Yoko Tawada

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Date: 2018
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,994 words

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About this Person
Born: March 23, 1960 in Kunitachi, Japan
Nationality: Japanese
Occupation: Writer
Updated:Nov. 28, 2018


Born March 23, 1960, in Kunitachi, Japan; immigrated to Hamburg, Germany, 1982. Education: Waseda University, B.A., 1982; Hamburg University, M.A., 1990; University of Zurich, Ph.D. Addresses: Home: Hamburg, Germany. E-mail: tawadaoo@yahoo.co.jp.


and novelist. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writer-in-residence, 1999.


Gunzo Prize for New Writers, for Missing Heels, 1991; Akutagawa Prize, Society for the Promotion of Japanese Literature, for The Bridegroom Was a Dog, 1993; Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, Robert Bosch Stiftung, GmbH (Germany), for a foreign author who has contributed to German literature, 1996; Tanizaki Prize, Chuō Kōronsha, Inc., and Ito Sei Prize for Literature, both for Suspects on the Night Train, 2003; Goethe Medal, 2005; Murasaki Shikibu Literaturpreis, 2011; Noma Bungei Literaturpreis, 2011; Yomiuri Literaturpreis, 2013; Erlanger Literaturpreis, 2013; Kleist Prize, 2016; Inaugural Translated Literature Prize, National Book Awards, 2018, for The Emissary.



  • Inu Mukoiri, Kodansha (Tokyo, Japan), 1993, translation by Margaret Mitsutani published as The Bridegroom Was a Dog (includes Missing Heels), Kodansha International (Palo Alto, CA), 1998, reprinted, New Directions (New York, NY), 2012.
  • Talisman, Konkursbuch (Tübingen, Germany), 1996.
  • Wie der Wind im Ei, Konkursbuchverlag C. Gehrke (Tübingen, Germany), 1997.
  • Verwandlungen: Prosa, Lyrik, Szenen & Essays, Konkursbuchverlag C. Gehrke (Tübingen, Germany), 1998.
  • Verwandlungen: Tübinger Poetik-Vorlesung, Konkursbuchverlag (Tübingen, Germany), 1998.
  • Opium fur Ovid: ein Kopfkissenbuch von 22 Frauen, Konkursbuchverlag (Tübingen, Germany), 2000.
  • Spielzeug und Sprachmagie in der europaischen Literatur: eine ethnologische Poetologie, Konkursbuchverlag (Tübingen, Germany), 2000.
  • Wenn die Katze ein Pferd ware, konnte man durch die Baume reiten: Prosa, Swiridoff (Kunzelsau, Germany), 2001.
  • Uberseezungen, Konkursbuch (Tübingen, Germany), 2002.
  • Where Europe Begins, New Directions (New York, NY), 2002.
  • Das nackte Auge, Konkursbuchverlag (Tübingen, Germany), 2004, translation by Susan Bernofsky published as The Naked Eye, New Directions (New York, NY), 2009.
  • Train de nuit avec suspects (title means "Suspects on the Night Train"), Verdier (Lagrasse, France), 2005.
  • Was andert der Regen an unserem Leben? oder ein Libretto, Konkursbuch (Tübingen, Germany), 2005.
  • Facing the Bridge (stories), New Directions (New York, NY), 2007.
  • Sprachpolizei und Spielpolyglotte, Konkursbuch Verlag Claudia Gehrke (Tübingen, Germany), 2007.
  • Schwager in Bordeaux: Roman, Konkursbuch Verlag Claudia Gehrke (Tübingen, Germany), 2008.
  • (With Laszlo Marton) Sonderzeichen Europa, Thanhauser (Ottensheim, Donau, Austria), 2009.
  • Abenteur der deutschen Gramatik, Claudia Gehrke (Tübingen, Germany), 2010.
  • Mein kleiner Zeh war ein Wort, Konkursbuch Verlag Claudia Gehrke (Tübingen, Germany), 2013.
  • Portrait of a Tongue, translated, with an introduction and commentary, by Chantal Wright, University of Ottawa Press (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 2013.
  • Etuden in Schnee, Konkursbuch Verlag Claudia Gehrke (Tübingen, Germany), 2014, translation by Susan Bernofsky published as The Memoirs of a Polar Bear, New Directions Publishing Corporation (New York, NY), 2016.
  • Akzentfrei, Konkursbuch Verlag Claudia Gehrke (Tübingen, Germany), 2016.
  • The Emissary, translated by Margaret Mitsutani, New Directions (Cambridge, MA), 2018.

