twentieth century. The story's Near-Future Japan is wracked with Pollution, Climate Change, and a poisoned food chain (fresh oranges now cost 10,000 yen each), such that while the older generation comprises relatively hale and hearty centenarians, their descendants are increasingly sickly. The protagonist, Yoshiro, is a spry 120-year-old, fretting about his enfeebled and disabled great-grandson, and increasingly confused by a post-Internet, post-modern world. In a repeat of the Sakoku "locked country" isolationism of 1633-1853, Japan has cut itself off, banning foreign words, and leading to a generation entirely and occasionally comically ignorant of the many English terms that once formed part of everyday Japanese life. The concept reverses that of "Higan", which posited the vulnerability of Japanese culture if transplanted abroad, whereas Kentōshi asks what is left if alien influences are stripped away at home. In a subtle dig at the futility of isolationism, even the story's title is a loanword, dating from Japan's medieval cultural exchange with China and redefining the proclaimed xenophobia of the milieu to be more specifically anti-Western. Tawada also captures the bafflement of the older generation as old norms are found wanting or even declared illegal (see Cultural Engineering), while what may be a form of Evolution among the young instead seems distasteful and unwelcome to the old guard. [JonC]

see also: Hiro Arikawa; Guo Xiaolu; Hao Jingfang; Yumi Matsuo; Theatre.

Yōko Tawada

born Kunitachi, Tokyo: 23 March 1960

works (selected)

about the author


previous versions of this entry

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