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Yoko Tawada

Yōko Tawada (多和田葉子 Tawada Yōko, born March 23, 1960) is a Japanese writer currently living in Berlin, Germany. She writes in both Japanese and German. Tawada has won numerous literary awards, including the Akutagawa Prize, the Tanizaki Prize, the Noma Literary Prize, the Izumi Kyōka Prize for Literature, the Gunzo Prize for New Writers, the Goethe Medal, the Kleist Prize, and a National Book Award.

Early life and education

Tawada was born in Kunitachi, Tokyo. Her father was a translator and bookseller. She attended Tokyo Metropolitan Tachikawa High School. In 1979, at the age of 19, Tawada took the Trans-Siberian Railway to visit Germany. She received her undergraduate education at Waseda University in 1982 with a major in Russian literature, and upon graduation moved to Hamburg, Germany, where she started working with one of her father's business partners in a book distribution business. She left the business to study at Hamburg University, and in 1990 she received a master's degree in contemporary German literature. In 2000 she received her doctorate in German literature from the University of Zurich, where Sigrid Weigel, her thesis advisor, had been appointed to the faculty. In 2006 Tawada moved to Berlin, where she currently resides.


Tawada's writing career began in 1987 with the publication of Nur da wo du bist da ist nichts—Anata no iru tokoro dake nani mo nai (Nothing Only Where You Are), a collection of poems released in a German and Japanese bilingual edition. Her first novella, titled Kakato o nakushite (Missing Heels), received the Gunzo Prize for New Writers in 1991.

In 1993 Tawada won the Akutagawa Prize for her novella Inu muko iri, which was published later that year with Kakato o nakushite and another story in the single volume Inu muko iri. Arufabetto no kizuguchi also appeared in book form in 1993, and Tawada received her first major recognition outside of Japan by winning the Lessing Prize Scholarship. An English edition of the three-story collection Inu muko iri, translated by Margaret Mitsutani, was published in 1998 but was not commercially successful. New Directions Publishing reissued the Mitsutani translation of the single Akutagawa Prize-winning novella in 2012 under the title The Bridegroom Was a Dog.

Several other books followed, including Seijo densetsu (Legend of a Saint) in 1996 and Futakuchi otoko (The Man With Two Mouths) in 1998. Portions of these books were translated into English by Margaret Mitsutani and collected in a 2009 book titled Facing the Bridge. Tawada won the 1996 Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, a German literary award for non-native speakers of German. In 1997 she was writer in residence at Villa Aurora, and in 1999 she spent four months as the Max Kade Foundation Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She won the Izumi Kyōka Prize for Literature literature prize for her 2000 book Hinagiku no ocha no baai, and both the Sei Ito Literature Prize and the Tanizaki Prize in 2003 for Yogisha no yako ressha (Suspects on the Night Train).

Tawada took a bilingual approach to her 2004 novel Das nackte Auge, writing first in German, then in Japanese, and finally producing separate German and Japanese manuscripts. The novel follows a Vietnamese girl who was kidnapped at a young age while in Germany for a youth conference. An English version, translated from the German manuscript by Susan Bernofsky, was published by New Directions Publishing in 2009 under the title The Naked Eye. In 2005, Tawada won the prestigious Goethe Medal from the Goethe-Institut for meritorious contributions to German culture by a non-German. From January to February 2009, she was the Writer-in-Residence at the Stanford University Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages.

In 2011, inspired by the story of the orphaned polar bear Knut, Tawada wrote three interlocking short stories exploring the relationship between humans and animals from the perspective of three generations of captive polar bears. As with previous work, she wrote separate manuscripts in Japanese and German. In 2011 the Japanese version, titled Yuki no renshūsei, was published in Japan. It won the 2011 Noma Literary Prize and the 2012 Yomiuri Prize. In 2014 the German version, titled Etüden im Schnee, was published in Germany. An English edition of Etüden im Schnee, translated by Susan Bernofsky, was published by New Directions Publishing in 2016 under the title Memoirs of a Polar Bear. It won the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.