First collection of poems, A Void Only Where You Are, published in German and Japanese, 1987.


Yoko Tawada was born March 23, 1960, in Kunitachi, Japan, which is located just outside of Tokyo. She remained in Japan for her education, earning her undergraduate degree in Russian literature in 1982 from Waseda University. After graduation, she moved to Hamburg, Germany, and began studying toward her master's degree in German contemporary literature. She went on to complete her schooling with a doctorate from the University of Zurich. A poet and writer, Tawada published her first collection of poetry, A Void Only Where You Are, in a bilingual edition including both German and Japanese versions of her work, in 1987. In 1991, she was awarded the Gunzo Prize for New Writers for her book Missing Heels, and in 1993, she received the Akutagawa Prize for The Bridegroom Was a Dog. In 1999, Tawada was made writer-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a post she held for four months. She then went on to win both the Tanizaki Prize and the Ito Sei Literary Prize in 2003 for Train de nuit avec suspects. Tawada has also been honored in Germany, receiving the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize in 1996, an award that is given to foreigners who contribute to the body of German literature, and then the Goethe Medal in 2005.

Tawada first became interested in poetry as a child, in part because she learned that certain types of wordplay would cause the adults in her life to laugh. She became fascinated with the process of jumbling up words so that they had no real meaning but produced a cascade of sound when spoken that would amuse those around her, and that type of result is what led her to include such word jumbles in her poetry. Moving to Germany also had an effect on her writing, as she was forced to see things in two different languages, a process that made her even more aware of word choice and different rhythms and extremely conscious of the language she grew up speaking. It was when she was a junior high school student in Japan, though, that Tawada first began to write poetry in earnest, motivated by her frustrations in school and with the points of view of her teachers. She produced her own small literary magazine while still in high school. At university, she broadened her outlook and started to study European writers, particularly Thomas Mann, and in graduate school she fell in love with folk stories from a broad range of countries. All of these interests eventually found their way into her poetry as major influences.

One work that is grounded in the folktales that Tawada discovered, particularly the Japanese stories that speak of marriages between humans and animals, is The Bridegroom Was a Dog. The story features a woman who works as a teacher for a Japanese "cram school" and the man who lives with her. He is a human by all outward appearances, but his behavior and thoughts are decidedly canine. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly remarked of the story that "although Tawada's conceits may sometimes bewilder American readers, her bizarrerie is charming and unforced."

Facing the Bridge, a collection of three novellas, addresses the theme of crossing over or facing up to borders, an understandable subject for Tawada, who has lived much of her adult life divided between her home in Germany and her homeland in Japan. In each of these stories, the characters struggle between two cultures, looking for a space between that they can inhabit joyfully and without feeling as if they were betraying one or the other side of themselves. The first story is titled "The Shadow Man." It tracks a number of travelers as they cross borders and lose hold of their identities. In the case of a boy from Ghana, he is taken aboard a slave ship and given a new name, his own persona stripped away as if it had never existed. Another character is a Japanese student studying in Germany, who feels so lost and such a failure in this new land that he cannot seem to muster even a memory of who he is supposed to be. These characters are woven together, their situations mirrors despite all of their differences.

In the second story, "In Front of Trang Tien Bridge," a Japanese woman traveling through Vietnam learns that nationality can be a label, just like the one sewn into a purse, and that ethnicity and language are tricky things to decipher. "Saint George and the Translator," the final story in the book, finds a woman in the Canary Islands attempting to translate the story of Saint George and the dragon into her native language, but failing miserably. In addition, she finds herself in a precarious position in which she herself is the dragon to the hero of her story. Yoshiko Yokochi Samuel, in a review for World Literature Today, declared: "At once challenging and mesmerizing, the stories in Facing the Bridge collectively demonstrate Tawada's rich imagination and exceptional talent for storytelling."

