The Last Children of Tokyo

Title: The Last Children of Tokyo
Japanese Title: 献灯使 (Kentōshi)
Author: Yōko Tawada (多和田葉子)
Translator: Margaret Mitsutani
Publication Year: 2014 (Japan); 2018 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Portobello Books
Pages: 138

In the future – but not long in the future – Japan has secluded itself from the rest of the world. The environment is saturated with toxic substances, it’s dangerous to go near the sea, and most animals have disappeared from the wild. Humans still live on the Japanese archipelago, but their society has changed. Adults born in our own time live long lives and continue working well past their hundredth birthdays, while children born in the present of the novel have trouble retaining nutrients from food and are often too weak for sustained physical activity. Young and healthy people in their sixties and seventies do everything in their power to immigrate to Okinawa or the north of Japan, where agriculture still thrives, while Tokyo suffers from depopulation.

A novelist named Yoshiro still lives in Tokyo, where he cares for his great-grandson, Mumei. Mumei is fascinated by pictures of animals that have recently gone extinct, while Yoshiro similarly spends his time looking back on the gradual shifts and changes in Japanese society. Each of Yoshiro’s memories is a sustained flight of magical realism that often has very little to do with the conventions of science fiction or dystopian fantasy. The Last Children of Tokyo is not about social critique through the medium of apocalypse, nor does it have much of a plot. Rather, it’s a reflection of everyday life in contemporary Japan in a mirror that’s mostly accurate but has a few interesting distortions.

Some of these distortions offer a speculative interpretation of how daily life has changed as a result of Japan’s recent demographic shifts.

The names of some of the older holidays were changed: “Respect for the Aged Day” became “Encouragement for the Aged Day,” while “Children’s Day” was now “Apologize to Children Day”; “Sports Day” was changed to “Body Day” to avoid upsetting children who were not growing up big and strong; so as not to hurt the feelings of young people who wanted to work but simply weren’t strong enough, “Labor Day” became “Being Alive Is Enough Day.” (43-44)

Other distortions magnify current practices out of proportion, making them seem like harbingers of social collapse.

He heard the phrase “Baby Carriage Movement” from Marika for the first time. This was a movement to encourage mothers to push their baby carriages around town every day as long as the sun was shining. Mothers who woke up unbearably miserable every morning, feeling helpless, hungry, about to pee all over themselves with no one to help them, whether because of a moist, clammy dream they’d had the night before, or because being cooped up all day with a squalling infant stimulates memories of the mother’s own infancy, went out to push their baby carriages until they came to a coffee shop with a “baby carriage mark” in the window, where they would find books and magazines to read and other mothers to talk to. (67)

Nevertheless, Tokyo is still a center of population, and Yoshiro can’t bring himself to leave the city as social services crumble, public transportation breaks down, and people resort to eating weeds. Even in decline, it seems, Tokyo is still home to many vibrant communities.

Though Tokyo was now impoverished, new shops still bubbled up from the depths to open up like flowers; just sitting on a park bench, you never got tired of watching the people go by. Walking around the city made the gears in your brain start turning. People had begun to realize that these simple pleasures were the most delicious part of the fruit we call everyday life, which is why even though their houses were small and food was scarce, they still wanted to live in Tokyo. (60-61)

In The Last Children of Tokyo, the city of Tokyo is less of a physical location than it is a collection of people who, as a society, have developed a fascinating set of collective quirks. The novel has very little plot to speak of, allowing the reader to take in the sights as its narration slowly meanders between times and places. The last forty or so pages shift to Mumei’s perspective as he becomes involved in a secret plan to leave the Japan, but there’s no sense of urgency regarding the matter; and, like the rest of the novel, the ending is meant to be enjoyed for its atmosphere. Tawada’s writing is given form by its abstractions, most of which can be interpreted by the reader in multiple ways and pursued in multiple directions. As a result, The Last Children of Tokyo is neither a particularly hopeful nor a particularly grim novel. It’s an odd book and an entertaining thought experiment, and Tawada playfully invites her readers to join her on a journey through a Tokyo that doesn’t exist – at least, not yet.