Tawada won the 2013 Erlanger Prize for her work translating poetry between Japanese and German. In 2014 her novel Kentoshi, a near-future dystopian story of a great-grandfather who grows stronger while his great-grandson grows weaker, was published in Japan. An English version, translated by Margaret Mitsutani, was published by New Directions Publishing in 2018 under the title The Emissary. In 2016 she received the Kleist Prize, and in 2018 she was awarded the Carl Zuckmayer Medal for services to the German language.

Writing style

Tawada writes in Japanese and German. Scholars of her work have adopted her use of the term exophony to describe the condition of writing in a non-native language. Early in her career Tawada enlisted the help of a translator to produce German editions of her Japanese manuscripts, but later she simultaneously generated separate manuscripts in each language through a process she calls "continuous translation." Over time her work has diverged by genre as well as language, with Tawada tending to write longer works such as plays and novels in Japanese, and shorter works such as short stories and essays in German. She also tends to create more neologisms when writing in German than when writing in Japanese.

Tawada's writing highlights the strangeness of one language, or particular words in one language, when seen from the perspective of someone who speaks another language. Her writing uses unexpected words, alphabets, and ideograms to call attention to the need for translation in everyday life. She has said that language is not natural but rather "artificial and magical," and has encouraged translators of her work to replace word play in her manuscripts with new word play in their own languages.

A common theme in Tawada's work is the relationship between words and reality, and in particular the possibility that differences in languages may make assimilation into a different culture impossible. For example, Tawada has suggested that a native Japanese speaker understands different words for "pencil" in German and Japanese as referring to two different objects, with the Japanese word referring to a familiar pencil and the German word referring to a pencil that is foreign and "other." However, her work also challenges the connection between national language and nationalism, particularly the kokugo/kokutai relationship in Japanese culture.

Tawada's stories often involve traveling across boundaries. Her writing draws on Tawada's own experiences of traveling between countries and cultures, but it also explores more abstract boundaries, such as the boundary between waking life and dreams, between thoughts and emotions, or between the times before and after a disaster. For example, the main character in her short story "Bioskoop der Nacht" dreams in a language she does not speak, and must travel to another country to learn the language and understand her own dreams. Tawada's work also employs elements of magical realism, such as the animal and plant anthropomorphism in Memoirs of a Polar Bear, in order to challenge otherwise familiar boundaries, such as the distinction between human and animal.

Tawada has cited Paul Celan and Franz Kafka as important literary influences.


Originally in Japanese

  • Nur da wo du bist da ist nichts / Anata no iru tokoro dake nanimo nai, 1987, Konkursbuch Verlag Claudia Gehrke, OCLC 55107823 (bilingual edition)
  • Inu muko iri, Kodansha, 1993, ISBN 9784062063074
  • Arufabetto no kizuguchi, Kawade Shobō Shinsha, 1993, ISBN 9784309008608
  • Seijo densetsu, Ōta Shuppan, 1996, ISBN 9784872332858
  • Futakuchi otoko, Kawade Shobō Shinsha, 1998, ISBN 9784309012445
  • Hinagiku no ocha no baai, Shinchōsha, 2000, ISBN 9784104361014
  • Yōgisha no yakō ressha, Seidosha, 2002, ISBN 9784791759736
  • Yuki no renshūsei, Shinchōsha, 2011, ISBN 9784104361045
  • Kentoshi, Kodansha, 2014, ISBN 9784062191920 (published in 2018 in English as The Last Children of Tokyo (UK) and The Emissary (US))

Originally in German

  • Nur da wo du bist da ist nichts / Anata no iru tokoro dake nanimo nai, 1987, Konkursbuch Verlag Claudia Gehrke, OCLC 55107823 (bilingual edition)
  • Das nackte Auge, Konkursbuch Verlag Claudia Gehrke, 2004, ISBN 9783887693244
  • Etüden im Schnee, Konkursbuch Verlag Claudia Gehrke, 2014, ISBN 9783887697372

