The Good-Enough Mother Tongue

Scattered All Over the Earth by Yoko Tawada, translated from Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani. New York: New Directions. 256 pages. $15.
The cover of Scattered All Over the Earth

There is a Shinto myth called kotodama that implies there are divine powers in the Old Japanese language—koto meaning “speech” or “word” and dama meaning “soul” or “ghost.” In this cosmogony, different words were believed to contain different qualities: a positive word could bring positive spirits and a negative word could wake up the demons inside. Practitioners of Shinto would erase loanwords from Chinese during their rituals to make their prayers as linguistically “pure” as possible. Nowadays, however, if you google kotodama, the internet returns links on the New Age potential of Aikido, manifesting psychology, and a video game called Kotodama: The 7 Mysteries of Fujisawa, an anime “Academy” of puzzle-solving teenagers with shorts skirts and big eyes.

In Yoko Tawada’s new novel Scattered All Over the Earth, an ancient, purist notion of language runs counter to a cosmopolitan—albeit sterile—lifestyle. Tawada intertwines several stories to create a somewhat dystopian refraction of our present, in which languages merge and entire countries ominously disappear. The novel opens with Knut, a young linguist living in Denmark, who is watching a TV show about people from countries that have, at least politically, disappeared. He listens indifferently to the experiences of those born in East Germany, the Soviet Union, and the former Yugoslavia. Finally, he notices the curious tone of Hiruko, an immigrant who fled a country very much like Japan after a climate catastrophe and speaks a Pan-Scandinavian language that she claims to have invented.

Hiruko’s native language has long been lost, her island devoured by water. She was a refugee in Norway and Denmark, where she finally settled and developed the language she calls Panska, which draws on the resemblances between Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish. Panska, or Pan-Scandinavian, helps her move between countries and communicate with other immigrants.

Taken by Hiruko’s sincerity and sadness, Knut calls the TV station and then rushes to meet her. In the span of a few pages, they bond over their shared linguistic obsessions and embark on a lopsided odyssey to find one of the other last speakers of Japanese in continental Europe. They go to Trier and move across Germany, collecting a colorful string of travel partners. In this world, forgone nations only leave behind whatever was once most digestible to a global audience: what survives from Japan is Japanese food, Tamagotchis, robots, and the distant memory of nuclear disasters.

Knut and Hiruko’s travels feature companions who also become narrators, creating a kaleidoscopic array of languages and personas: there is Akash, an Indian trans woman who studies the dynamics of sex and gender; Nora, a precocious, bourgeois German fashioning herself after the teachings of Karl Marx; Nanook, an Indigenous Greenlander who discovers his life in Denmark is easier if he pretends to be from Japan; and Susanoo, the other Japanese migrant in the country, who grew up in a fishing town that was scattered by the development of a nuclear planation and, later, the unnamed catastrophe. They are all displaced in their own way, and each is dusted with the ashes of the Soviet Union, the United States, and, in Trier’s Porta Nigra, the Roman Empire.

The characters’ connection to their origins has a nightmarish quality. They are like manifestations of the biblical myth that gives the novel its title (in which God, angry at the makers of the Tower of Babel, confuses man’s single language and “scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city”). Astray and atomized, wandering the Earth like postmodern sleepwalkers, they are both fixated on their identity and lost in it. These nomads find little to no pleasure in grappling with the differences within communities, tacitly defining themselves purely as trans, Marxist, Danish, or Japanese. Akash, Nanook, Nora, and Hiruko are thrown into a dystopian world that progressively erases their notions of belonging. In the face of catastrophe, they try to reinforce these scattered notions, with varying degrees of success.

Tawada is no stranger to the life in transit she narrates. She was born in 1960 in Nakano, a ward of Tokyo. Following the Laws of Compassion of the Genroku era (which made the mistreatment of dogs punishable by death), Nakano was home to a seventeenth-century wild-dog reserve. However, since those highly mythologized times, Tawada’s hometown has been devoured by the metropolitan area of Tokyo, and reshaped into the countercultural suburb where, in 1992, Nirvana played its final show in Japan.

Tawada came from an educated family; her father was a translator and bookseller. When she was nineteen, studying Russian literature at Waseda University, she took the Trans-Siberian Railway through then-Soviet territory to visit Germany. When she was twenty-two, she moved to Hamburg, and became fluent in German. Tawada, now sixty-two, closely followed the rise and fall of the USSR and the reconstruction of postwar Japan. She witnessed firsthand the years of German reunification and the neoliberal turmoil that would lead to the creation of the European Union.

Nowadays, Tawada gives interviews in which she switches from English to German to Japanese with ease. She frequently writes in German as well as Japanese and sometimes translates her own work. She collaborates with translators like Susan Bernofsky and has published a trilingual book with Chantal Wright, an autofictional verse novella called Portrait of a Tongue. She has studied the works of Jorge Luis Borges, Walter Benjamin, and Franz Kafka, and resembles them in the way she draws on other cultures and languages to give shape to her ideas. In an essay titled “Überseezungen,” she explains: “I was born into Japanese the way one is thrown into a sack. That is why this language became for me my exterior skin. The German language, on the other hand, I swallowed whole and it has been sitting in my stomach ever since.” In an interview given to Monika Totten in 1999 (as recently recalled by Anna Zielinska-Elliott) she also said: “I think it’s an illusion to think the mother-tongue to be authentic. The mother-tongue is a translation from non-verbal or pre-verbal thoughts, too. . . . Foreign languages draw our attention to the fact that language per se, even one’s mother-tongue, is a translation.” 

