On a pleasant Sunday morning in late April, I stopped for a quick bite of onigiri rice cakes at a small urban park in Yokohama, Japan’s second most populous city. That Sunday was only the second day of renkyū, Japan’s season of “consecutive holidays,” which this spring extended to a full ten days due to an epochal event — a change of emperors, and eras. As the now former Emperor Akihito stepped down from the Chrysanthemum Throne on April 30, the Japanese public had another public holiday — “Enthronement Day” of the new Emperor Naruhito on May 1 — added into the season. According to the National Holidays Law, this turned both the preceding April 30 and the following May 2 into public holidays. It was hard to tell if the people were celebrating the advent of the new era, or the rare occasion of having an unbroken ten-day break from work and school, but the small urban park was bustling with action and joy. Strollers were parked under the canopy of a large tree, children queued for their turn at the slide while their mothers chattered in a small group. A grey-haired gentleman on a park bench put his hat down and cracked open a fresh newspaper. As I sipped my cold green tea from the nearby vending machine, I noticed an elderly man with a little girl on his shoulders. As they briskly walked the perimeter of the park in what seemed to be exercise for the grandfather and joy ride for the child, the little girl loudly sang a song, counting the rhythm by gently slapping her grandfather’s bald patch. It was a heart-warming scene.
The scene also brought to mind The Last Children of Tokyo, a novel by the Japanese writer Yoko Tawada. I had bought the book specially for this trip, to savor it on my commutes to and from Tokyo archives. Somewhat different from the scene at the park, however, in Tawada’s story, which is set in Japan of not-so-distant future, it is great-grandparents that look after the children. An untold catastrophe — a fallout, we learn from a protagonist’s slip of the tongue — has shifted the Japanese archipelago further away from the Asian continent. It has also left the soil and the sea contaminated. No one eats any fish any more, and fruit is hard to come by. Tokyo is mostly abandoned, its central parts eerily empty, while the Northeast and Okinawa thrive by not only producing but also exporting precious food. Deprived of nutrients, the new generation of Japanese is born frail, with teeth prone to falling out and bones so weak that they turn inward, “birdlike,” unable to bear even the weight of the children’s fragile little bodies. The elderly, on the contrary, are nearly immortal; they now far outnumber the young and as a result have to be classified as young elderly, middle-aged elderly, and old elderly. At a tender age of 108, Yoshiro, the protagonist, is a century older than Mumei, his great-grandson under his care and constant attention. Humans have evolved so quickly that Yoshiro believes he and Mumei belong to different species altogether. Genders are much more fluid as boys turn into girls at some stage in their lives, and vice versa; “Nature, enraged at humans disrupting her balance this way, had started playing various tricks. One trick was making sure that no one stayed the same sex all their lives.” The world is a different place and mysterious place for the Japanese, as it is illegal to learn foreign languages and enter into contact with foreigners. As a result, Japanese language itself is changing, with words falling out of usage just like the many washing machines, computers and television sets. Much like the “Enthronement Day” of this year, there are new holidays, some of which, like the “Extinct Species Day,” commemorate (and for us, eerily predict) the excesses of environmental and social degradation.
For a historian of Japan, Tawada’s novel is rich in meaning; it harks back to the myth of a “closed country,” sakoku, two-and-a-half centuries that Japan spent in seeming isolation from the outside world prior to its “opening” by the US Commodore Matthew Perry in the 1850s. This isolation was of course only a myth, since Tokugawa Japan, while self-sufficient under the rule of shoguns, had maintained contacts with its neighbors, as well as the Dutch, the sole European nation allowed to trade with Japan. Another name for this epoch in Japanese is “the Edo Period,” after the seat of power — Edo — renamed Tokyo, or “eastern capital,” in 1868. This first year of “Meiji” marked the restoration of the eponymous emperor to the pinnacle of power and started a revolution in all spheres of politics, economy and society that we know today as the birth of “modern” Japan. 150 years later, the Meiji Emperor’s great-grandson, the outgoing Emperor Akihito (Heisei) was preparing to perform the rituals of accession, leaving the throne to his son and ushering in the new “Reiwa” era. I thought about all this history, the questions that have hovered over Japan in recent years. What does the future hold for Japan? Will Reiwa, translated officially by the Japanese government as “beautiful harmony,” mark a new dawn for a nation in need of change? Will the new generation of the Japanese have the courage to avert the dystopian future that The Last Children of Tokyo warns us about?
