‘Tokyo Ueno Station’ by Yū Miri (Review)

My previous post saw me perusing essays on twelve ‘contemporary’ Japanese writers, and commenting on how little of their work was available in translation, particularly when it came to the female authors.  Well, today’s review, the last of my Japanese literature posts for the month, features yet another writer who really should be more widely available in English.  To date, she has had just one novel come out in English (which seems to be out of print), but fortunately Tilted Axis Press have been kind enough to commission a new work for us (out in a couple of weeks) – and very good it is, too 🙂

Yū Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station (translated by Morgan Giles, electronic review copy courtesy of the publisher) is seen through the eyes of Kazu, a homeless man roaming Tokyo’s massive Ueno Park, just outside the train station.  While you might be expecting a typical tale of the homeless, a throwaway comment tells us early on that there’s more – or less – to our friend than you might expect:

Things like that always made me feel lonely when I was alive.
p.38 (Tilted Axis Press, 2019)

By the start of the story, Kazu has already passed away, and in a ghost story of sorts, he drifts through the place that was his final home, watching life go on in the big city without him.

Ghosts often have a reason for haunting a place, and as Kazu’s appears to be a need to take stock of his life, the park is a good place to do so.  As he looks back, remembering his youth in the far north and his itinerant lifestyle in search of work, a slightly unusual connection becomes apparent.  The park he eventually finds himself in is actually called Ueno Imperial Gift Park, a ‘present’ from the Emperor to the nation.  As it turns out, this is just one of the many links Kazu has to the Japanese royal family, even if his life has turned out very differently to theirs.

Yū’s only previous work in English, Gold Rush, was an excellent psychological novel looking at damaged youth and a violent society, but Tokyo Ueno Station is a rather different affair.  Far shorter, and simpler in many ways, it focuses on a man looking back at his life from beyond the grave and wondering where it all went wrong.  Kazu’s life acts as a reflection of the history of his country, with his life covering a turbulent period for Japan.  Born in 1933, he recalls the hardship caused by the war, his work on construction for the 1964 Olympics and the bursting of the bubble economy.  With the tale taking us to Fukushima and beyond, Kazu seems to have been there and done it all.

Of course, that’s pretty much the point of the novel.  Kazu is an example, an everyman upon whose aching back Japan’s success was built, digging foundations for the Olympic stadiums by hand, catching fish and roaming the land in search of his next temporary job.  Yet all this has come at a cost.  Despite the country’s relative wealth, much of his life has been spent in poverty, both that of his younger years (wearing cheap handmade woollen sweaters and planting greens to supplement the family’s diet) and the true poverty of life on the streets.  Those ending up at the park weren’t always alone:

Before, we had families.  We had houses.  Nobody starts off life in a hovel made of cardboard and tarps, and nobody becomes homeless because they want to be.  One thing happens, then another. (p.83)

This is exactly what has happened to Kazu, and the country is to blame.  He realises that while he’s been assisting in Japan’s economic rise, he’s missed out on his own family’s ‘history’.

However, he’s far from the only one, and the choice of Ueno Park as the setting is apt.  Quite apart from showing us the symbolic statues scattered throughout its grounds (enemies and allies of the Emperor alike end up there immortalised in stone), Yū examines the open secret of the masses of homeless people in the heart of the capital.  We are shown how the authorities treat them, ostensibly tolerating these long-term residents while drawing up a host of rules to keep them in line, forcing them to shift themselves and their tent kingdoms from one site to another on a whim.  There are also the many temporary evictions that occur when the royal family decide to visit the park’s galleries and museums – we can’t have the Emperor seeing the less fortunate among us.

The Imperial family itself is an important, recurring motif of Tokyo Ueno Station, including the park itself, the Imperial gift to the people in 1924.  The writer twists the idea, showing how this ‘gift’ has become a dumping ground for those, such as Kazu, who aren’t quite as fortunate as the parasitical royals.  Yū puts this contrast into focus by comparing her hero with the Emperor.  Both men were born in the same year, and each had a son born on the same day – so why have their lives turned out so differently?  The story is bookended by Kazu’s glimpses of the old and new Emperors.  The ‘heavenly sovereign’ making his way home through the park is close enough to wave to, but in reality Kazu is light years away…

Tokyo Ueno Station is a beautiful short novel, and what could have been angry is instead calm and understated, and perhaps all the more effective as a result.  Morgan Giles has done a wonderful job in her first full-length translation, catching the restrained tone of the main story along with some of the more light-hearted elements, such as the casual chats of the people in the background, the dog walkers or the middle-class women passing though the park on their way to a lunch that costs more than Kazu sees in a month.  These happy faces serve as a reminder that there’s more than one side to the story.  Yū contrasts these content passers-by with the people they’ve left behind.

Some might see Tokyo Ueno Station as a hard-luck story, and Kazu certainly has more than his fair share of misfortune, especially when it comes to his family:

I stood alone in the darkness.  Light does not illuminate things.  It only looks for things to illuminate.  And I had never been found by the light.  I would always be in the darkness… (p.57)

However, it’s also a reminder that under the glossy surface of every successful nation, there is an army of exploited workers dragging their aching bodies from construction sites to tarpaulin huts.  Japan may well be an advanced country, but not everyone enjoys their fair share of the wealth.

As it happens, Yū’s novel (or at least its appearance in English) is a rather timely work, too.  You see, with next year’s Olympics being held in Tokyo once more, and the upcoming abdication (on the thirtieth of April this year) of the same Emperor who features so prominently in the novel, there’s sure to be a fair amount of jingoistic celebration, whether in Ueno Park or in other public places around the country.  I suspect that Yū’s thoughts may be elsewhere when the flag waving begins…

3 thoughts on “‘Tokyo Ueno Station’ by Yū Miri (Review)

  1. If there’s one part of Tokyo Mr Gums and I know well, it’s Ueno Station and Ueno Park as it is in this vicinity we usually stay on our way into and out of Japan. I think I must read this. But MUST and WILL can be far apart in my corner of the world.

    I like that this sounds understated – that sort of style and tone appeals to me.


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