Tawada inhabits many tongues with ease and playfulness, although not without anxiety. Her work often shows concerns about the state of the Japanese language in a world where everything seems to be rapidly shifting toward English. In Scattered All Over the Earth, Hiruko seeks reminiscences of her mother tongue, and in The Emissary, the 2014 novel that won her the National Book Award for Translated Literature, characters actively escape it. The Emissary is set in a postcatastrophic Tokyo, after Japan undergoes a major chemical disaster and closes its borders to the outside world. With an increase in child mortality, Japan’s elders rule the country and impose an all-encompassing form of protectionism—nothing comes in, no one goes out. Japanese purity is mandatory in the novel’s world, as those who have put themselves in charge of maintaining culture strive for something close to kotodama: “Singing songs in foreign languages in public places for over forty seconds was strictly prohibited. Nor could novels translated from foreign languages be published.”

Tawada’s satirical tone and flirtation with sci-fi are intensely original, but these questions of assimilation vis-à-vis tradition are not completely out of line with current conversations in Japanese literature. Minae Mizumura, a writer from roughly the same generation as Tawada, has dealt with these concerns in her work as a scholar and novelist—shifting frequently from Japanese to French to English. In 2008, Mizumura published The Fall of Language in the Age of English, a book-length essay on her experiences as a writer and on the historical, political, and linguistic entanglements that she sees in the writers and speakers of Japanese. Mizumura draws from past scholarship to explain that the Japanese language is itself an invention, created in the nineteenth century during the rule of Emperor Meiji—the consequences of this period are still impacting how Japanese is spoken in the present day.

The Meiji period in Japan was the main stage for the country’s overall modernization. Starting in 1868, with the crowning of fourteen-year-old Emperor Meiji, the island started to reshape itself from being an isolated, feudal society under Chinese influence and entered an increasingly interconnected, Westernized world. Nineteenth-century Japan, Mizumura explains, wanted to move away from the Sinosphere toward creating international networks, particularly with the American and British Empires. During this period, linguistic debates ensued as to how to create a new version of Japanese—one statesman, Mori Arinori, going so far as to claim that Japan should “yield to the domination of the English tongue.” Other members of the intelligentsia wanted to replace Japanese characters with Romanized ones, making it a horizontal language, read from left to right. And although these proposals were never executed, the Meiji Restoration decided to cut a considerable number of Chinese characters and incorporate, instead, more vernacular syllabary ideograms. Nowadays, the Japanese language looks like a combination of easy-to-memorize syllabaries (katakana for foreign loan words and hiragana for Japanese words) and harder-to-memorize kanjis (simplified versions of the Chinese ideogram system). Modern Japanese, Mizumura explains, was a modern invention, a fiction that accompanied the assimilation of Japan into the early stages of Western forms of capitalism.

Japanese literature, then, deals with the perils of a global literature from the level of grammar itself, invoking the most minimal acts of poetic belonging. And although most of Tawada’s writing seems to point out the arbitrariness of a mother tongue, her characters are fixated in its mythologization. In Scattered All Over the Earth, when Hiruko finally meets her landsman, Susanoo, she desperately tries to share common ground with him. She reverts to basic forms of speech, like anyone who has spent long stretches of time without speaking their native language: in her case, she tries to remember a childhood song that she hasn’t heard since her country disappeared. And while Susanoo doesn’t respond at first, Hiruko is insistent, almost desperate. She recites to him many of the possible titles of the song, trying to remember while also pleading: “That voice of yours I’m dying to hear. Let me hear your voice. Your voice is what I’d love to hear, I only want to hear your voice, but they all missed the mark somehow.” Susanoo doesn’t reply, and she doesn’t remember. Finally, she resorts to simply calling him by the Japanese pronoun “you,” anata.                                              

Hiruko, in this sense, is in a deeply touching trip—dispensed of any material sense of a past, the Japanese language is the last and most emotionally charged axis in her sense of rootedness. For Tawada, language carries a specific form of memory and sense of belonging, which, in the face of atomization, becomes fraught and melancholic all at once. As the world becomes more interconnected and exophony becomes an excruciatingly contemporary condition, Tawada’s sci-fi becomes a recognizable parable for writers in exile or living abroad. Scattered All Over the Earth relies on the affect and importance of a mother tongue and, in the same movement, suggests that this is also form of fiction. It is then turned into an invention, a translation of something else, hovering between the purity of the kotodama and the sinfulness of the multilingual. The truly productive space, where Tawada displays all the force of her potential as a novelist, lies in the uncomfortable in-between.


Julia Kornberg is a writer from Buenos Aires living in New York. She is currently working on her second novel.