Selected works in English

  • Where Europe Begins, translated by Susan Bernofsky and Yumi Selden, New Directions Publishing, 2002, ISBN 9780811215152
  • The Bridegroom Was a Dog (Inu muko iri, 犬婿入り), translated by Margaret Mitsutani, Kodansha, 2003, ISBN 9784770029409. This edition includes Missing Heels (Kakato o nakushite).
  • "Hair Tax," translated by Susan Bernofsky, Words Without Borders, April 2005 issue
  • Facing the Bridge, translated by Margaret Mitsutani, New Directions Publishing, 2007, ISBN 9780811216906
  • The Naked Eye, translated by Susan Bernofsky, New Directions Publishing, 2009, ISBN 9780811217392
  • Yoko Tawada's Portrait of a Tongue: An Experimental Translation by Chantal Wright, University of Ottawa Press, 2013, ISBN 9780776608037
  • "Celan Reads Japanese", translated by Susan Bernofsky, The White Review, March 2013
  • "The Far Shore", translated by Jeffrey Angles, Words Without Borders, March 2015 issue
  • "To Zagreb", translated by Margaret Mitsutani, Granta 131, 2015
  • "Memoirs of a Polar Bear", translated by Susan Bernofsky, Granta 136, 2016
  • Memoirs of a Polar Bear, translated by Susan Bernofsky, New Directions Publishing, 2016, ISBN 9780811225786
  • The Last Children of Tokyo (UK) / The Emissary (US), translated by Margaret Mitsutani, 2018.


  • 1991 Gunzo Prize for New Writers
  • 1993 Akutagawa Prize for The Bridegroom Was a Dog (Inu muko iri, 犬婿入り)
  • 1993 Lessing Prize Scholarship
  • 1996 Adelbert von Chamisso Prize
  • 2000 Izumi Kyōka Prize for Literature
  • 2003 Sei Ito Literature Prize
  • 2003 Tanizaki Prize for Suspect on the Night Train (Yogisha no yako ressha, 容疑者の夜行列車)
  • 2005 Goethe Medal
  • 2011 Noma Literary Prize
  • 2012 Yomiuri Prize
  • 2013 Erlanger Literaturpreis
  • 2016 Kleist Prize
  • 2017 Warwick Prize for Women in Translation (shared with translator Susan Bernofsky)
  • 2018 Carl Zuckmayer Medal
  • 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature for The Emissary (shared with translator Margaret Mitsutani)

Further reading

  • Bettina Brandt, "Scattered Leaves: Artist Books and Migration, a Conversation with Yoko Tawada", Comparative Literature Studies, 45/1 (2008) 12-22
  • Bettina Brandt, "Ein Wort, ein Ort, or How Words Create Places: Interview with Yoko Tawada", Women in German Yearbook, 21 (2005), 1-15
  • Maria S. Grewe, Estranging Poetic: On the Poetic of the Foreign in Select Works by Herta Müller and Yoko Tawada, Columbia University, New York 2009
  • Ruth Kersting, Fremdes Schreiben: Yoko Tawada, Trier 2006
  • Christina Kraenzle, Mobility, space and subjectivity: Yoko Tawada and German-language transnational literature, University of Toronto (2004)
  • Petra Leitmeir, Sprache, Bewegung und Fremde im deutschsprachigen Werk von Yoko Tawada, Freie Universität Berlin (2007)
  • Douglas Slaymaker (Ed.): Yoko Tawada: Voices from Everywhere, Lexington Books (2007)


External links

  • Yoko Tawada at J'Lit Books from Japan (in English)
  • Synopsis of Suspect on the Night Train at JLPP (Japanese Literature Publishing Project) (in English)

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