The Naked Eye is the first of Tawada's novels to be available in English. She originally wrote the book in German but found herself adding bits in Japanese as she went, so she went back and forth as she wrote, translating along the way, and completed both the German and the Japanese versions of the manuscript at the same time. This suggests that language plays a bigger part in this book than even in her previous works. It tells the story of a Vietnamese high school student and her trip to East Berlin, in East Germany, to deliver a paper at a conference there. She meets a student from West Germany her first day and spends the night with him, getting drunk. In the morning, she realizes he has basically kidnapped her, taking her to his hometown and stranding her there, with only rudimentary knowledge of the language and neither friends nor family to rely upon. When she finally decides to risk walking away, she ends up on a train bound in the wrong direction, landing in Paris, France, more displaced than ever.

The book received mixed reactions from reviewers, with several of them finding the narrative confusing. Tommy Wallach, writing for the World Books Review website, noted: "A story is a story, and language is language. A story never arrives in words; it must be translated. Perhaps if Tawada had been more concerned with creating a narrative, rather than deconstructing one, the language wouldn't come off as so forced."

In The Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Tawada tells the fantastical life story of Knut, a Polar Bear cub who actually lived at the Berlin Zoo, and Knut's mother and grandmother. The real Knut became an international sensation after he was born in the Berlin Zoo in 2006. He was rejected by his mother and raised by a zookeeper, Thomas Dorflein. Photographs and video of the tiny cub circulated across the news channels and the Internet, turning the fluffy white creature into a star. His fame was propelled as much by his perceived cuteness as by the circumstances of his birth. The real Knut died at age four after suffering a seizure and drowning in his zoo habitat, witnessed by hundreds of shocked zoo attendees. His skin was mounted and put on display at the Zoo, significantly larger and somewhat less appealing than he was as a cub, but no less popular among some zoo goers.

In her novel, Tawada divides the story into three parts. The first part is narrated by Knut's fictional grandmother, who had retired from a life of circus performance in the Soviet Union. She is used to being owned by someone else, commanded to do things she might not want to do. After retiring, she learned how to write (a "spooky activity," she thought) and produced a memoir titled Thunderous Applause for My Tears. In the second part of the book, Knut's mother, Tosca, is a dancing bear and performer at an East German circus who works with a human partner, Barbara, in a strange, even borderline erotic act. The circus is eventually disbanded, and Tosca ends up in a Berlin zoo, where she gives birth to Knut. She explains her abandonment of the cub as being due to her literary obligations; she would not have enough time for him, so she entrusted his care to a human named Matthias.

Knut's story fills up the last third of the book, as he becomes a worldwide star, an advocate against climate change, and, for some, a source of considerable income. "In a work that plays with the fantastical and allegorical, the polar bear ultimately becomes both the grandiose repository of human desires and a creature nestled among us, our own fur baby held to the heart," commented Tim Flannery, writing in New Statesman.

Throughout the novel, Tawada "delicately explores the ambiguities of parental love, and the blurred lines between human and animal: when does affection become exploitation," remarked Spectator reviewer Lee Langley. An Economist reviewer called The Memoirs of a Polar Bear a "funny, subtle and strangely moving fable about the bonds that unite, and the gulfs that divide, humans and other animals."




Booklist, September 15, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of The Bridegroom Was a Dog, p. 198; May 1, 2007, Ray Olson, review of Facing the Bridge, p. 75; November 1, 2016, Terry Hong, review of The Memoirs of a Polar Bear, p. 26.

Economist, December 3, 2016, "Bearing up under the Spotlight: New Fiction," review of The Memoirs of a Polar Bear, p. 74.

German Quarterly, Volume 90, no. 2, 2017, Jeremy Redlich, "Representations of Public Spaces and the Construction of Race in Yoko Tawada's 'Bioskoop der Nacht,'" p. 196.

Japan Times, July 3, 2009, "Jazz Meets Literature in Concert."

Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2002, review of Where Europe Begins, p. 1351.