Much like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which also tells the story of a man and a child surviving in the devastated, post-apocalyptic landscape, The Last Children of Tokyo is a timely warning for Japan, and the world, albeit not such a bleak one. In the future that Tawada imagines, the Japanese have managed to free themselves of some of the most burdensome and rigid rules that weigh down social relations. Yet the book also addresses, in a subtle and eloquent literary form, the major fears that the Japanese people currently have about the future: population decline, environmental disasters, and strained relations with neighboring nations. As Japan looks towards the future, it might have to deal with these problems sooner than later. To avoid a bleak future, the society and the government have to change.
Japan’s population growth has been stagnant for a good part of the last three decades. However the last years of Heisei have been marked by a rapid decline. For the first time in recorded history, the 2015 Population Census revealed a decrease of nearly 1 million since the previous census five years prior. According to the nation’s Statistics Bureau, in 2017 the annual population decline stood at 227,000, showing that the downturn in population year-by-year has sped up. As the number of the elderly (those aged over 65) has increased, so has their share in government expenditure on social benefits — currently over 70 percent of benefit funds are spent on the aged. This share is set to increase with each year. On the other end of the spectrum, the birth rate has proved consistently difficult to boost. Government response has been slow and ineffectual in encouraging more families to have children, and supporting those who do. Granted, last year the waiting list for daycare places shortened, falling below 20,000 for the first time in a decade thanks to recent changes in policy that encourage the construction and expansion of daycare centers. However, Japan’s childcare system is still out of tune with the times and out of reach for many families even in this prosperous nation. Tawada’s scenario of youngsters falling completely dependent on the most elderly for care still sounds extreme. Yet without significant increases in government support for young families and improvements of conditions for women at work, it does not sound so far-fetched. The bitter truth is that although the name of the Showa Era (1926-1989) contains wa, meaning “harmony,” the relentless pursuit of all-encompassing growth during the so-called “economic miracle” hurt the harmony within the Japanese society and family. It remains to be seen if wa in Reiwa will bring more accord to the social relations in Japan, redressing the excesses of the economic miracle.
Ask any Tokyoite nowadays and they will tell you all about the “Big One” — the mega-quake that people have feared for decades, and which is predicted to hit the Kanto Area with Tokyo at its heart within the next thirty years. As recent history shows, the government and the people will most likely be unprepared for it. The triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in March 2011, known as the “Great East Japan Earthquake” or simply as 3/11, has been memorable not only for the scale of damage and loss of life it inflicted, but also for the inadequate government response to it. The catastrophe resulted in more than 22,000 deaths, their majority caused by the devastating tsunami that reached the height of a twelve-story building and devoured whole towns along the Pacific coast. The triple disaster has perhaps been the costliest natural disaster in recorded history. Eight years on, as the consequences of the natural disaster have been largely remedied, the effects of the human-made meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant continue to haunt Japan. More than 100,000 people had to be evacuated from the vicinity of the power plant; many will not be able to return to their homes in the years to come. As the citizens of the only nation to have suffered a nuclear attack, Japanese have been wary of the peaceful atom even as it produced close to a third of the nation’s energy prior to 3/11. At the time of the disaster, there were fifty-four nuclear plants in operation in Japan, and the then-ruling Democratic Party planned to phase all of them out in the following thirty years. However, the change of government in 2012 has resulted in a change of policy; the Abe government’s new energy plan last year paved the way to the restart of as many as nine of the nuclear power plants, while paying lip service to the expansion of renewable sources of energy. Whether it is preparing for the next natural disaster, or averting possible human-made catastrophes similar to the Fukushima meltdown, environment will remain a major worry for the Japanese, as it should for everyone inhabiting the planet. Reiwa, in this regard, should also become an era of beautiful harmony with the environment.