The Nakano Thrift Shop

Title: The Nakano Thrift Shop
Japanese Title: 古道具 中野商店 (Furudōgu Nakano Shoten)
Author: Kawakami Hiromi (川上 弘美)
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Publication Year: 2017 (United Kingdom); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Portobello Books
Pages: 260

Hitomi works at the Nakano Thrift Shop, which is run by a middle-aged man named, unsurprisingly, Mr. Nakano. While she watches the store and works the till, a young man around her age, Takeo, accompanies Mr. Nakano on buying trips. The trio is occasionally visited by Mr. Nakano’s sister Masayo, an artist of independent means. The twelve loosely connected stories in The Nakano Thrift Shop are about the strange and silly things that happen to this odd group of characters, whose small dramas for the most part seem to exist outside of the specifics of time and place.

Hitomi is short-tempered and cagey, Takeo is passive and uncommunicative, and Masayo is chatty and expansive, but it is the stubborn and befuddled Mr. Nakano whose mishaps and shenanigans serve as the focal point or punchline of each story. In the second story, “Paperweight,” Mr. Nakano bribes Hitomi to go visit Masayo and get gossip about her new lover, which sparks a friendship between the two women. In the third story, “Bus,” Mr. Nakano travels to Hokkaido on a buying trip and becomes involved in a one-sided love affair, amusing Hitomi with the messages he sends back to the shop. In other stories, an unusual customer provides a break from the store’s daily routine. For example, in the ninth story, “Bowl,” a young man tries to get rid of a valuable antique bowl, which he believes has been cursed by an ex-girlfriend. The Nakano Thrift Shop is more of a downmarket store, so Masayo forces Mr. Nakano to pass the bowl over to a specialist ceramics dealer with whom he happens to be in the process of breaking off a romantic relationship.

Over the course of the book, Hitomi enters into a romantic relationship of her own with Takeo. This romance never makes much progress, however, as Hitomi demands action and attention while Takeo doesn’t like talking on the phone and is content simply to allow life to happen to him. Like everything in The Nakano Thrift Shop, their relationship is lowkey and laidback, and it ebbs and flows without any sort of drama.

For the reader, the pleasure of these stories lies in peeking into the lives of these characters as they drift through the changing seasons while comfortable in the stability of their friendships. Even though unusual things occasionally happen, no one is ever strongly affected by these events. For instance, in the first story, “Rectangular #2,” an odd man named Takadokoro comes into the store to sell artistic nude photos. Masayo tells Hitomi that the pictures are of Takadoroko’s former student. Takadokoro has the potential to be a truly creepy (or pathetic) character, but the warm narrative tone of The Nakano Thrift Shop treats him as just another person in the neighborhood. He doesn’t bother anyone, and no one is bothered by him. After all, everyone is a little weird once you get to know them.

In the final story, “Punch Ball,” the Nakano shop has closed, and the characters have all gone their separate ways. Hitomi takes various office jobs as a temp worker while she studies for her bookkeeping certification exam. Her current distance from the carefree atmosphere that suffused the earlier stories puts them into perspective, and her former freedom from the pressures of the corporate world now seems much more meaningful. Now that she spends her days sitting at a desk in front of a computer, social interactions are no longer improvised and unique, and friendships are no longer so easily formed. There’s a playful innocence to Hitomi’s time in the Nakano shop that only becomes apparent in retrospect.

The Nakano Thrift Shop is a short and pleasant book that will appeal to anyone who enjoyed The Briefcase (which was published as Strange Weather in Tokyo in the UK). Although it’s a wide leap removed from the darker themes and imagery of some of Kawakami’s other work that has appeared in translation, it’s mercifully free of the sentimentality and melodrama of Yoshimoto Banana novels. As Hitomi seems to be in her mid to late twenties, it’s up for debate whether The Nakano Thrift Shop can be classified as “girls’ literature” (shōjo shōsetsu), but reading these stories conveys a vicarious sense of what it feels like to be a young woman chilling out and having fun in a trendy Tokyo suburb.