Marvels & Tales, October, 2013, Margaret Mitsutani, "Tawada Yoko's 'The Man with Two Mouths,'" p. 321.

New Statesman, April 28, 2017, Tim Flannery, "The Bears Who Came in from the Cold," review of The Memoirs of a Polar Bear, p. 44.

New Yorker, December 28, 1998, review of The Bridegroom Was a Dog, p. 134; March 27, 2017, Ligaya Mishan, "Briefly Noted," review of The Memoirs of a Polar Bear, p. 71.

New York Times Book Review, November 24, 2002, "What to Eat on Tuesdays," p. 32; August 17, 2003, review of The Bridegroom Was a Dog, p. 20; November 25, 2016, Ramona Ausubel, "Humans and Polar Bears Share Dreams in This Novel," review of The Memoirs of a Polar Bear.

New York Times Magazine, October 27, 2016, Rivka Galchen, "Imagine That: The Profound Empathy of Yoko Tawada," profile of Yoko Tawada.

Publishers Weekly, September 14, 1998, review of The Bridegroom Was a Dog, p. 46; September 5, 2016, review of The Memoirs of a Polar Bear, p. 51.

Southern Humanities Review, September 22, 2005, Nobuko Miyama Ochner, review of Where Europe Begins, p. 381.

Spectator, March 25, 2017, Lee Langley, "Bear Essentials," review of The Memoirs of a Polar Bear, p. 37.

Women in German Yearbook, January 1, 2005, "Ein Wort, Ein Ort, or How Words Create Places: Interview with Yoko Tawada," p. 1.

World Literature Today, January 1, 2000, review of The Bridegroom Was a Dog, p. 244; January 1, 2006, "The Postcommunist Eye: An Interview with Yoko Tawada"; July 1, 2008, Yoshiko Yokochi Samuel, review of Facing the Bridge; November-December, 2016, Jacky Tideman, review of The Memoirs of a Polar Bear, p. 82.


Asian Review of Books, http://www.asianreviewofbooks.com/ (May 12, 2017), Todd Shimoda, review of The Memoirs of a Polar Bear.

Book Dragon, http://bookdragon.si.edu/ (September 1, 2007), review of Facing the Bridge; (May 14, 2009), review of The Naked Eye.

Booklit, http://booklit.com/ (October 9, 2008), author events, author profile.

Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture Website, http://www.keenecenter.org/ (September 14, 2009), author profile.

Electric Lit, http://www.electricliterature.com/ (September 2, 2016), Bradley Babendir, "Seeing through the Eyes of a Polar Bear," review of The Memoirs of a Polar Bear.

Hopkins Undergraduate Research Journal, http://www.jhu.edu/ (September 14, 2009), Miyako Hayakawa, "Yoko Tawada's Self-Invention: The Legend of a Japanese-German Woman."

Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London Website, http://modernlanguages.sas.ac.uk/ (October 2, 2017), biography of Yoko Tawada.

International Literature Festival Website, http://www.literaturfestival.com/ (September 14, 2009), author profile.

Kenyon Review Online, http://www.kenyonreview.org/ (October 3, 2017), Michael Magras, "On Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada," review of Memoirs of a Polar Bear.

Literatures in Other Languages, http://literaturesotherlanguages.blogspot.com/ (July 29, 2009), "Yoko Tawada on a Word."

Mostly Fiction, http://www.mostlyfiction.com/ (September 14, 2009), review of Facing the Bridge.

New Directions Website, http://www.ndbooks.com/ (October 2, 2017), biography of Yoko Tawada.

Poetry International Website, http://international.poetryinternationalweb.org/ (September 14, 2009), author profile.

Public Radio International: The World Website, http://www.theworld.org/ (July 20, 2009), Tommy Wallach, review of The Naked Eye.

University of Rochester Website, http://www.rochester.edu/ (September 14, 2009), review of The Naked Eye.

Worldpress.org, http://www.worldpress.org/ (October 28, 2001), Kimie Itakura "Double Wordplay."

Yoko Tawada Website, http://www.yokotawada.de (October 2, 2017).*

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000194320