Even without an unnamed catastrophe to push Japan further away from the Asian mainland, tectonic shifts in international politics have widened the gulf between the two in recent decades. Unlike the protagonists of Tawada’s novel, who are ignorant not only of the wider world but even of Japan’s nearest neighbours, today’s Japanese are well aware of their immediate vicinity, especially the largest and most powerful neighbour, China. “Aware” is perhaps too bland a word; enter any Tokyo bookshop, even small ones found near or inside train stations, and you will likely find volume after volume about China staring down at you from the shelves. A simple — and simplistic — explanation of this preoccupation would be to point out Japanese anxiety about the ever more assertive and confident China, a nation bullied, invaded and parts of it briefly colonized by Japan for much of the first half of the past century. The brutal Sino-Japanese War, which is still little known outside Asia but which in fact marked the real start to the Second World War in July 1937, has left deep scars in memory that will take years if not decades to heal. The healing process is not helped by nationalist rhetoric on both sides of the waters that separate the Japanese archipelago from the mainland. On the Korean peninsula, formally part of the Japanese Empire between 1910-1945, South Korea nurses its own grievances against Japan: colonization, attempts to forceful assimilation and Japanization, and the systematic sexual exploitation by the Imperial Japanese Army of the thousands of “comfort women,” many of whom were Korean. On the north, the saber-rattling Kim regime seeks to terrorize the Japanese archipelago with its ballistic missile launches. Two of these missiles overflew the Japanese northernmost island of Hokkaido in August and September 2017 before falling into the ocean to the east; Japanese citizens under the flight path of the August missile received mobile phone alerts around 6 am, waking many from sleep.
In her book Inheritance of Loss, the anthropologist Yukiko Koga explains the relationship between Japan and its Asian former victims in terms of debt. In the 1970s, when Japan and the People’s Republic of China restored diplomatic relations and signed a treaty of friendship, Koga writes, “the Japanese received a gift — China’s renunciation of war-reparation claims.” At the time, China was yet to embark on its economic reforms that resulted in high-speed growth and was prepared to shelve the disputes with Japan in return for economic cooperation and investments. In the four decades since, China has overtaken Japan as the world’s second largest economy. It has also been busy modernizing its military, and asserting its diplomatic and economic influence through infrastructure projects and public diplomacy not only in Asia but across the world. The preoccupation with China in Japan reflects alarm about ever increasing tension — if not a potential showdown — between the rising China and declining Japan. In such a scenario, China’s increasing implacability leads to fears that the gift Japan received in the 1970s, the debt that it still owes, will come back to haunt it.
The three characters in the Japanese title of Tawada’s novel, read as kentōshi, represent a wordplay. Traditionally, the word kentōshi means Japanese emissaries to Tang China first dispatched in the 9th century AD. Tawada replaces the first two characters with homonymic alternatives, and her title can be translated literally as “The Emissaries of the Order of the Lantern” (the U.S. edition of the novel is titled The Emissary). The book ends with the adherents of a secret order (who all burnt a candle “two inches in diameter and four inches tall”) choosing Mumei, now a gifted young man, as an all-important emissary to the outside world. In the new era that has dawned on Japan, the nation will need to send many such emissaries to the neighbouring countries, to heal the wounds of history and bridge the differences accumulated during the violent past eras. It also needs to open its gates — and minds — to the outside world, as it will do next year with the Tokyo Olympics, and with Expo 2025 to be held in Osaka, but also to employees and ideas from the outside in the longer-term future. With greater openness to new and non-traditional ideas, readiness to make right the injustices of the past, along with traditional Japanese resilience and hard work, the era “beautiful harmony” has a potential to live up to its promise.